“Skyfall” marks the 50th birthday of the James Bond movie franchise, and it just might be a watermark in a series that, since 1962’s “Dr. No,” has been like a roller coaster in quality. Based on Ian Fleming’s British Secret Service Agent 007, all of the Bond films have admittedly been fun for nostalgic re-viewings, even when they became too jokey, outlandish, and gadget-filled (have you seen “Moonraker?”), but this certainly isn’t your father’s James Bond anymore. After 2008’s watchably lean but dour and emotionless “Quantum of Solace,” the 23rd entry saves the Daniel Craig-as-Bond movies from submersion. Who’d have thunk director Sam Mendes, whose credentials range from 1999’s “American Beauty” to 2002’s “Road to Perdition” and 2005’s “Jarhead,” would be the perfect man for the job?
Building upon his tenure in the 2006 reinvention that was “Casino Royale,” the piercing blue-eyed Daniel Craig makes his third outing as the once-suave, quippy, and carnally minded Bond. Rather than being immortally slick, his Bond is veritably intense, unshaven, and more wounded and vulnerable. We first find 007 in Turkey, with field operative Eve (Naomie Harris), chasing a minion, who has stolen a disc with a list of every MI6 agent. In both of their ears is their commander M (Judi Dench), and when Bond fights atop a moving train, Eve is forced to “take the bloody shot,” accidentally shooting her partner who takes a far drop into a river. Presumed dead, Bond actually lives it up on an island, until a terrorist attack bombs the MI6 headquarters. Although the bureau relocates underground, M keeps receiving death threats via her computerâ€”five agents will be killed a week. All the terrorism points to a cyber madman named Silva (Javier Bardem), who has connections to M, and only the resurrected Bond can stop him.
“Skyfall” is a balance of classic and modern, taking some of the jaunty playfulness from the ’60s and the gritty coolness of the last two movies with Craig; it’s meaty but light on its feet, weighty but not self-serious, and altogether dangerous and thrilling. (That being said, not all of Craig’s one-liners land well, but that’s where the nitpicks end.) Before the credit sequence gets underway, a preliminary action sequence, which finds Bond on a chase through an Istanbul marketplace, across the rooftops by motorcycle, and atop a speeding train through tunnels, is breathlessly rousing and cleanly edited (yes, you can actually make out who’s who and who’s throwing the punches). Then, speaking of credit sequence, the one here is quite a doozy, moody and elegantly designed with death motifs and fire-blowing dragons being accompanied by Adele’s smoldering “Skyfall” theme.
Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who wrote the first two Craig movies, as well as “The World Is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day”) are joined by John Logan (“Hugo”), adhering to the tried-and-true formula (cars, guns, dames, etc.) but shaking it up with actual characterizations and relationships that we can grab onto emotionally. Also, in a sense, Bond goes back in time, with an effective walk-on by Albert Finney. In a few touches that comment on “old” versus “new,” Q returns but in the form of a youthful technical genius, played by Ben Whishaw, and Ralph Fiennes lends memorable support as PM Gareth Mallory, whose gained position won’t be spoiled here. Composer Thomas Newman joyfully throws in an iconic musical cue every once in a while, and Bond’s much-loved Aston Martin DB5 makes a gleeful appearance. There’s a land mine of in-jokes for fans to devour.
Essaying one of the more notable Bond villains with a complex backstory, a blonde Bardem is unforgettably flamboyant and menacingly creepy. As he already proved in “No Country For Old Men” as the chilling Anton Chigurh, no villain with bad hair is out of his grasp; his Silva might be the first baddie in the franchise to suggest a homoerotic tension even. There’s something grotesque about his gummy grin, recalling the steel-capped teeth of 7-foot Jaws from “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker.” Silva’s entrance is artistically framed and staged: As Bond sits tied to a chair, an elevator comes down to his level and out walks Silva, telling a story about rats, and the camera just remains static behind Bond. The strong, poised Dench has come into her own playing the no-nonsense female superior M since Pierce Brosnan’s “GoldenEye.” She shows Bond tough love but is sentimental about him as well, especially after she made a judgement call that could have really killed her best agent. Harris is tough and flirty as Eve, and she shares one of the sexiest shaving scenes with Craig that you’ll ever see. BÃ©rÃ©nice Marlohe is the obligatory exotic beauty SÃ©vÃ©rine, whose fate goes in step with every one of the two “Bond Girls” in these movies, but she doesn’t exit without a steamy shower scene.
Just looking at it, this might be the most breathtaking Bond film. It doesn’t hurt that the great Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unsurprisingly stunning, giving breadth and beauty to every frame. There’s a quietly stirring set-piece where Bond sneaks up on assassin Patrice (Ola Rapace, Noomi’s ex-hubby), and their fight, beautifully shot as a silhouette and enhanced with roving lights through glass windows, is cast against the backdrop of Shanghai’s skyline. Finally, the equally explosive and haunting climax, which has the trappings of a western as Bond protects his own turf in Scotland, is an ace in production design and art direction.
Easily the best of the most recent three and one of the top Bonds in the franchise, “Skyfall” is “The Dark Knight” of this espionage canon, applying depth and hyper-realism to a goofy template. It harkens back to the good ‘ol days, but remains intimate and melancholy, too, and hey, it’s one of the freshest, most fun and exhilarating action movies, period. As the film closes with Maurice Binder’s gun barrel flourish and celebrates its 50th year, we know this won’t be the end of 007. Another semicentennial of Bond, James Bond, looks promising.
143 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A –