As times got tougher, Bond got grimmer. Just when we needed a bit of the old 007 mix of swagger, self-effacing irony, and sexy-time spy yarn spinning to escape from the doldrums and horrors of life outside the movie theater, this latest and 23rd edition in the endless franchise plunges us into colder waters and a saga of internal affairs going mean and sour. Is this the price to be paid for having director Sam (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) Mendes at the helm? Is it a sign of the times that even our popcorn has a bitter taste? Are we asking too much of our Bond fix?

Whatever the case, deep into the film, there is a splash of self-referential, in-house whimsy when Daniel Craig’s 007 throws open a garage door and ushers his tough-loving boss M into his vintage Aston Martin. On cue, the otherwise contemporary soundtrack flies in the cherished retro Bond music, with the low, twanging guitar riff we know and love. The brief flash of suave verve reminds us, by contrast, how gray this new Bond feels. From there, we’re taken to the muddy murky bog of a Scottish property known as Skyfall for the inevitable climactic orgy of violence, choreographed with a strange mix of polish and clumsiness, as if the filmmakers had lost whatever energy and professionalism they’d summoned up earlier in the project.

Mostly, the levity portion of the program is left to the cryptic wiles of Javier Bardem, who adds another soon-to-be-classic enigmatic villain character to his filmography, akin to his phantom evildoer in No Country for Old Men. As an agent gone seriously rogue and aiming to exact revenge on his mother superior and former spy allies, Bardem projects a chilling and bizarre charisma, with his blond wig and cunning, killing gaze, not to mention a job-related dental condition from hell. He spooks us and entrances us.

In terms of the narrative sweep and all-important location scouting of this Bond outing, the whole affair feels uncomfortably internalizing and claustrophobic — which comes with the territory of a story about the enemy within. Traditionally, the bosses and mission navigators do their work in the clean, detached quarters of the home MI6 office in London, while Bond and agents wrangle (and occasionally hook up) out in the world, in assorted exotic locales where our hero can mix the bad-guy-abating business with pleasures of the flesh and 007-style cool. It’s a grimmer story here, as the management (especially M) is lured into the action. Extended chase and shoot-’em-upping scenes move from the top of a train in Turkey to the London Tube to a Scottish showdown, where the underlying mother-and-child theme reaches its creepy apex.

We do get some of the Bond-flick treats we’ve come to expect, including yet another sensual opening credit sequence, this one set to the tune of Adele’s “Skyfall,” a quite decent contribution to the expanding jukebox of Bond themes. Craig continues to fit the bill as the new Bond, a lean, mean man of a few well-chosen words who’s not averse to a roll in some hay or other in the line of duty. But in this outing, the bad guy steals the show, screen presence-wise, even if justice prevails and Bond survives — to perpetuate the franchise, of course.


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