‘Skyfall’ rises to the occasion

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Bond’s 23rd film, “Skyfall,” was released on November 9. Photo via impawards.com

Even an iconic film character like James Bond can suffer from a case of mistaken identity.

After his brilliant transformation in 2006’s “Casino Royale,” the mythical MI6 secret agent seemed to have gracefully made the transition from movie legend to modern action hero. Nevertheless, a paltry two years later, “Quantum of Solace” put the series back on its heels.

The problem was simple: Bond wasn’t Bond. “Quantum” turned the suave agent into an emotionless wrecking ball of a man. He was more Jason Bourne than James Bond, scampering on rooftops, too focused on vengeance to drop a single flirty line or witty zinger. The character had ironically become so modernized he was made almost irrelevant, so eager to become fresh that he became stale.

Consider “Skyfall” the happy medium. The title may hint at a tumble or a decline, but this latest adventure for Ian Fleming’s classic character is anything but. Placed in the hands of Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), “Skyfall” is as beautiful as a Bond girl and as deviously intense as a Bond villain.

Most importantly, though, it reintroduces Bond as a character who feels as comfortingly familiar as he does invigoratingly new. If we’re using computer terms, it’s less of a complete restart and more of a refresh, the same page just updated and perfected.

Computers actually play a significant role in “Skyfall.” During a thrilling opening action sequence in Istanbul that leaves Bond shot and left for dead, a crucial disc is stolen that includes the names of spies deeply embedded in terrorist cells across the globe. The disc is in the hands of Silva, another former agent played by “No Country for Old Men’s” Javier Bardem with just a touch of camp to make his menace all the more frightening. He’s seeking vengeance for being left for dead by M (Judi Dench, easily given the most development the character has ever had).

It’s up to Bond to traverse the globe and stop the revenge-minded Silva from releasing the names and destroying MI6. Unfortunately, his previous mission in Turkey has left him wounded – by a gunshot wound, a first for the character – and shockingly rusty.

What follows is an entertaining action movie (“Skyfall’s” 143-minute running time flies by) and a further examination of the mind and soul of a professional killer. What happens when spies reach the end of their “use?” What happens when they realize that having a license to kill makes them no less expendable? And what good are secret agents in a world without secrets anymore? It’s here that the influence of the Bourne movies – which also touched on these topics – can still be felt.

Everything else, however, is pure Bond. For first time since arguably “GoldenEye” (and even further back, “Goldfinger”), the series has a confident hold on the balance between its seriousness and its silliness. Bond can have dramatic moments of introspection and have a fistfight while a massive man-eating lizard prowls nearby without feeling either out of place or too much.

Take the first action scene, for instance. It involves using an excavator on a moving train – absurd but just real enough to be awesome – and ends with Bond plummeting off a bridge, shot and falling to his death. The ridiculous Bond of the past and the serious Bond of recent years coexist beautifully.

I give kudos to the writers, including returning veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as series newcomer John Logan, for finding the perfect balance. They even manage to throw in some cute references that feel more satisfying than just simple fan service.

While the band of writers deserves credit, it’s Mendes who earns the film’s MVP. It’s not surprising that “Skyfall” is gorgeous; Mendes’ career is filled with dazzling, memorable imagery, and his pairing with nine-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins is a match made in heaven. Together, they fill the screen with luscious, rich visuals. They paint Shanghai with mesmerizing color and Macau in a ravishing red. A late trip to Scotland has more texture than film should seemingly allow.

What is surprising is that all those years of directing Oscar bait transformed Mendes into a brilliant action director. He films each action sequence with awesome intensity without abandoning logic and relying on quick edits for cheap thrills. He lets the action speak for itself, which results in some of the best action of the year, namely a nighttime fistfight in a Shanghai high-rise with a sniper.

Admittedly, not everything is perfect in “Skyfall” (though my previous 761 words may have convinced you otherwise). Some of the CGI looks a little rough for a $200 million dollar film, and the film’s last action sequence gives in to some silliness. The scenes have been notoriously compared to “Home Alone,” and though nobody ties any paint cans to string, it’s pretty close. It’s one of the only parts that tips the film’s usually composed balance too far.

Then again, considering Bond’s history of invisible cars, ice hotels, underwater harpoon battles, space fights and lethal hat-throwers, a couple of booby traps probably aren’t the looniest things to happen. And it’s not like anyone will be too bothered. The beautiful direction, intense action and dynamic performances make any flaws go down as smoothly as a martini, shaken not stirred.

Perhaps we should take James Bond at his word when he says his hobby is resurrection. If “Skyfall” is any evidence, he’s pretty damn good at it.

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