James Bond dies in Skyfall — not literally, of course. Fifty years since 1962’s Dr. No, the character remains so lucrative and profitable, he is guaranteed to outlive us all.
But everything that had grown stale and musty about the franchise, which was successfully rebooted in 2006’s Casino Royale but immediately fell back into the same rut with 2008’s Quantum of Solace, has been reinvented and invigorated and made to feel new again. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), making his first giant-scale action picture, delivers the requisite thrills every 007 movie must, from a fantastic 20-minute opening chase sequence aboard motorcycles and trains that recalls vintage Spielberg, to a brutal fistfight in Shanghai set against giant neon lights that is shot in one uninterrupted take so you feel every punch.
Mendes’ approach to action is classical and elegant — no manic editing and blurry unintelligible images here — but what makes the movie special is the attention he pays his actors. In Skyfall, we learn about Bond’s past for the first time in the series (how didn’t anyone think of this until now?), which makes Daniel Craig’s squared-jawed hero seem more human and relatable, more of a man than an action figure. The plot, which is simpler than the trailers make it seem but is also much more memorable and moving, involves the destruction of MI6 by an unknown traitor and the efforts by Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) to fend off the attempts by a British officer (Ralph Fiennes) to change her outdated ways and adapt to the horrible new world of cyber-terrorism.
That’s all the plot you’ll get here. Skyfall is the first Bond movie I can remember in which the story actually matters and stays with you, too. But mention must be made of Javier Bardem’s lip-smacking, funny-yet-scary portrayal of Silva, a madman with the world’s worst bleach job who is prone to florid speeches, grandstanding theatrics and mean, evil behavior. Bardem doesn’t make his appearance until an hour into the film, but Mendes gives him an entrance worthy of the wait, a long, showy monologue he recounts as he walks slowly toward the camera, resulting in one of the funniest, most unexpected exchanges in any Bond movie.
Skyfall was shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), who has never won an Oscar even though he’s arguably the best in his field. Ranking Bond movies in terms of quality is a futile effort — there are just too many — but I’m not exaggerating when I say this is by far the best-looking 007 film, with luscious colors, beautiful contrasts (check out the shot of a frozen lake with a burning house in the background) and a superb sense of framing. The movie is filled with little in-jokes for old-school fans (check out Q’s coffee mug or the amusing bit with the eject button in Bond’s Aston Martin), but Mendes also wants to make a film that can be taken seriously, and Skyfall, for all its considerable thrills, works even better as a classy, thoughtful drama. The theme of old-vs.-new courses throughout the movie — how to use traditional tactics against villains who are unlike any who have come before — and is resolved in a way that is melancholy and exciting. Skyfall hits all the notes every 007 movie is required to do — even the shaken-not-stirred martini business is slyly handled — but this movie is good enough to stand alone as a terrific thriller, regardless of the series’ history.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Bérénice Marlohe.
Director: Sam Mendes.
Screenwriters: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan.
Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson.
An MGM/Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 143 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes, elegant innuendo. Playing at area theaters.