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MOVIE REVIEW: "Skyfall" 

Fifty years on the Bondwagon

Apparently smashing all box office records for a James Bond flick, "Skyfall," the latest addition to what essentially has become its own genre, follows most of the conventions the series has established while adding a few new devices and concepts. After 50 years of Bondage, audiences know pretty well just what to expect — fisticuffs and shootouts, spectacular chases in a variety of vehicles, the display of gimmicks and gadgets, exotic locations, an evil archvillain, and of course a couple of comely young women. "Skyfall," however, also exhibits a contemporary interest in the debate over human intelligence and high-tech espionage, which provides something like an intellectual subtext to the actions and characters.

The picture opens with the usual introductory bang, this time in Turkey, with Bond (Daniel Craig) discovering a group of his colleagues murdered, which initiates his pursuit of the killer, who has stolen a computer record of NATO undercover agents. The extended sequence involves the familiar amazing camerawork, stunts, and some brilliant ingenuity — Bond not only rides a motorcycle over the rooftops of Istanbul but winds up on top of a train, where he uses a construction crane to scoop off the roof and catch his quarry. When his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), aiming at the bad guy, accidentally nails 007, he falls off the train, off a lofty bridge, hundreds of feet into a fast-moving river, the sequence ends and in effect, the movie proper begins.

The head of MI6, the irascible M (Judi Dench), writes Bond's obituary, inspiring the extended discussion of the value of people versus machinery in an age of computers, satellites, electronic surveillance, and global tracking systems. That argument reaches its climax when everything explodes as she testifies before a Parliamentary committee inquiring into the disastrous loss of the NATO agents.

The archvillain this time around, a former British agent named Silva (Javier Barden), in fact manipulates computer technology so well that he hacks into any system at will, including the supposedly impervious machinery of the intelligence service. Unlike most Bond villains, he seems uninterested in the usual world dominations — these criminal masterminds harbor grand ambitions — but seeks revenge for M's betrayal of him in the past. His motives reveal a most unpleasant side to M, who apparently traded him for some other agents, blithely consigning him to torture and death.

When Silva captures Bond — another long story — he suggests a weird Oedipal subtext, hinting at a filial love for the old termagant, a terrible sadness over her betrayal, and further fueling his revenge, a consequent sibling rivalry for her dubious affections with Bond himself. That strange emotional component makes Silva a most unusual Bond villain, and Barden's campy, juicy performance underlines his difference from that figure in the past. His apparently limitless assets, like an army of heavily armed assassins, a helicopter gunship, and his ability to escape any confinement, however, connect him with a host of his predecessors.

Perhaps reflecting the deeper, darker emotional aspects of the story, much of the movie takes place beneath a variety of surfaces. Bond sinks in that Turkish river (the script never explains his resurrection), falls through the ice in a Scottish pond near the end, and in between finds himself in a number of subterranean locales — MI6 sets up shop in an old underground air-raid bunker, he pursues Silva through ancient passages underneath London, a disused subway tunnel, and escapes an attack in a crude tunnel at his ancestral estate, appropriately named Skyfall.

Daniel Craig once again demonstrates a pleasingly understated toughness in his impersonation of James Bond, with fewer of the juvenile double entendres and silly throwaway lines that apparently amuse so many viewers; he also wears the nifty suits and the obligatory tuxedo quite well. He sips at least one martini, though without the business of shaking rather than stirring (trust me, a real martini drinker would not want to bruise the booze). His rugged visage contrasts with the smooth good looks of, say, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan and his physical presence in general deserves comparison with the archetypal movie Bond, Sean Connery. Craig is an exemplary Bond and "Skyfall" one of the better films of this late, decadent stage of the form.

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