★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens in theaters Nov. 9
When Jason Bourne hit the big screen in 2002, many heralded the other JB's inevitable demise. After all, how could Bond's graying, formulaic smarm compete with the real-world grit and humanity of Matt Damon's tortured spy saga? Tragically, 2008's ill-conceived Quantum Of Solace reinforced the critique, as director Mark Forster delivered a Bourne-Bond hybrid that failed as both a spy thriller and popcorn entertainment.
Now there's Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the Bond canon and easily one of the best. Far from a reboot, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and lead screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) re-energize the franchise by grounding their movie in real-world concerns while still embracing the things that have always made Bond so appealing. Along with the spectacular action scenes, beautiful women and exotic locales, this story is surprisingly character-driven, boasting thematic forays into betrayal and mortality. It's an exciting yet melancholy actioner that isn't afraid to deepen the man behind the myth.
Opening with a breathlessly frantic chase scene, Skyfall sends Bond (Daniel Craig) racing across Istanbul's rooftops and motorways before jumping onto a moving train in an attempt to retrieve a hard drive containing the identities of undercover spies around the globe. Our hero is accidentally felled by a fellow agent's bullet and presumed dead.
The pre-title sequence is very much in sync with the Bond openings we've seen in the past and yet something's askew – the tone is far darker. There's a moment where 007 is ordered by M (Judi Dench) to leave a bleeding partner behind. The choice means death for the agent, and the callous pragmatism that fuels M's decision becomes the foundation for Skyfall's ambitious narrative.
When Bond finally returns to service, he not only contends with diminished skills, he questions his convictions. Mendes establishes the film's fallen-hero-must-rise premise as 007 tracks down a cyber-terrorist with a vendetta against MI6. It makes for an unexpectedly suspenseful drama.
Skyfall is less about pulling the super agent's psyche apart and more about exploring the thematic underpinnings of the entire Bond series. The movie's villain, Raul Silva (played by the incomparable Javier Bardem) is offered up as a twisted reflection of 007, scarred physically and psychologically by his loyalty to the British secret service. Both agents have a complicated relationship with M, depicted as a stern mother figure who creates dependency in the young male orphans she adopts and manipulates into steadfast service to country. The approach may not achieve any depths of insight, but it does add welcome weight to a series that can often seem wafer thin.
Bardem expertly straddles the line between camp and menace, creating a sexually ambiguous villain that is as disturbing as he is wounded. His scheme is driven by deeply personal pain and it forces Bond to reflect on his own origins and loyalties.
For all the craftsmanship, intelligence and soulfulness on display, Skyfall does ramble a bit, with a mid-section that's less urgent than it should be and a final siege on Bond's boyhood home that feels unnecessarily protracted. Mendes also falls victim to the too-many endings syndrome that plagues many epic-sized endeavors. Still, it's unlikely audiences will care much about these flaws. Instead they'll be suitably impressed by a film that retains all the glamor, thrills and humor of 007's best. At 50 years old, James Bond has matured in the best sense of the word.