by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
Bond. James Bond. Fall. “Skyfall.” Umph. Triumph. Okay, enough. But how about this?
Is it possible that the 23rd entry in the James Bond series of spy thrillers was actually THE best one?
Of course, time will tell and perhaps “Goldfinger” (1964) will regain that glowing reputation at some point, but, improbable as it seems, “Skyfall” (2012) sure feels like the new gold standard when you’re watching it.
“Dr. No,” the first Bond flick to emerge from an Ian Fleming-authored novel, made it to the movie screen over-half-a-century ago.
So way to go, James. And we won’t cash in those Bonds just yet.
That’s because director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to take on British agent 007 (for a third time) have collaborated with spectacular results in no small measure because of a multi-faceted screenplay by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan that is much more grounded in reality than virtually all of its predecessors.
In this PG-13-rated adventure – and let’s face it, the specifics hardly matter: we follow 007 anywhere – Bond’s loyalty to M is tested when MI6 comes under attack.
If you need M or MI6 defined or explained, you’re not a Bond buff. But the knowing screenwriters have wisely kept things lean, mean, and simple so even viewers new to the franchise will have no trouble hanging in there, even if they do miss an in-joke reference or two.
Mendes – who won the Best director Oscar for “American Beauty”and subsequently helmed “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Away We Go,” and “Spectre” – becomes the first Academy Award winner to take on and deliver a Bond movie. His offering is both elegant and intelligent, as he tweaks the 007 formula but not so much that it’s unrecognizable.
It would appear, then, that, given the results of Mendes’ exhilarating excursion into Bondage — to borrow from the Bond catalog — nobody does it better.
“Skyfall” starts off like gangbusters, opening with the expected extravagant, high-energy action sequence that is gloriously mounted and truly thrilling. Too often in previous installments, however, the opening sequence seemed in retrospect a highlight rather than a kickoff.
Not this time. “Skyfall” gets things off to a rousing start, but it’s only the beginning of a film that gets better as it goes along.
This Bond has matured.
Not enough to get a Best Picture Academy Award nomination –which it richly deserved – but sufficiently to score nominations for cinematography, music, and sound mixing in addition to winning Oscars for the title song and sound editing.
“Skyfall” has, in addition to the usual exotic locations (Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau, Scotland), breathtaking cinematography; superb editing; a knowing, non-intrusive score; and a wisely limited amount of high-tech gadgetry. It also has wit and warmth and wonder, to say nothing of nostalgia, gravitas, and – will wonders never cease – character complexity.
Thus does it take its place alongside Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” flicks and the “Bourne” thrillers as further proof that neither comic book-inspired movies nor action thrillers need be shallow.
Add to all that a terrific supporting cast that includes Javier Bardem as a formidable and flamboyant terrorist villain and Judi Dench as M, Bond’s commanding officer in MI6 – both of them giving full-bodied performances, a rare occurrence in a Bond film – as well as Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Albert Finney, the latter in a role that seems to have Sean Connery Cameo stamped all over it. Pity.
Bottom line: if you’re already a Bond buff, you’ll remain one. If you’re new to the party, you’ll become one. Either way, you’ll look forward to further adventures. And rest assured, there will be more.
An exciting, gripping, and satisfying spy thriller, “Skyfall” is not a great Bond movie. It’s just a great movie.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.