License to Entertain

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


“Goldberger. Mike Goldberger.” Well, that’s the way the adolescent me hears it whenever the latest 007 issues his introductory “Bond. James Bond.” It’s a great fantasy writer Ian Fleming gave us. And now, with the franchise successfully entrusted to Daniel Craig’s capable hands, director Sam Mendes’s “Skyfall” takes its place among the best Bonds.


Rousing, colorful, determined, funny and respectful of the noble pageantry that began with “Dr. No” (1962), “Skyfall” superbly synthesizes good old-fashioned, location-style cinematography with CGI technology. So when a runaway subway train almost derails our favorite secret agent’s plans to stay alive, even jaded eyes are rendered rapt.


Smartly exampled here, our 007s, like our presidents, more or less mirror the times and the people in whose service they are engaged. Thus Mr. Craig reflects a pragmatic exigency, tossed in with the most subtle vulnerability, just so that we know his heart is in the right place. He must be a boy scout, but hip…honest and brave, but a savvy realist.


Oh, but he still has to be the guy every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with, in a fanciful sense, that is. Without being sacrilegious by denying Sean Connery’s status as the inaugural, iconic Bond, it behooves to note that Mr. Craig’s rather ruddy world saver, while he looks OK enough in a tux, reinterprets the idea of dashing.


Likewise, the story in which we plop our intrepid adventurer has to represent current fears and concerns. Of course, it’s never about stopping a motorist from cutting you off or passing you on the right. Nope, the bad guy is inevitably into nothing less than world domination. And this one, computer genius/terrorist/psychopath Silva, is a real dilly.


Portrayed by Javier Bardem with flourishes of Shakespearean tragedy, he is one icky dude and an adversary worthy of the film’s hero. Coiffed in died blonde locks, a sadistic zeal projecting from his crazed eyes, he is at once cutting edge evil and, because of his Moriarty-like desire to impress his counterpart, a grand throwback to the villains of yore.


But what makes the insidious rat even worse than most blackguards who’d destroy everything to have their way is his deeply personal hatred for Judi Dench’s M. I can’t tell you why, but he has it in for Bond’s boss and everything she represents. Always a step ahead, he is the ultimate hacker, wreaking deadly destruction with but a keystroke.


It’s a good thing that all is patched together and hobbling along at Her Majesty’s Secret Service, recently forced to set up clandestine digs. At the ready there with all manner of gizmos and gadgets, reminiscent of that genius kid you knew in high school, is Ben Whishaw as the series’ new Q, a dry-witted sort barely old enough to be playing spy.


OK, OK, I see you way in the back urgently waving your hand. Ask your question so I can get on with the review.


Clears his throat, looks around and then inquires, “Uh, you haven’t said anything about the Bond girls. I mean, you said this is good, that’s great, etc., etc., blah, blah tradition, but nothing about the Bond girls. What about the Bond girls?


“Good question, young man. Remember, we’re in the 21st Century now, and with a more serious demeanor taking hold in all things 007, it just wouldn’t do to flaunt a whole bunch of frivolous eye candy. So, with all due respect to Naomie Harris, who plays James’s fellow agent, Eve, and Bérénice Marlohe as Severine, a femme fatale impressed into Silva’s employ, no sir, you’ll find no double entendre-named Pussy Galores or Plenty O’Tooles in this film. The ladies now have the equal opportunity to wear sensible shoes.”


Alas, just as Lautrec notes that respectability has invaded the “Moulin Rouge” (1952), political correctness has come to roost in the world of derring-do. But this doesn’t preclude fomenting some Freudian/Oedipal ruminations courtesy of the critical role Dench’s M plays. Psychodrama shares center stage with treachery and two-fisted action.


And there’s a surprise. As if consolation for strict constructionists, a serendipitous harking back to classic Bond at a pivotal moment in the tale should get audiences to issue a collective “Well, alright!” It’s a grand moment, emotionally analogous to that juncture in the foreign legion films when distant bagpipes declare approaching reinforcements.


Now, if we could only get the otherwise stellar Mr. Craig, the finest Bond since Sean Connery, to wax sad with just a touch less severity, the business of saving humanity from evildoers would prove even more enthralling. That said, the decoded message here for the diehard faithful as well as those who thought 007’s number was up, is to catch “Skyfall.”

“Skyfall,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Sam Mendes and stars Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Judi Dench. Running time: 143 minutes