Skyfall rises above predecessors

Sony Pictures photo by FRANCOIS DUHAMEL -- Daniel Craig portrays James Bond in a scene from Skyfall.
Sony Pictures photo by FRANCOIS DUHAMEL -- Daniel Craig portrays James Bond in a scene from Skyfall.

★★★★

Superspy James Bond celebrates his 50th anniversary in the movies with Skyfall, the smashing 23rd film in the Bond series.

Skyfall deals with loyalty, revenge and the passing of the torch. And even as an immensely mad and dangerous new Bond villain seeks to destroy British intelligence service MI6 from the outside, there’s a power struggle inside between classic espionage and new technology-touting youth. Bond and his boss, M, stand for the old guard.

Perhaps the best-photographed, sleekest Bond film ever, Skyfall’s action and intrigue take place in exotic, colorful Istanbul, Turkey; ultra-modern Shanghai, China; mountainous Glencoe, Scotland; and, most of all, ground-zero London.

As usual with Bond films, Skyfall’s lavish interior sets were shot at Pinewood Studios near London. Daniel Craig’s Bond, for instance, meets Severine, a gorgeous femme fatale played by French actress Bérénice Marlohe, in the made-for-the-movie Golden Dragon Casino. The place has real dragons.

Bond and M’s emergency mission to save agents who have been working undercover among terrorist groups begins in Istanbul. It’s there that the agents’ identities are stolen, prompting an elaborate, frenetic opening action sequence that leaps from a foot chase above the city’s Grand Bazaar to a motorcycle pursuit in the streets to a confrontation atop a train racing through Turkish mountains.

Sam Mendes, a British director who has much acclaimed theater work and well-reviewed film dramas on his résumé (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), guides Skyfall with a strong and entertaining hand. The series’ customary, spectacular action-sequences are here, but so is abundant dramatic interplay and tension between the characters.

The film’s three writers shape a script that’s unusually deep for a Bond film, one rich in conflict and consequence.

Skyfall British co-writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are veterans of four Bond films, including the exceptional Casino Royale, which features Craig’s debut performance as Bond. John Logan, an American playwright, adds his Tony-winning dramatic touch.

In the drama and writing departments, Skyfall rises above its predecessors. Amidst the action and great sets, the movie asks moviegoers some serious questions. Is M, played once again by the time-test, Oscar-winning British thespian Judi Dench, too ruthless? Should Bond, admittedly banged up and spent after his botched mission in Turkey, step aside for the new boys?

Bond and M are not ones to go quietly into the night. Craig and Dench, in their roles as the legendary spy and iron lady of MI6, guard their positions, not to mention their mission to protect the United Kingdom, fiercely.

The movie’s new bad guy, played by Oscar winner Javier Bardem, makes a superior Bond villain. Not unlike the villains in the recent Batman trilogy, Bardem’s Silva is complex, modern, a menacing psychopath capable of vast destruction.

The film’s new characters also include the new Q. Playing Q, Bond’s dispenser of gadgets and technology, Ben Whishaw strikes a condescending pose. Ralph Fiennes, another heavyweight British actor, throws his Bond-bashing weight around, too, as Gareth Mallory, the new chairman of the British Intelligence and Security Committee.

Despite evil genius Silva’s cyber war against M and MI6, Skyfall eventually gets down to Bond basics. Before the last of many bodies falls, before England is safe again, the movie wins a triple crown for writing, action and acting. It’s among the best Bond movies, if not the best.