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Best Bond ever

WE NEVER thought it would happen. But James Bond is showing his age. Yes, he still romances the ladies and chases villains through all sorts of impossible barriers. Yes, he still likes a good martini shaken and not stirred, and has retained his love for fast cars and faster repartee.

But… he is slowing down. In fact, he fails his first physical after resurrecting from months of hibernation. And in the course of tracking down a new villain, he must maneuver his way through the newfangled and unfamiliar arena of cyberspace.

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“Skyfall” marks the 50th year since the release of “Dr. No,” the first Bond film based on a popular series of espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming. The movie series has since run through the entire Fleming oeuvre, with later movies riding on current concerns and the silliest of trends. The films have also gone through a collection of “Bonds,” from Sean Connery, who created the original persona of the spy who played it cool and suave and sophisticated, to George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and today’s Bond incarnation, Daniel Craig.

Of these iron-jawed, impeccably suited actors, it’s only Craig who allows the infirmities of age to catch up with Agent 007, and to show them. Though he often surprises with sudden bursts of agility, speed and strength, a running motif throughout the film is Bond’s struggle with an aging, hurting body.

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So it’s only right, perhaps, that with intimations of mortality on his mind, Bond should in “Skyfall” give thought to his past, his present and his future, and the film explores not just the spy’s personal history but the series’ background as well, allowing aging fans a glimpse of the Bond we knew when he was young and invulnerable.

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THIS is perhaps the best of the Bond franchise. Fans of explosions, train wrecks and bloody mayhem may think director Sam Mendes, known for more cerebral films like “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” was rather skimpy with the action sequences. But there are enough of them to keep things moving.

What Mendes does better is explore the humanity behind all the killing, car-chasing and outwitting—the big bangs, bucks, babes and gimmickry of previous movies. He pays particular attention to the testy but solid relationship between Bond and “M” (Dame Judi Dench), head of the British spy agency MI6. Theirs is a love-hate relationship, warm but tempered by the demands of geopolitics, national interest and hard-nosed calculation.

In fact, their relationship is an echo of that between M and Raoul Silva (a dirty-blond Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative who barely survives a stint in a Chinese prison and devotes the rest of his life to destroying M and the agency she heads, believing she had sold him out to the enemy.

As the movie starts, Bond himself has reason to resent the steely M, who has given him up for dead. But apparently he values the country he owes allegiance to, the agency he works for, and the boss who trained and trusted him, too much to simply walk away.

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THERE are pleasant surprises along the way.

First is the reappearance of “Q,” MI6’s resident genius, the man behind the gadgets and gizmos that lent humor and not a little absurdity to earlier Bond movies. This time, Q (Ben Whishaw) is a more youthful geek, who eschews the “exploding cigars” of old and relies more on his techie expertise to help the aging spy battle a new foe with serious computer skills.

Then there’s good old Miss Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), who does the old secretary better with a stint as a field agent who can shoot, drive and karate-chop her way against goons of all stripes. Why, she even gets to bed Bond—previously beyond the reach of the enamored secretary of old.

In fact, there’s plenty of reason to look forward to the extended life of the James Bond franchise. Clearly, with the focus on back story and personal motivation, we can expect future movies to paint a more nuanced, complicated and complex Bond, going beyond cheap thrills and throwaway lines. Talk about a reincarnation!

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I ACTUALLY didn’t get to watch a James Bond movie until adulthood, and by that time I had missed most of the Sean Connery starrers. This was because my mother thought the films were much too racy for our young sensibilities, even if she discussed them eagerly with my father and older siblings.

By the time I was old enough to watch Bond movies almost as an annual ritual, the films had descended into camp and wink-wink humor. I never did much appreciate Roger Moore, since I loathed his too-sleek demeanor as Simon Templar in the TV series “The Saint.” (There, I’ve gone and given away my age!)

Previously, my favorite Bond had been Timothy Dalton, feeling his acting chops gave the spy much-needed gravitas. But the movies themselves proved forgettable. So it isn’t until now, with the team-up of the steely but vulnerable Daniel Craig and a director—Mendes—worthy of the actor’s gifts that we get a Bond film that gives us reason to think and to feel, and to appreciate the spy beyond the gimmickry and the seduction.

Maybe it’s a sign of the maturing core audience that still appreciates a rip-roaring espionage movie for which the Bond franchise set the template. Maybe age and experience have made us appreciate a deeper dimension beyond cheap thrills and bikini bods. Or maybe it IS true: that James Bond is growing old—and we his fans are aging right along with him.

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TAGS: `skyfall’, column, james bond, Rina Jimenez-David
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