In a recent interview, director Sam Mendes said Christopher Nolan's "'The Dark Knight' gave me the confidence to take 'Skyfall' in directions that might not have been possible before it had been released."
Reading between the lines, you can tell that the second Batman movie was a wake-up call for the filmmaker and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson as far as the stature of the James Bond character is concerned.
Having successfully recast the role with Daniel Craig in "Casino Royale" but stumbling badly with the misguided "Quantum of Solace" as well as wrestling with the notion that they had been left in the dust by films like Nolan's and others, there's no doubt that those charged with making Bond relevant knew they had their work cut out for them.
With the release of "Skyfall," the 23rd Bond feature, it's obvious that Mendes and company have risen to the challenge in a major way. The best film in the series in the last 20 years and one of the top five since its inception 50 years ago, this movie is a turning point for the franchise as it dares to reimagine many of its key elements, setting the character and series on a firm path for the future, yet taking the time to tip its hat to its storied past. While the film sticks to the basic template that every feature in the series has adhered to since 1962's "Dr. No," screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade make sure to include no shortage of innovations where character development and shaking up the 007 universe is concerned. This time out, Bond is charged with retrieving a stolen hard drive that contains the names of every British agent who has become embedded in numerous international terrorist organizations. It becomes obvious early on that the man with the plan to create all sorts of havoc for MI-6 is Silva (Javier Bardem), a charming maniac who has the intention of shaking the agency to its very core. That he has a past with M (Judi Dench), the head of this espionage agency, only adds to the intrigue.
In watching the film unfold, you get the sense that everyone involved in its making was intent on improving the series in every conceivable way and that a great deal of thought and imagination was put into each plot point and action sequence. From the pre-credit sequence that finds Bond destroying a Turkish bazaar as well as a train in pursuit of a ruthless assassin to an astonishing hand-to-hand combat sequence done completely in silhouette, each moment is set to impress, and they all succeed.
Equally impressive is the way in which the film delves into Bond's past. Though not a full-fledged origin story, we find out a bit of where he comes from during the film's third act, which takes place in the Scottish Highlands in a location that's haunted by a past better left forgotten. Time and history are two of the film's major themes as Bond is referred to as a "dinosaur" throughout, what with his pre-21st-century methods, and the fact that his skills have diminished after an unexpected hiatus while his unflinching loyalty to MI-6 and M remain. Giving the character feet of clay adds a dimension of peril and realism to the film as Bond now rarely walks away unscathed from the various precarious situations he finds himself in, and we know that the physical and psychological wounds he suffers will have a permanent effect that will carry over to other adventures.
Silva ends up being one of the agent's more intriguing enemies, as he's everything Bond is not. Primarily using cyber-terrorism in order to wound MI-6, in his mind he has been wronged by M and is intent on making Bond see the error in being loyal to her. Bardem is having great fun here, yet though it's an outsized role, he doesn't overplay things too much, though he does have his moments, especially during an interrogation scene with 007 in which he questions his sexuality.
This is one of the many highlights in the film, and while it does run a bit long, it manages to raise the bar for future episodes. Yet, while Mendes and his crew have positioned the franchise to break new ground, they wisely embrace its past as well. The reappearance of what is perhaps Bond's most famous accessory as well as the playing of the character's signature theme is not a desperate act to reclaim the past but a welcome celebration of the franchise's storied heritage.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear and Albert Finney.
Directed by Sam Mendes; produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson; screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.
An MGM-Sony Pictures release. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense violence, some sexuality, language and smoking) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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"Fists" standard but well-done handful of chop-socky. (2 stars out of 4)
Rapper RZA of Wu-Tang Clan must have more clout than I realize. How else to explain that he was able to procure $15 million to make and convince Russell Crowe to be in his directorial debut, "The Man with the Iron Fists," a '70s kung fu exploitation movie that's long on love for the genre but short on any real talent to pull it off convincingly. Raised on films of this sort, the philosophy and look of which were the inspiration for the Clan, RZA does his best to pay homage to this subgenre of grindhouse flicks by adding a worthy latter-day addition to the form. While there's no denying the passion he brings to the project, there's little to defend in the way it has been made.
The rapper, who pulls off a cinematic hat trick here by starring in, directing and co-writing the feature, is a blacksmith in a village in late 1800s China where he makes deadly weapons for warring clans and gives all the money he makes to Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a courtesan he hopes to run away with some day. His relatively peaceful existence is shattered when it's found out that a large shipment of the governor's gold will be passing through town, where various factions hope to abscond with it.
I could waste considerable column inches trying to explain the motivation behind each group's quest for the gold (hubris, revenge, greed, etc.) but in the end, it really doesn't matter who holds a grudge with whom or just what everyone's motivation might be. The script, co-written by Eli Roth, is a needlessly convoluted collection of hoary circumstances and tired cliches that's hard to follow. In the end, you realize that there's simply no reason to expend any effort in cracking this narrative nut and that RZA's intent is to simply throw as many unique fighters together as possible to create as much bloody mayhem as his special-effects crew can handle.
This isn't a bad plan for a genre exercise like this, and had it been lensed by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of choreography, camera placement and editing, then some knock-your-socks-off kung fu action might have been enough to compensate for the thin script. Unfortunately, RZA is no Quentin Tarantino — one of the movie's producers — and the film suffers for it. A mash-up of superfluous movement, incomprehensible cutting and erratic pacing, the film's numerous set pieces are an exercise indicative of amateur filmmaking, as RZA is so eager to impress, he forgets to the do the basics correctly.
A more traditional approach (a less fluid camera that captures well-blocked chop-socky moments) would have served the picture better. As it is, what we're left with is a confusing story with muddled visuals resulting in a headache of a movie.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.