Chicken Little, This Ain’t: James Bond Returns…and Endures…in Skyfall

The British shrug at what we call old. In a country where Stonehenge was the original cosmic clock, American artifacts of two hundred or three hundred years’ vintage get a polite, but telling, meh.

But even staid Britons cannot slow the decay of media properties, which rot like  Stilton in the sun if not properly reinvented every so fleeting often. So it is that James Bond, the Ian Fleming uber-spy character who first arrived in movie form 50 years ago (you heard right) found himself in a muscle-aching quandary. What would happen…if 007 lost a step to advancing years? Would he become 006.5? Moviemakers, those investment bankers with cameras, shuddered hard enough to ripple their voddy-and-Red Bulls.

Daniel Craig hard at work in Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond epic, which opened Nov. 9.

They needn’t have worried. Skyfall, the new Daniel Craig-fueled Bond extravaganza, delivers just enough angst to tilt the Bondian universe, then pops the clutch on an immense, loud, snappy and sexy 140-plus minutes that vrooms the pulse like a retuned Aston Martin. Yes, it’s a bit dark; espionage is no longer as campy-fun as it was when enemies named Pussy Galore could be turned by a slap, tickle and soupcon of suggestive wit. But the end result, complete with some surprises, is satisfying and exhilarating.

Let’s begin with the opening credits, which alone are worth the price of admission and extra popcorn butter. Adele, who sings the opening theme and co-wrote it, is back in full voice after a hiatus to heal from a throat mishap. She lays out a full five minutes of Grade A sultry over a lurid dreamscape that includes corpuscles, dragons, video quotations from The Lady From Shanghai, the necessary silhouetted hotties and a reddish vision of Hell Lite. Why this amusement park tour of the afterlife? That’s the first cosmic tilt: after an early adventure in Istanbul, James Bond is dead.

Well of course, he isn’t, but it sure looks like he is. How will MI6, led by Dame Judi Dench‘s M, work its way out of this one? Not well, as it turns out, and Bond must resurrect himself — and the service — to outwit a particularly nasty nemesis, played this time by a blond Javier Bardem. Javy can do all kinds of horrible things, such as hack into M’s computer to blow up HQ and make subway trains crash into unused subterranean chambers far beneath London. His wrath is Khan-like: he was left behind, and now he’s after M, who made the necessary spymaster decision that banished him many years ago.

It’s all complicated by the fact that the “dead” Bond, although still stronger and faster than any of us will ever be, is now prone to muscle issues, hand tremors, and doubt, all while carrying around some evidence in his shoulder in the form of shrapnel he absorbed in that Istanbul flap. Not that Bond would be deterred by such a thing — Craig’s incarnation of our hero has no give-up in him. He also has an aversion to shirts, at least in the minds of canny scriptwriters who should see a steady stream of female ticket buyers once word of those visible pecs gets out.

M, too, is being shown the pasture, and it sits with her no better than it does with 007. In this picture, Dame Judi has much more to do than in other Bond flicks, and she handles it like the professional she is. This is a life in the theater and before the camera to envy, no question; if she can play Queen Elizabeth I, a conflicted yet determined spymaster is a walk — a striding, forthright walk — in a London park.

Visual surprises and delights abound, from Istanbul to London to Macau, along with the obligatory chases and weapons — although this Bond is not as reliant on gadgets as some of his predecessors were. Berenice Marlohe is the new Bond hottie you don’t want to be, while charming and capable Naomie Harris takes on a key role (which we find out eventually). If you had prepared for a generation with John Cleese as Q, here’s something completely different: Ben Whishaw, firmly a member of the barista-to-pay-the-rent generation, is the new computer-whiz Q. And he makes it work.

The scenery is stunning, especially in Scotland. And while I won’t spoil every surprise, I will say that this is the first movie I have ever seen where the entrance of a car got applause. All in all, aging issues and everything — mission accomplished, right up to the ever-present title at the end of the last shot: “James Bond Will Return.” Indeed.

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