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November 16, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Superb 'Skyfall' lets Bond grow as a character

I’ve been mocked over the years for choosing to pursue an English degree. And I’ll be honest, my degree hasn’t really benefited me much in my real-world career. Aside from bothering you good folks once a week, I have found very little use for it.

In an uncertain economy, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for other, if not more lucrative then at least more in-demand, fields. After much analysis, I believe that I may finally have found my fallback: high-stakes espionage.

If movies are to be believed, being a government operative is a growing vocational opportunity just waiting to be tapped. In the past few years, we’ve seen everything including “Salt,” the Jason Bourne/Aaron Cross films, the return of the “Mission: Impossible” force and so many in between.

It seems like spies are everywhere. And the granddaddy of them all, James Bond, dusts off his tuxedo to make his triumphant return in “Skyfall.”

In his latest adventure, Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot and presumed killed while trying to recover a hard drive containing the true identities of agents in the field. As he enjoys the life of a dead man, MI6 is attacked by a cyber hacker who destroys part of headquarters, killing a half dozen in the process, then begins releasing the identities of the covert agents on the Internet, jeopardizing the lives of countless field operatives and years of work.

Bond realizes that he can either carouse and womanize for free or he can get paid for it, as well as get the satisfaction of avenging his fake death and stopping the hacker. So he comes out of hiding, and after failing all tests, is put back into active duty by M (Judi Dench). He then must track down the villain, who has his own axe to grind with MI6.

Craig quickly erased the bad memories of the last few Pierce Brosnan films when he assumed the Bond role in “Casino Royale,” bringing a steely seriousness that eliminated the fears of those who felt he didn’t fit the idea of James Bond, as conceived by Ian Fleming. Craig followed that up with the mediocre “Quantum of Solace,” a disappointing misstep that snubbed out the goodwill of the first film.

After sitting on the sidelines for four years, mostly because of parent studio MGM’s bankruptcy issues, Craig and Bond are back, and he jumps into the role as if “Solace” was just a bad dream.

Craig does a fantastic job of humanizing James Bond. A character that had begun transitioning to caricature, all libido and one-liners, is brought back to be more relatable. Starting in “Royale,” Craig began to reclaim Bond as a human being.

More than just bravado and swagger, Craig’s Bond had the ability to love and to lose. He is allowed emotion and frustration as well as anger and humor. Bond is more driven in this film, having loved and had love taken away, then abandoned by the agency that he had devoted his life to.

Bond is aging (if not in real time, then in movie time), and that is reflected in how he adjusts to his return to service. It is a refreshing aspect to the character and franchise, and one that I hope carries over to future films.

Also solid is director Sam Mendes. Mendes made his name directing more dramatic fare (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), and that serious touch perfectly accents the direction of the new Bond.

But for those who would worry that he might not have the action chops to handle a big-budget spectacle film required of the 007 franchise, he quickly puts minds at ease with a white knuckle opening sequence as fine as any seen in the series. He directs the frenetic pace nimbly, then transitions to the more dramatic aspects flawlessly.

If there was a running critique of the past couple of films, it is the lack of a truly commanding villain. The Bond series is known for its villains as much as its hero.

That is remedied this time out, as Silva (Javier Bardem) is a throwback to earlier Bonds, a scenery-chewing bad guy who reeks of evil. He is as adept at executing a loved one as he is at hacking into government databases. Aside from a hideous hairstyle (apparently a trademark of Bardem lately), he is a quintessential Bond baddie and one who fits snuggly into the tradition of the series’ super villains.

Back as well is Dench, who continues to add character to her role as she ages. She plays an integral part of the plot of the film and gets to flex a bit of action muscle, even if she might be a bit weaker than her counterparts. New to the franchise is Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a bureaucrat who lacks faith in Bonds’ abilities, and Naomi Harris as Eve, a field agent who is set up to play a longer-running role in future films.

The final action sequence earns the price of admission, and it leads to a catharsis that feels completely earned and is shared with the audience. It is a fitting end to a fine film and a great addition to a franchise that’s now a half-century old but feeling fresher than ever.

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