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Carry on Spying

Skyfall (2012)

Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures

Recalled by mutual agreement from that unhappy period sorting out Bolivia's tap water in "Quantum of Solace," James Bond spends most of "Skyfall" on more comfortable ground, safely back in a Neverland Britain of slick intelligence, government Jaguars and Pax Britannica. Not that the outside world really gets much of a look in: Sam Mendes's epic-length journey to the center of the spy is mostly concerned with the inside mechanics of MI6 and the inner workings of Bond's head, and especially with the mother figure perched at the hinge of both. The first half of the film practically sighs with relief at the prospect. Who cares, it says, about all the similarities between Bond and the other damaged law-enforcement orphans now wandering the screen? Who needs a niche for its hero other than the one Daniel Craig provides just by turning up in the morning? For a Bond, "Skyfall" is almost unselfconscious, which accounts for many of the striking things that happen in the film's early stages, as well as some of the wayward stuff that turns up later on.

Mr. Mendes, surely no less of a left-field choice than Marc Forster back in 2008, turns out to handle action with much more fluency and grace; at last the director's empathy with Steven Spielberg and Richard Zanuck adds up. The hints of European reserve and eye for solid architecture that characterized "Quantum" are given the boot, in favor of all the lush fluid wash that digital filming and Planet Pinewood can offer. The director earned his salary on day one by hiring old comrade Roger Deakins as cinematographer, and whoever brought Danny Kleinman back into the fold to unleash a fiery Steve Ditko-infused title sequence did the same. A midpoint fight sequence of silhouettes and high-contrast light fields might be the most abstract Bond visuals to date, although if the series wants to get more visually daring it might have to find roads not already mapped by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo del Toro. Mr. Mendes presumably can take credit for "Skyfall"'s radical (for Bond) musical language: Thomas Newman has to throw in the obligatory theme a whole bunch of times, but seeing Bondage accompanied by this composer's habitual complex rhythms and deep chromatics is just as refreshing — and perhaps less precedented — than almost anything the film pulls off visually.

Then Javier Bardem arrives as bad guy Raoul Silva, a preening blond hulk of fey menace with a supervillain's ability to pull off clashing fabrics and a grudge against M (Judi Dench). Mr. Bardem is having a ball — if the splinters of scenery in his teeth are any indication — and the sight of a European metrosexual nursing a grievance against Britain is fun enough. But the character is all over the place. The carefully groomed pretense of realism goes out of the window once it becomes clear that Silva has prelaid a flawless five-year master plan of unbelievable coincidences that allows him to carry on like both Lex Luthor and Hannibal Lector, as well as access to the usual bulk-buyer's discount at Rent-A-Goon. Mr. Bardem gets a great entrance, sauntering towards the camera from a distance before promptly fondling Bond's inner thigh. Things then deteriorate to the point where his grand re-entrance for the climax references "Apocalypse Now" and "The Blues Brothers," a galumphing combo whose presence in a Bond film had at least one viewer pondering the location of the Walther PPK with the single bullet. This arrival is part of a Scotland-set western-style finale that feels downright weird, combining Mr. Deakins's genius for low-light drama with what looks like miniature work direct from the grand old days of Derek Meddings, and turning Silva into such a simp that Roger Moore would have run out of eyebrows to raise.

"Skyfall" hits the reset button at the end, allowing the charitable thought that plonking an old-Bond villain down in a new-Bond world was a way to draw a line under certain blasts from the past, or at least under "Quantum of Solace." The new film is more crowd-pleasing, more fun, but much less ambitious to be different from the other sleuths around, super-powered or otherwise; the strong magnetic pull of the Nolan-verse has had an effect here too. The best thing about the current Bonds remains the current Bond. Mr. Craig — charismatically brawny on demand as always — has a face prebuilt for registering the winds of change, and "Skyfall" finds him facing into the gale like a statue on Easter Island.


Opens on Oct. 26 in Britain and on Nov. 8 in the United States.

Directed by Sam Mendes; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, based on the character written by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Stuart Baird and Kate Baird; music by Thomas Newman; “Skyfall” performed by Adele; production design by Dennis Gassner; costumes by Jany Temime; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Javier Bardem (Silva), Ralph Fiennes (Gareth Mallory), Naomie Harris (Eve), Bérénice Lim Marlohe (Severine), Ben Whishaw (Q), Rory Kinnear (Tanner), Ola Rapace (Patrice), Albert Finney (Kincade) and Judi Dench (M).


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