Silver Screen: Skyfall ****

Silver Screen: Skyfall  ****
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The difference between a good Bond movie and a bad Bond movie isn't that significant. Story is a sec
Bryan Miller

The difference between a good Bond movie and a bad Bond movie isn't that significant. Story is a secondary concern at best, and character development means little to a character who has long since been developed, polished, and vacuum-sealed to prevent spoilage. Making a proper installment of the 007 franchise is more about successfully filling in the pre-established blanks, like completing Mad Libs: Write down the name of a famous actor to play the villain, two women to play love interests, two foreign countries for Bond to visit, and the name of an expensive sports car. Shake-- don't stir it-- and congratulations, you've got yourself a Bond movie. All you need now is a confusing but vaguely familiar title: Forever Never Knows Diamonds, You Only Love Tomorrow's Casino, et cetera.

That said, Skyfall is a particularly well-executed entry in the series, capturing a perfect balance of globe-hopping, espionage, shoot-‘em-up action, and style. As has been the case with the latest iteration of the character, the gadgetry and cheeky humor have been downplayed in favor of intensity, but it's a nice balance that doesn't tip too far into the self-serious.

Skyfall belongs in the category of Bond movies with made-up words for titles (Thunderball, Moonraker, Goldeneye). The meaning of this title is one of the movie's overarching mysteries. After a fantastic opening battle, the movie's most thrilling sequence, superspy James Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed by everyone but us to be dead. He returns, somewhat to the chagrin of British intelligence agency MI6, which forces him to undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. During a word-association test, a doctor says “skyfall,” and our stoic secret agent entirely shuts down. What part of his past won't he even acknowledge?

Far more pressing, however, are the skeletons in M's (Judi Dench) closet. The flinty MI6 boss is the target of attacks on British soil, first a bombing and then a series of computer breaches. Using a stolen hard drive, someone is hacking into the MI6 database and decoding the names of all the Western world's deep-cover spies posing as terrorists, then blowing their covers. With each new incident, M receives a cryptic message urging her to “Think on your sins.” But when Bond helps M dig into her past to uncover the villain behind the conspiracy, he's inadvertently forced to unearth his own secret history.

Skyfall feels like the sequel Casino Royale deserved. The 2006 relaunch reimagined 007 as a blonde bruiser living in a world more encumbered by realism-- by Bond standards, anyway. No satellites or submarines or gadgets, just sleuthing and fisticuffs. It was a risky choice, but it paid off big. With the physique of a bareknuckle boxer who's lost a few rounds and eyes the color of glaciers, this James Bond doesn't seem to have quite as much fun, even if we do. The Casino followup, Quantum of Solace (working title: Iota of Consolation), was too somber by half, hard to follow, and mired in a visually uninspiring climax in a sun-blasted desert setting. Skyfall returns 007 to tropical paradises gone wrong, nighttime rendezvous, and all those enviable luxuries between gunfights.

Skyfall also boasts arguably the most acclaimed director in the entire 007 series, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), who does spectacular work with lighter fare than he's known for. His brings a lush visual aesthetic with a heavy emphasis on color, especially in a fantastic nighttime-caper sequence set in China that's a brilliant layering of shadows and vivid neons. And though he's best known for more intimate material, Mendes proves himself deft at capturing both the kinetic energy of fight scenes as well as the majesty of scale in the big setpieces.

The other essential ingredient of a good 007 movie is the villain, and Skyfall has one of the greats in Javier Bardem's Silva. Bardem is quite dashing-- so my wife likes to remind me-- but here again he hides himself under a weird haircut and manages to curdle his good looks into something serpentine and terrifying. Silva oozes menace, combining the feisty impetuousness of a tin-pot dictator with an eerie Hannibal Lecter-ish calculation and a sexual ambiguity that supercharges his too-brief interactions with Bond (and which sets up 007 for his cheekiest and most surprising comeback line).

In fact, Skyfall's greatest shortcoming is its almost criminal underuse of Bardem. He's too great of a villain to remain hidden for the whole first half of the movie. The script, written by Bond stalwarts Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with acclaimed playwright John Logan, is too stingy with its antagonist, and also significantly skimps on the leading ladies. The sexual iconography for which the franchise is so famous is here almost perfunctory, which is a shame given the possibilities of a visual stylist like Mendes paired with beauties Berenice Marlohe and Naomie Harris.

But like the superspy himself, this time around the movie is all business, and there are new characters to set up-- Harris has the makings of a recurring character, while Skyfall also introduces a new MI6 manager (Ralph Fiennes), reintroduces Q (Ben Whishaw), and saves a plum part for Albert Finney in the final act. There's a lot going on in Skyfall, and so much of it is so good, it's silly to complain about the few things missing.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.