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Ten Word or Less Review: 23rd times the charm.

With a new Bond movie comes the slew of inevitable articles about who the Best Bond is and which movie is better than another and which one is the worst ever and blah, blah, blah, blah.  It’s all such a remarkably tired pain in the ass I’m not going there.  All I want to say is this.  The vast majority of James Bond efforts don’t hold much sway over me.  In my mind most of them are just the same cartoon over and over, running on a loop with a different guy playing a gun toting Bugs Bunny every once in a while.  Sure, there are varying degrees of quality among them, but only a few really distinguish themselves from the pack.  This time out, we can add Skyfall to the very short list of great James Bond movies.  And for Daniel Craig, it’s the second time he’s put himself on that short list of movies in just three efforts.

Skyfall throws us into the mix fast as Bond comes running into a room, people are dead and his counterpart is on deaths doorstep.  Skyfall is 30 seconds old and has already broken a small mold by putting Bond behind an 8 ball before we even know what the 8 ball is.  A computer hard drive has been ripped from a laptop.  On it is the real name of every British Agent in deep cover around the world.  Bond begins pursuit on foot of whoever’s taken the hard drive.  This becomes a car chase through the markets of Istanbul.  Then it becomes a motorcycle chase over rooftops.  Then it winds up on top of a train and eventually utilizes construction equipment, still while on the train.  The whole sequence is a dizzying example of the type of action sequence Bond can deliver best and then the whole thing climaxes with Bond being shot and thrown from a bridge.  Into a river he goes and falls down the rabbit hole of one of Bond’s best title sequences, a mesmerizing death trip played out to Adele’s stupendous theme song, the first great Bond tune in an age.  Out the other side of this comes Bond, a mostly broken alcoholic with bad reflexes and frayed nerves who wakes up one morning to find MI6 headquarters blown to pieces all over the news.  He heads back to work immediately but refuses to shave for another hour.  This ripping intro, spellbinding title sequence and subsequent setup sets the stage for the Bond crew to deliver one of the most fully formed and exquisite Bond efforts.

The stolen list of agents is no real innovation of action movie plotting but what Skyfall does with it is largely unexpected.  Skyfall eventually forgets the list and is really a character piece about Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench) and bad nut Silva (Javier Bardem).  As Bond begins his hunt for the vague and elusive mastermind behind the theft and explosion Skyfall becomes less all out action flick and more intrigue laden thriller.  This Bond goes on to solidify the character and his counterparts as emotionally rounded, i.e. screwed up, people.  Sure, there are moments of outlandishness scattered into the mix, how can there not be, but never does Skyfall fall into the typical Brosnan/Moore model of pure action movie horseshit.  Craig avoids the Connery trap as well.  People love Connery for the invincible, eye winking, cocksmanship he represents, but a real person he never was or will be.  Craig’s Bond deepens with each effort and Skyfall puts his emotional state once again through the wringer.  His Bond lives in the same complex, fucked up world we all do.  Yes, he gets to drive awesome cars and seduce hot women, but the odds of either of those things surviving the story are slim.  They always have been in this series.  The difference is that when the cars are destroyed or the women killed, Craig’s Bond notices and cares.  Few Bonds have ever been much bothered by a dead chick in the sheets.

The rest of the cast is aces.  The movie takes a page from the old Third Man playbook by talking about it’s heavy for an hour before he actually descends into the movie, glorious, Wellesian monologue in hand.  With a blonde coif and effeminate mannerisms Bardem’s Silva becomes the first male bad guy to openly attempt to seduce Bond.  Welcome to the fabulous 21st century James.  Bardem’s Silva is a delightful construction of questionable sexuality and Joker-like terrorist.  Like Bond villains of the past Silva can destroy places and people on the slightest whim.  He even has that most silly of Bond villain cliches, a secret hidden base.  What differentiates him from the likes of Blofeld is that he doesn’t care about any of this and it isn’t his goal.  World domination and destruction is just plain boring in his eyes.  His is a highly personal vendetta, one that he will see to the end at any cost to others.  Continuing to play off Craig with great strength is Dame Judi Dench as M.  Her seventh outing with the franchise is one of her finest.  Over the years the writers have taken small steps to give this grand actress more to do in an oft superfluous part and their effort here is not wasted.  Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomi Harris all join the Bond team in parts which look to guarantee their continued attendance in future adventures.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was like last Bond director, Marc Foster, seen as an unorthodox and questionable choice.  He’s not an action guy and much of his recent output (Revolutionary Road?) has left something to be desired.  But the doubts about his abilities to steer this 50 year old ship vanish very quickly.  He’s gone on record saying Skyfall is influenced a great deal by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.  He’s not just whistling Dixie.  The movies are very much mirror images of one another in places.  Bardem’s Silva is a scenery devouring counter piece to Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker.  Both are vague, strange psychos whose mere appearance decrees something is very rotten.  Both movies share a plot point or two as well.  Skyfall shares Nolan’s  largely entertaining but grim aesthetic.  One thing Skyfall does better though is in the looks department.  Argue all you want about where it ranks in the grand scheme of Bond things, but there’s little argument to be made about this being the best looking Bond movie of all time.  Director Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have built some sublime images into their story.  A high rise bound sequence involving lots of glass doors, reflective surfaces and neon imagery is topped only by a finale set at the Bond homestead, an oppressive Scottish property where any Hammer Horror film would feel right at home.

This is a fine Bond film, one of the finest of all.  I’ll let the more declarative among you haggle over where it belongs in the scheme of things.  With all it’s faculties so sharp one hopes that the producers can keep firing on this level.  But I must confess a sound sense of confusion and worry by its end though.  After three movies and massive amounts of effort to divorce Bond from the cliches which nearly strangled him from existence, we finish in a place where all those old cliches have been firmly put back in place.  Is this the filmmakers telling us things are going back to the status quo?  God, I hope not.  After rebuilding a better, bolder and ballsier Bond, to relegate him back to standard procedure adventures thwarting monomaniacal morons and banging babes because the story demands he must would be profoundly depressing.  Keep Bond violent, edgy and unpredictable.  If the next film has anything to do with a deadly satellite or some such nonsense, I’m going to be supremely pissed.

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