"Skyfall" finally opened in the U.S. last Friday, and it shattered the record for the biggest Bond movie opening ever with nearly $88 million for the weekend. Some critics -- and even Roger Moore, a former 007 -- are calling it the best installment of the 23-film series. Certainly while credit for the success is due to Daniel Craig, who continues his reinvention of Bond as a flawed and grounded hero, Bond movies have always depended on great villains. And "Skyfall" has one of best bad guys in the 50 year history of the franchise.
Javier Bardem, who won an Academy Award for playing the dead-eyed, oddly coiffed killer in the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men," is electric as a very different type of monster as the cyberterrorist Raoul Silva. Bardem isn't the first Oscar winner to play a Bond baddie -- that would be Christopher Walken in 1985's "A View to a Kill" -- but he is the highest-profile star to face off against 007 in years.
Much of the praise for Daniel Craig has been in regards to how different his portrayal of Bond is from the earlier on-screen personifications. But in some ways, Bardem's villain is great because he embraces and elevates many of the classic traits from 007's adversaries in the past. Here are some examples, and if you haven't seen "Skyfall" yet, there will be some mild spoilers.
A Match for Bond
The best villains are ones who can stand up to Bond, both mentally and physically. And with Daniel Craig as 007, finding an actor with the latter half has been a challenge. "Quantum of Solace" baddie Mathieu Amalric is a great actor, but being about half the size of Craig meant there wasn't much drama in their climatic fight scene. Bardem, on the other hand, is taller than Craig and a physically imposing presence. And since a major element of the film's story is Bond being out of step after nearly getting killed, he is at even more of a disadvantage.
But Silva is also Bond's intellectual equal as well. As a former secret agent under M (Judi Dench), he has all the training and access of a double-0. Like some standout villains of the past -- Sean Bean's duplicitous 006 from "GoldenEye" for example -- the fact that Silva is a turncoat makes him all the more dangerous.
One test of a Bond villain's worth is how he's able to deliver a long speech about his devious plans while 007 is held captive. And by that measure alone Silva has to rank at the top of the list. The first time we see Bardem in the film is as he delivers an epic monologue about cannibalistic rats as he crosses a very long room to where Bond is tied to a chair. It is presented in a single, unbroken shot, and the lack of any edits just heightens the tension.
The scene also highlights another great element of Bardem's performance: his humor. He has a taunting, even seductive tone that he uses to try to unnerve Bond. As he talks, he starts unbuttoning Bond's shirt and touching his chest. Bond has a witty comeback to defuse the situation, which helps reinforce the notion that they are two sides of the same coin. Bardem told USA Today that Silva's come-on was more of a test than an authentic seduction: "I'm trying to dismantle him, and he's trying to dismantle me. Within that, everything is allowed."
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Great bad guys are larger than life, and Bardem embraces Silva's wild side. He has swept-back blonde hair and a flamboyant personal style that's a throwback to earlier villains like Auric Goldfinger. A villain needs a base of operations, of course, and Silva has an entire abandoned island all to himself. He has a beautiful woman in his employ, Severine (played by Berenice Marlohe), whom he doesn't hesitate to cruelly kill just to make a point. And he needs firepower, which Silva has in spades with a fully armed attack helicopter (including an "Apocalypse Now"-like sound system).
From the very first movie, Bond villains have often had some sort of physical disfigurement to set them apart. Dr. No had metal hands, Blofeld had a scarred face, and Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale" had tears of blood. Silva, though, has perhaps the creepiest of all. After M gave him up to the Chinese government and he was tortured for months, Silva tried to commit suicide with a cyanide capsule hidden in his tooth. He survived, though, and he pulls out his dentures to reveal a mangled mouth and sunken skin. You definitely get why Silva has an axe to grind.
What really sets Silva apart, though, is that he's not out to take over the world. He demonstrates that with his mastery of technology, he could throw the planet into complete chaos with just a few keystrokes, but that's not his endgame. He has a much more personal score to settle with M, and he won't let Bond stand in the way. Interestingly, by making the stakes personal, rather than global, "Skyfall" increases the tension in a very real way. We've grown to care about the characters, and we have an emotional investment in seeing if they make it out alive. And that genuine menace makes Bardem's portrayal of Silva stand out more than anything.
"Skyfall" is out in theaters now.
Watch Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig in a clip from 'Skyfall':