Wednesday November 21, 2012

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Skyfall -- Considering the first big screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s remarkably resilient and most suave of British spies James Bond came out way back in 1962 with Sean Connery in the lead role in "Dr. No," the movie franchise’s longevity is nothing short of historic. After all, we are talking about a half century of Bond films that now span generations, with each fan capable having his own favorite period.

That kind of success would certainly be impossible without having the character change with the times. While Sean Connery’s commanding ‘60s Bond was a force to be reckoned with and remains many fans’ favorite, the ‘70s spoof-like Bond courtesy of Roger Moore threatened to turn the once virile character into a joke. Timothy Dalton brought a darker realism to the franchise in the late 1980s, until heir apparent Pierce Brosnan was able to take over the role the following decade and showed the first signs of a more complicated hero.

However, it was the franchise’s reboot in 2006 that suggested James Bond had been truly reborn for a new century. "Casino Royale" was a better Bond movie than had been seen in ages, and could even be spoken in the same breath with the best of the series. Plus the unorthodox casting of Daniel Craig in the lead role -- a move that must have irked die-hard fans of Ian Fleming’s original character -- proved that this new James Bond was a different breed entirely.

Perhaps the greatest success of this 21st century James Bond is how the screenwriters have conspired to bring the character down to earth. "Casino Royale" returned Bond to his origins, showing us a relatively unrefined spy who had not yet earned his license to kill, and one who also later considers giving up the game for the heart of a woman. Not exactly the womanizing Bond of the 1960s we all remember.

"Skyfall" continues this trend, as the very notion of the necessity of espionage in the 21st century digital age comes under fire, threatening Bond’s very existence. In fact, it is during a governmental hearing concerning the future of the spy program that a serious attempt on M’s (Judi Dench) life is made.

The latest Bond villain is responsible, of course -- a disenfranchised former agent named Silva (a magnificently diabolical Javier Bardem) who holds M responsible for his suffering and subsequent disfigurement in the line of duty.

Of course, such a scene also gives director Sam Mendes the opportunity to display yet another of the film’s spectacular and tension-filled set pieces, this one featuring a train of a subterranean nature. It is, in fact, this balance between the spectacular and the dramatic that makes these new Bond films so rewarding. Visceral action scenes mingle with dramatic character elements, coexisting happily, and grounding the pyrotechnics with a personal element that brings a rewarding level of sophistication to the film.

Meanwhile the story itself, courtesy of screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, brings another human element to the proceedings, revolving around Bond’s childhood spent in Scotland at a grim estate known as "Skyfall." It is here that Silva eventually brings his nefarious army to exterminate both Bond and M, as the rustic backwoods environment leaves the agents without their high tech gadgetry and forced to rely more on inventiveness and their own wits to survive.

Of course, there are the Bond movie staples here, such as a jaw-dropping chase scene to kick off the proceedings, and "Skyfall" doesn’t disappoint in that department. This one involves a passenger train and a Bond-piloted bulldozer whose details are, as fellow operative Eve (Naomie Harris) communicates back to M at homebase, "difficult to describe." However, even the outcome of this spectacular chase sequence brings Bond back down to earth, literally, and the character is forced to face his own possible obsolescence following its consequences.

It is this level of vulnerability with the Bond character that brings a satisfying dramatic element to what could have easily been just a mindless action movie. It also confirms that this new conflicted and complicated James Bond, five decades in, continues to be a force to be reckoned with.

Rated PG-13.