Director: Sam Mendes
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 143 minutes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris
The first two James Bond films in the early 1960s were pretty good, but it wasn't until the third, Goldfinger in 1965, that the spectacle, action, wry humor, naughtiness and sense of public peril were all measured in precisely the right proportions. At the same time, Sean Connery ceased to be merely a handsome Scottish actor playing an action character — he truly became Bond, James Bond.
The first two Bond films of the Daniel Craig era were likewise pretty darned good, but they seemed so determined to set themselves apart from the others in the franchise that they bordered on not being Bond movies at all. Both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace could have been Jason Bourne movies, or even slightly under-the-top Mission: Impossible installments.
Not Skyfall. As Commander Bond celebrates 50 years on the big screen, his latest movie is neither too hot nor too cold; too hard nor too soft. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) got it all just right, and for the first time in a long time, when the words "James Bond Will Return" appeared at the final fade-out, I felt a chill of anticipation.
Skyfall opens with a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase through the streets, across the roofs and into the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul (I had planned to ration my box of Sugar Babies throughout the film — but I'd nervously chewed through nearly all of them by the time Bond and his prey were halfway through their life-and-death tussle atop a speeding freight train).
That's just a prelude, though, to the main storyline: The headquarters of Bond's spy agency, MI6 — and in particular his boss, M (Judi Dench) — are under siege. A computer-hacking madman (Javier Bardem), bent on revenge against M and the British spy establishment in general, will stop at nothing to kill, maim and cause generalized mayhem in the process.
Blessedly, that's the whole story, a refreshingly streamlined affair, free of the convolutions that plague far too many action films these days. And so Skyfall presents one stunning scene after another, each one spectacular in its own way. My favorite involves a crashing train in the London Underground. A truly magnificent stunt, it would be the centerpiece of any other film, but here it explodes unexpectedly off the screen, then gives us a mere moment to contemplate the damage before we move on.
For those of us old enough to remember the visceral impact of Bond's earliest outings, Skyfall pays playful homage to the 50 years' worth of 007 films that came before. A true aficionado would probably find references to all 22 previous films — I spotted references to, among others, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Moonraker and Die Another Day. Bardem's blond-tressed villain, Silva, is a delightfully unmistakable echo of Christopher Walken's psychopathic bad guy, Max Zorin, in A View to a Kill. Like Zorin, Silva isn't just a villain; he can't imagine anything more fun than being a villain.
Those fleeting bows to Bond's past are never intrusive, but they offer an essential ingredient that the previous two films lacked: a true sense of continuum; a concession to the fact that you can shake him and stir him, but you can never really reinvent James Bond.
The Would-be Bonds
Over the past five decades, lots of dashing actors have aspired to follow in James Bond's dapper Church slip-on shoes — starring in films that their producers dearly hoped would become series as successful as the 007 franchise. Of course, they had no such luck. Among the Bond-ish boys:
Dean Martin as Matt Helm: Like Bond, Helm was a spy from literature. He appeared in 27 books, beginning in 1960, written by Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin starred as the ladykiller Helm in four films: The Silencers (1966), Murderers' Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968). The series' popularity roughly paralleled the success of Dino's weekly variety show on NBC.
Michael Caine as Harry Palmer: With his thick hair and thicker black glasses, an impossibly young Caine resembles Buddy Holly with a handgun in three mid-'60s Len Deighton spy movies: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). He returned to the role, older but somehow more dashing, in Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).
James Coburn as Derek Flint: "He's at much at home in the Casbah as he is in the boudoir!" teases the trailer for 1967's In Like Flint, the second of two action/parodies starring the lean, handsome young star. Coburn and company knew they couldn't out-Bond Bond, so they lampooned him, beginning with Our Man Flint (1966). The over-the-top action and comical set pieces had more influence than you might expect on the wacky Roger Moore Bond films of the 1970s. The legendary Lee J. Cobb slums as Flint's boss at Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage).
Fred Ward as Remo Williams: Executive producer Dick Clark (!) had good reason to give this 1985 spy thriller the hopeful title Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. It was based on The Destroyer, a fabulously successful pulp series. Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was behind the camera. The Spy Who Loved Me screenwriter Christopher Wood wrote the script. The cinematographer was Andrew Laszlo, who created the gritty look of TV's Naked City. And actor Fred Ward, an up-and-coming hunk who'd impressed as Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff, was positioned to become Hollywood's first big Native American leading man. But aside from one nicely done scene on the scaffolding that then surrounded the Statue of Liberty, Remo Williams is as lifeless as a compromised spy in an East Berlin alley. And for jaw-dropping ethnic insensitivity, Broadway song-and-dance-man Joel Grey's turn as a Korean martial arts instructor rivals Mickey Rooney's what-the? role as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Remo never got a redo.