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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in "Skyfall," in theaters now.
Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in "Skyfall," in theaters now.

"Skyfall" plays a dangerously good game

The James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and what better way to celebrate such a long-standing series than with a film centered around its foundation's near destruction?

Bond is obviously no stranger to tight spots, but in "Skyfall," the series' buzzy new installment, all of MI6 gets put on the front lines as a dangerous figure from M's past returns and threatens to bring down the entirety of Britain's famed secret agency.

The stakes are raised from the start as "Skyfall" opens with not just a failed crucial mission, but the dramatic loss of Bond in the field. Naturally, he's not down for the count – there's still a whole movie to get through – but the tension is very much there, and the traditional lengthy opening credit sequence, laced with dark images of blood, gravestones and skulls, doesn't do much to relieve it.

It's appropriate that "Skyfall" shakes up the audience so soon. Not long after, it doles out the same treatment on M (Judi Dench) and MI6. After botching the film's opening mission, which sought to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the names, aliases and locations of every MI6 operative, M and her covert branch have come under serious fire regarding whether they actually serve a purpose in today's techno-savvy age of government intelligence. On the flip side, they've come under much more literal fire as the hard drive's new owner, the mysterious Silva (played by a very blond Javier Bardem), seeks to destroy their entire operation inside and out.

What follows is a smart face-off between adversaries as M's past with Silva collides with her present with Bond. Silva's simple-yet-devious battle of skill and wits between himself and M's favorite agent seeks not just to destroy his opposition but unnerve and humiliate in the process. The hero and villain enter an action-laced game of modified chess: one's trying to protect its queen, and the other – with nothing to lose and nothing he won't sacrifice in his relentless pursuit – wants nothing else but to take her down.

"Skyfall" presents these polar adversaries in a very elegant and very Bond-ian way. Silva's spiteful, new-school villain is a computer-hacking mastermind with encryptions to fool even the best at MI6. At the same time, he's still backed by a notoriously violent pack of gun-toting thugs and holds court on a self-commandeered island.

Daniel Craig's James Bond, on the other hand, is still the roguish, plays-by-his-own-rules 007 that's kept the franchise alive for so long, but at the same time adheres to his ethics and most of all to his loyalties to M. He plays the traditionalist: he's not impressed by any of Silva's bells and whistles – and isn't afraid to say so. All he sees is a threat that needs to be neutralized.

The conflict between new school and old school is evident throughout the film, both in this primary face-off and behind the scenes, where the battle for MI6's continued relevance in the world of modern British intelligence is being waged. These two plots collide for an appropriate final match-up, which pits Silva and a slew of semi-automatics, thugs and firepower against Bond and M's arsenal of makeshift explosives, booby-trap rigs and (How could they not?) the iconic Aston Martin.

Interestingly enough, "Skyfall" also takes a bit of a gamble by introducing audiences to some of Bond's backstory. It's a risky move to humanize an icon like James Bond: spend too much time examining what makes him who he is and the character could lose his enigmatic luster.

Thankfully, this film didn't dwell on his early years more than was necessary to advance the plot, and it ended up being interesting insight to Bond and M's dynamic. I hope, however, that future films don't go further, or they run the risk of blending the illustrious Bond name in with the Jason Bournes and Batmans of the movie world.

I'm sure it's a crime to get this far into a review of a Bond movie without mentioning a Bond girl, but as Sévérine, the latest bombshell to succumb to Bond's rakish charms, French actress Bérénice Marlohe served a decent but only minor role. The female presence instead was dominated by fellow agent Eve ("POTC: At World's End"'s Naomie Harris) and M, which is only fitting, given that this installment was driven almost entirely by her involvement, past and present, with MI6.

The same can also be said for the customary exotic scenery. It's an eye-pleasing diversion, but plays only a minor role to the plot. Yes, there are pretty girls and aesthetic shots of faraway locations, but "Skyfall" is all about the turmoil at hand – and rightly so. It's tense, tightly shot, well-acted and everything a modern Bond movie is expected to be. It doesn't revel in all things Bond like "Casino Royale" did, but as an action movie it's very, very good.

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