The psyche of James Bond is explored in this 23rd Bond film that marks the 50th anniversary of a middle-aged franchise and a perennially middle-aged Bond. While some things remain the same, this Bond is different. He's feeling his age, and bears as many internal as external scars. Presumed dead when an operation goes awry, Bond takes an unscheduled, unsanctioned vacation. He drinks too much, is angry with MI6 and is seemingly tired of being 007. He's taken up residence in a tropical paradise with a beauty who adores him, but his love of thrill-seeking surfaces in a bar, where he turns drinking into a deadly game of courage and luck - to the delight of mesmerized onlookers.
M, played with graceful gravitas by Judi Dench, is in an awful spot. Following a failed operation involving Bond, she's on the cusp of receiving her walking papers from supervisor Gareth Mallory (a subdued Ralph Fiennes). M is still reeling from this encounter when MI6 headquarters is attacked by a cyber-bully who also happens to be an ace with bombs. Her adversary is Silva (wily Javier Bardem), an ex-agent with a monstrous ax to grind.
Unkempt and contemplating his newly purchased bottle of whiskey, Bond hears news of the attack, prompting his return to MI6. Daniel Craig's rough exterior enhances Bond's seedy appearance, compelling M to insist he undergo a barrage of tests to determine his "fitness as an agent."
At MI6's new digs, Bond is asked to complete a round of physical and psychological tests. The agency's new location is a dungeon of stacked dim rooms fallen into disrepair. The set is a production designer's dream: Dank, dirty green with peeling paint - the intimidation factor of the interrogation room would find me confessing to whatever was called for. Crammed into another small room are banks of computers overseen by cyber-genius Q (a geeky Ben Whishaw).
These surroundings are an allegory for the state of the spy-game. Technology has allowed computers to enhance the human factor, but despite intelligence-gathering advances, spying remains a primitive endeavor dependent on assumed identities, infiltration, torture and killing. The old and the new commingle here, sometimes uncomfortably.
The set pieces dazzle with old-school action and choreography that possesses a certain archaic charm. Director Sam Mendes can't wait to surprise us. We've seen several chases across the same set of Turkish rooftop sidewalks over the past few years, but never on motorcycles that drift onto the clay-tile rooftops. Likewise, a chase across the top of a train makes use of found equipment that doubles the destruction.
Things break, and so do people. As the film opens, Bond is partnered with Eve (a perky Naomie Harris), a talented agent hard-pressed to keep up with her veteran partner. We don't foresee the shocking ending to this sequence, though it provides the perfect spot for the opening credits - about 20 minutes into the film. As in all Bond movies, the credit sequence is an artistic flight of whimsy, drama and danger, set to Adele's croonings, who has surely earned herself another hit.
The film's most remarkable character, Silva, could easily have become a cartoon, but is saved from this fate by Bardem, who makes Silva's PTSD and resulting insanity seem appropriate. Silva's allegories often accompany plot twists while serving as a window into his sense of betrayal and need for revenge. He's a fully realized villain that we hope will somehow survive this episode to rise again.
The film depicts Bond's dalliances in shadows and innuendo, and finds him psychologically punished for what might be construed as his past sins. He is driven to dark places by this plot, and while he never fully emerges into the light, he comes to remember that despite its hardships, being 007 isn't without its perks. The same can be said for the viewers who watch him.