"Skyfall" opens U.K. this week ahead of its U.S. release to commemorate a half century of James Bond movies, stretching back to 1962's "Dr. No." While the series has grown slicker with age, it retains a certain familiarity from the outset. The genre — if not the series — can do better than fancy wrapping paper, as other recent examples clearly demonstrate. But we'll get there in a moment.
"Skyfall" begins, as all James Bond movies must, in the middle of a story less relevant than the action sequence that results from it. The very first shot centers on Daniel Craig, in his third 007 outing, fitting comfortably into the iconically suave character as if it were a sturdy bodysuit freshly cleansed for another bout in the field. Before he's even in sharp focus, a snippet of that familiar trumpet score announces his arrival. Bursting into a narrow hallway, he glides across the frame before arriving in the midst of an undefined mission in Istanbul. His gun drawn, 007 finds a fellow agent down and the baddie responsible on the lam. The baddie is always on the lam.
Bond gives chase — or rather, several chases, hopping aboard a motorcycle and pursuing the criminal across a rooftop and down through a marketplace as the crowd magically splits on command to let the speeding duo pass. At a certain point they wind up on top of a speeding train atop a narrow bridge, because why not? Bond then briefly engages his opponent from afar using a unwieldy crane before hopping aboard the roof of the high-speed vehicle and engaging the goon mano-a-mano. The punches continue as they narrowly avoid the onrush of one tunnel after another until a shot rings out. A single body falls to the river below and… Adele's gloomy "Skyfall" theme song begins. Roll credits!
It wouldn't be a Bond movie without a high-stakes prologue, but the "Skyfall" showdown has another precedent in film history: Preston Sturges' indispensable 1941 Hollywood satire "Sullivan's Travels" opens with a movie-within-a-movie featuring two men coming to blows while holding tight to a moving train. The music screeches wildly as they continue to tussle until the two bodies hurtle down to the depths below. The lights come up in a screening room and the production's titular writer-director announces to his studio overlords that the movie "has social significance!" The moguls aren't buying it. "Who wants to see that kind of stuff?" Indeed: Two decades ahead of "Dr. No," Sturges' movie sarcastically predicted a key ingredient of the action genre's appeal: Sometimes, a train fight is just a train fight.
With "Skyfall" echoing this prognosis, the franchise has come full circle. No longer attempting to reconstruct the character as in 2006's "Casino Royale," "Skyfall" avoids reinvention in favor of surface pleasures at every turn. Making his first foray into the action arena, director Sam Mendes has carefully latched onto the familiar formula with a film that competently represents many of the familiar Bond ingredients that have the franchise with such monumental staying power, as well as the reasons why even at its best, the series remains tethered to familiar ground.
Studios craft product to suit the needs of an imaginary audience (in "Sullivan's Travels," one of the moguls tacks "with a little sex in it" onto the end of virtually every pitch), so it comes as no great surprise that "Skyfall" mostly plays by the rules. If, however, you seek a wholly original, unexpected dosage of action ingenuity, look no further than "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," available on VOD platforms this week ahead of its November release. The bizarrely inventive fourth entry in an unorthodox franchise with a greater capacity for taking risks, "Day of Reckoning" explores the action genre with a grab bag of possibilities: Writer-director John Hyams litters his second entry in the rejuvenated "Universal Soldier" series with daring long takes, dizzying speed and unruly tonal shifts, all of which inject the excessive violence with an otherworldly Rube Goldberg-like quality that invites comparison to animation. In my estimation, a movie weighted with ludicrous twists delivers far more excitement than another by-the-numbers Bond triumph.
Shifting the outlandish sci-fi premise to the perspective of a Unisol (which in this installment refers to a clone developed exclusively for the battlefield), "Day of Reckoning" revolves around the experiences of a clone-gone-rogue named John (Scott Adkins), pitted against the advances of two menacing Unisol leaders (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren). The sole remaining ingredients of the comparatively simple-minded 1992 original, Van Damme and Lundgren lurk in the shadows of this entry like menacing phantoms of the brutal masculine archetypes they always represent.
The movie sports a peculiar alchemy of influences: Film noir, body horror and martial arts all come into play. The sole consistent ingredient is an emphasis on the element of surprise, which Hyams delivers in the context of a relentless pace always one step ahead of our ability to process it. A high-speed freeway chase quickly segues into a duel between two snarling men wielding baseball bats and concludes with one of them missing half his head. The punchline? A cutaway shot to astonished onlookers implying that, even in this made-up universe, these events push the boundaries of reality. The fourth wall doesn't just break; it explodes in calculated mayhem.
For those more enticed by the prospects of playing it safe, you could do a lot worse than "Skyfall." Mendes' treatment of the material lacks that same ingenuity found in "Day of Reckoning. However, as pricey tentpoles go, it's still a satisfying cut above for the sheer elegance of its visuals, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. A newcomer to the Bond series, Deakins' work with the Coen brothers ranks among some of the best American cinematography of all time, so if "Skyfall" holds any weight during the current awards season it should go straight to him. Possibly the most evocative Bond movie of the 23 that have been made, it frames the succession of showdowns in wondrously expressionistic terms. Two scenes of nighttime combat find Bond silhouetted against a ominously dark backdrop, first surrounded by the deep blue of a skyscraper and then later dashing through a flame-soaked field caked in yellow. The poetry that Deakins brings to these images transcends the limitations of the material and almost — not quite, but almost — makes it feel fresh.
That "Skyfall" looks strikingly beautiful may explain why it has already generated waves of positive buzz. At two hours and 25 minutes, the movie runs far too long, but has been artfully rendered to obscure its fundamental simplicity. A long string of incidents only watchable enough to keep the pace in flux, the premise finds Bond briefly going off the grid, much to the chagrin of his maternal supporter M. (Judi Dench, weirdly underutilized despite her elevated role in the story). A full hour goes by before the arrival of a defected former agent played by Javier Bardem. With his absurdly out-of-whack blonde 'do and curiously flamboyant delivery, Bardem's character is weighted with innuendo. Creepy enough for the standards of the material, he faces down Bond on two drawn-out occasions before the explosive (yet oddly anti-climactic) finish. The movie staggers forward with episodic surges that may reflect an evolving commercial pressure to import television sensibilities in the feature-length form. The result is paradoxically enjoyable and tiresome (enjoyably tiresome?), but does the trick for a formula that needs only to stun, startle and titillate its audience to gain acceptance.
Even so, a fatigue hangs over the entire picture. "We're both played out," Bond tells M., and you can see why. By the time an end credit acknowledges the anniversary and promises further sequels, the very idea of more Bond movies arrives like a predetermined mandate. If we're lucky, that will yield further opportunities to use the franchise as an excuse to keep heating up the genre with unbridled energy. Let's hope so, because it will take more than a martini to shake Bond up.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Skyfall" opens in the U.K. this week and in North America on November 9, when it's likely to perform well at the box office for several weeks due to little large-scale competition, Craig's continuing appeal and the ongoing marketability of the Bond franchise.