November 02, 2012

Third time's the charm

I raved about his first two forays as Bond ("Best Bond in a long, long time") and ("No sophomore jinx") and I am about to do the same in this one. Definitely, third time's the charm.

For many of my generation and older, Bond was always Sean Connery. The others who followed in quick succession (Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan) were simply fillers until the producers could somehow find someone who could duplicate Connery's unique take on Ian Fleming's "blunt instrument" "on her Majesty's secret service" with a "license to kill" or find someone that Ian Fleming had in mind when he wrote Bond.

Enter Daniel Craig.

"Skyfall", the third chapter of the prequels to "Dr. No", the first Sean Connery Bond outing, is the best of the three--see "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace"--and would rank as possibly the best Bond, ever--to date, with the possible exception of 1963's "From Russia with Love" (Connery) and 1965's "Thunderball" (Connery). I will not give away spoilers but suffice it to say that there are quite a number of pleasant surprises.

The story is reminiscent of 1995's "Goldeneye" (Brosnan) and 1999's "The world is not enough" (Brosnan) only in that it involves a villain who is a former MI6 agent and the subject of the plot is revenge against M("Judi Dench").  The similarities stop there. The plot for "Skyfall" is a bit more substantive than the paper thin plots of "Goldeneye" and "The world is not enough"and Bond watchers are in for a treat as director Sam Mendes and the writers gleefully weave in many familiar items that, aptly for a prequel, usher in the basis for the Bond introduced by Connery and all the others who followed him.

A Bond staple, the over-the-top villain, is again on hand in "Skyfall" but Javier Bardem's very nuanced, multi-layered take on Silva, the disgruntled former agent with an axe to grind against M, trumps all the previous non-Connery Bond villains and ranks up there with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for sheer campiness as well as menace.

But the two things that make "Skyfall"the best of the last three Bonds are: (a) Craig, and (b) Craig and Dench together.

It is to Craig's credit that, even for a long-time Bond watcher, he makes one forget Connery. His Bond is perfectly human--not super human.  He gets stumped, forgets things, bleeds, gets dirty, laughs, cries and gets hurt--physically and otherwise. In "Casino Royale" and "Quantum...", Craig's Bond is a brooding, tense, often indecisive and conflicted character; he struggles to hide the evident loyalty and, certainly, affection for M--particularly in "Quantum..." and fails.  In "Skyfall", it is that relationship with M that is the fulcrum on which the entire film turns and what a magnificent fulcrum it is.

The relationship between Dench's M and Bond is fully fleshed out in "Skyfall." It is, in the language of social media, "complicated." At the same time that M is Bond's superior with the authority and certainly the inclination to send him into harm's way, she is also, as revealed, much, much more than that.  "Skyfall" turns on the magnificent chemistry between the characters M and Bond and the actors Dench and Craig. It is that chemistry between M and Bond that allows for the hatred and malevolence of the villain, Silva, to take on perspective and paves the way for the denouement which, for a Bond watcher, becomes obvious midway into the film but remains a delightful revelation not tainted by anti-climax.

The chemistry between Dench and Craig is amazing.  Dench does more here than in any of her other previous forays as M, even to the extent of doing some action scenes; but it is really the way that Dench uses her voice and her eyes that reveal her depth and range. For an "action star", Craig's range is wide; his face is a blank slate until he decides to use it to full advantage.  His main advantage over the other Bonds, Connery included, is that he doesn't mind getting "ugly" and that makes all the difference in the way that he is able to convey the whole range of emotions a "blunt instrument" ought not to have. Like most of the Bonds (with the exception of the dour Lazenby and the extremely dour Dalton), Craig brings a dash of humor to his Bond but his is an extremely subtle "listen-or-you-won't-get-it" brand of laughs, not unlike Connery's sarcastic "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" quips and thankfully unlike Moore's and Brosnan's unsubtle and often flat ripostes. Craig's Bond is funny and capable of having fun; the interrogation scene between Silva and Bond is a great example with the funniest line being "what makes you think it's my first time?" but delivered with the thinnest trace of a smile and certainly no hint of it being humorous, considering the circumstances under which it was delivered.

"Skyfall" also dives headlong into Bond's past, which it uses strategically to reveal the actual extent of Bond's relationship with Dench's M; but, in the same way, it also ushers in, logically, the future. Indeed, "Skyfall" weaves in elements of the past Bond films (M's history with Bond, for instance) but with enough of the future thrown in. It is Mendes's greatest achievement that he is able to make the transition so seamless that it is not only believable but also greatly compelling.

There are delightful performances by Ralph Fiennes ("Mallory"), Ben Wishaw (Q), Naomie Harris ("Eve"), Albert Finney (Kincaid) and certainly Javier Bardem ("Silva"); one performance, however, also stands out and it is the singer Adele, who belts out "Skyfall", with the soul, range and emotion of a Shirley Bassey, whose smokey vocals lent great texture to many a Bond theme. Bond watchers will also find great pleasure in two cameos that are made by objects--the Walther PPK that Bond prefers and the "old school" Aston Martin--which have strategic roles in the plot.

It is difficult to write much more without revealing much more.  I will just say this one other thing: George Lucas, this is the way to do a prequel, especially if you intend to do it in three chapters. Next to Abrams' Star Trek reboot and Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, this is the best reboot of an existing icon that I have ever seen. I think that Ian Fleming would have given this "two thumbs way up!"