Dir. Sam Mendes
A few years ago, Bond, who now celebrates five cinematic decades of loyal service to the Queen, had really started to feel his age. It’s not just the constant pressure, international intrigue, and endless punch-ups atop a collapsing bridge in Kuala Lumpur, the character itself had been through so many iterations — from suave, cold and sophisticated to cartoonish and bellicose and back again — the entire framework of the series had begun to feel played out, bereft of new ideas, the sad sit-com staple who just sits around in the background and barks out his lone catchphrase to an ever-dwindling crowd.
That the series was successfully reborn back in 2006, with Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, putting Daniel Craig front and center as 007 and returning the old boy back to his sly, brutish roots, has been well-established, but even so, the character could only go through so much before this vision, too, became worn out. To the credit of director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and John Logan, the new Bond film is all too aware of the potential danger of seeming antiquated and spent. Bond spends a good deal of time in this film being forced into facing his own impending mortality.
Gone are the days where Bond was little more than a British Superman, smug and secure, never a hair out of place, even in a cyclone. As this film opens, Bond is in hot pursuit of a mercenary enemy through the streets (and rooftops) of Istanbul, trapping his quarry on top of a speeding train only to be accidentally shot by one of his own people, Eve (Naomie Harris), perched over a distant trestle.
From that point on, the Bond we see is clipped and mortal, breathing hard after a swimming workout, grimacing in pain as he grasps onto the underneath of a rising elevator in Shanghai, and, worse yet, failing a basic target practice test put onto him under the watchful eye of M (Judi Dench), who has enough problems of her own. Someone has infiltrated her computer, you see, and conducted a series of sabotages designed to make her look as ineffectual as possible, prompting the British powers-that-be to instigate her not-so-graceful retirement into the good night, replacing her with Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a raffish man with a bureaucratic heft to his necktie.
Once again pressed into service, though not technically fit for duty, Bond must track down the perpetrator — who turns out to be a former Mi6 agent, played by Javier Bardem with a dental plate and a TV preacher’s bleached-blonde pompadour — all the while running up against his own sense of being an outdated dinosaur from an earlier era, a idea not at all helped by meeting the new Q (Ben Whishaw), a computer hacker wiz kid who, in Bond’s determination, still has “spots” on his complexion.
Smartly, from this premise, the filmmakers slowly take us back through Bond’s glorious past, ingeniously resurrecting his old staples — the Walther PPK, Aston Martin, and a perfectly shaken martini — while still plying his old myths and tropes against him (please don’t ask me about the fate of that beautiful car, it’s too painful to recount). The film, which even as good as it is, it must be said, overstays its welcome by a good fifteen minutes or so, ends up taking us to the highlands of Scotland where young James was forged, a revved up back to the future showdown that serves to debunk some of Bond’s legend even as it toils under its considerable weight.
If the film has a distinct weakness, however, it’s with its shapeless, guileless villain. Bardem is a supremely accomplished and fascinating actor, but one gets the sense the filmmakers simply left him in the prosthetics tent by himself for a few hours and let him conjure up something on his own. The character has no particular feel or consistency, flipping from an effeminate enfant terrible to cold-blooded thug with little rhyme or reason, other than the endless piling on of failed maternal allusions with poor, bedraggled M, who he’s hunting down like wild game on Bond’s childhood property.
Nevertheless, with all the focus on the Bond of old, the film pulls off several new tricks, updating the series for the next installment even as it debunks a great deal of the earlier mythos. The effect is enervating, exciting, a way to see the old Bond through new eyes, which is a surprisingly successful and complex maneuver. As much as we get to pad around in familiar territory, there is much jarring of your preconceptions, to say nothing of the wanton, slightly fey manner in which Bardem at first portrays the villain. After all, we may have seen Bond in a great deal of nasty scrapes and horrific predicaments, but this is the first time I can recall an arch-nemesis coming on to him before trying to kill him. Blofeld would be appalled.