As British superspy James Bond turns 50 with “Skyfall,” he's demoted by his doubtful MI6 handlers, saddled with middle-age aches and pains, nagged by a sense of creeping mortality, confronted with a shadowy new world of cyber terrorism and accosted by perhaps the most deliriously, floridly lunatic villain since SPECTRE's Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
In short, this is an older, perhaps not wiser but at least wilier James Bond facing the 21st century realities of aging, virtual villains and computer-spiked mayhem.
Daniel Craig, now in complete command as both a throwback to the man's-man 007 of Sean Connery and a modern-day knight errant jousting with existential angst, handles both the daunting action duties and the deeper psychological plumbing of the character with equal aplomb.
While this 23rd installment of the official 007 franchise certainly pays apt tribute to the cheeky, old-school conventions that fans expect — flashy cars, breakneck stunts, smoking guns, evocative music, exotic locales and lovely femmes fatale (those juicy Bond girls) — “Skyfall” ups the ante by importing the high-class talents of Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins to give the old traditions an uncommon sheen and to invest the story with real-world urgency and surprising emotional resonance.
Following the requisite opening credits, festooned with swirly, sexy graphics and a brassy title tune penned and performed by Adele, there's the customary, logistically dazzling, 10-minute action sequence featuring a chase through the bazaars and across the tiled rooftops of Istanbul and then atop a lumbering train.
Then Bond, badly battered and facing a loss of his top-secret, license-to-kill status, finds himself pulled into a web of intrigue involving his mentor M (Judi Dench, grand in her seventh time out) and a formerly favored agent gone rogue — the silky, sinister Silva (Javier Bardem, in floppy blond Andy Warhol hair, delivering a lip-smackingly campy performance).
Nursing a seething madness at what he views as M's dastardly betrayal of him on a botched assignment, Silva, a master computer hacker, sets out to take dire revenge and in the process bring down the entire MI6 spy network.
Mendes introduces the Bond-Silva rivalry in a deliciously insinuating, psychosexual encounter and then quickly moves the story through a series of clever action set pieces (the best being a brilliant cat-and-mouse shoot-out between Bond and an assassin in a neon-lit, glass-and-steel Shanghai skyscraper).
The script by regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (“Quantum of Solace” and others) and Oscar-nominated newcomer John Logan (“Hugo” and already on board for Bond 24 and 25) deftly juggles the old and new and makes room for several pithy guest appearances (a new, nerdy Q in Ben Whishaw; Ralph Fiennes as a starchy, meddling bureaucrat, and a heavily bearded Albert Finney as the crusty caretaker of Bond's boyhood home in the rugged Scottish moors).
Then, of course, there are the eye-pleasing Bond girls — green field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), who has a surprising family connection, and exotic Berenice Marlohe as Severine, Silva's strikingly tragic sex slave.
In the five decades and 22 movies of the Eon Productions Bond franchise, the films have wavered from sophisticated to bombastic, from thrilling to silly and back. But “Skyfall” feels like a new high mark for the Bond canon — a keenly savvy, sexy and exhilarating movie packed with subversive secrets that puts the “intelligence” back into Ian Fleming's spy game.
— Dennis King