James Bond's 23rd canon outing is burdened with the weight of 50 years of history. And with the addition of a "real" director (depending who you ask), it also carries the charge of being somehow definitive—striking a perfected balance between action, humor, glamour, and smarmy knowingness that has long defined the 007 brand in varying proportions. Unlike its predecessor, the stumbling Quantum of Solace, it isn't sufficient for Skyfall to merely show up and sate the appetites of indiscriminating franchise fanatics. Thankfully, it does more than merely satisfy. Bond's latest is a remarkable high watermark for the series: at once solemn and deeply funny, sexy and sad, self-conscious without all the rib-bruising elbowing.
Skyfall opens with Sam Mendes cleverly folding the franchise's brand-identifying preamble—007 stepping into frame, gun drawn, staring square down the camera's barrel—into a story already in progress. Bond (Daniel Craig) and a fellow field agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), are in Istanbul, trailing a pilfered hard drive holding the identities of deep-cover operatives embedded in global terrorist organizations. The breathless intro sends Bond chasing the data (and the perp who purloined it) across the city's rooftops and motorways, and finally onto a moving train, where Bond adds "tactical heavy machinery operation" to his ever-swelling professional CV. While tousling with the baddie on the train's roof, Bond is accidentally downed by friendly fire and presumed dead.
Enter Skyfall's rapturous credits sequence, a kaleidoscope of gravestones, stag heads, and feminine outlines twisting to the strains of Adele's showstopper theme. The move (more or less) away from the coiling, silhouetted snake-pit sexuality of most of the Bond films' tone-setting title sequences toward a mercurial danse macabre resounds throughout. Like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, to which Mendes's film is already being compared in some quarters, Skyfall offers one of those tear-the-hero-down-that-he-may-rise arcs. Here, though, it's not a man (Bat- or otherwise), but the series itself that's pulled to pieces.
Following an attack on MI6 and the leaking of several secret identities, M (Judi Dench) is dragged to a public inquisition and asked to defend, justifiably, the existence of their allegedly outmoded intelligence operations—to account, essentially, for the continued existence of Bond itself. This, of course, is Skyfall's own not-so-secret mission: to prove the continued validity of a 50-year-old franchise assailed on one side by the recently humanized cape-and-cowl superheroes, and on the other by "grittier," shaky-cam superspies of the Jason Bourne legacy. And so Skyfall's a benchmark test for the series, chassis open, all its components humming in high gear.
Three films in, Craig now fully inhabits the character, less a recreation of the rougher Bonds played by Sean Connery or Timothy Dalton as his own uniquely fleshed-out articulation of the character, perhaps the definitive one. Returning to active duty (rumors of his death being, naturally, greatly exaggerated), Bond sets off to Southeast Asia to track down a cyber-terrorist with an apparent vendetta against MI6, and M specifically. As Silva, the film's heavy, Javier Bardem makes supper of the scenery, perfectly straddling the line between legit menace and self-parodying super-villainy. In a single take, he saunters into the film with an extended speech about cannibalistic rats and the inversion of the natural order that ranks in the tippy-top of the gushy bad-guy-monologue hierarchy. In every one of his scenes, Bardem plays Silva as a beefy libertine dandy; his blown back shocks of bleached-blond hair suggesting a burlier Julian Assange—probably intentionally, given the film's focus on freeing confidential government info via the Internet.
The grandeur Bardem endows in his characterization would be wasted, a case of an actor easily outsizing their material, were Skyfall's upholstery not comparably striking. Roger Deakins gives careful depth to the story's globe-trotting, seamlessly refashioning the film's color palette as 007 zips from sepia-toned Istanbul to steely-blue Shanghai, to MI6's industrially gray subterranean bunker and into the twilight of the Scottish countryside. Credit to Mendes for loyally servicing the material at every opportunity, but it's Deakins who really elevates the proceedings. Skyfall feels less like a Bond movie with a real-deal Hollywood director (or cinematographer), and more like a real movie, full stop. No small feat for what's ostensibly a crowd-pleasing actioner, let alone one carrying the heavy cargo of three generations of history.
At times, the script's a little keen in calling attention to its lineage. Beyond more noticeable nods to Bond bric-a-brac (a train car of VW bugs smashed, references to exploding pens, the late-game reveal of the Goldfinger-vintage Aston Martin DB5), Skyfall takes every opportunity to undermine Bond's authority, particularly through a new government middle man (Ralph Fiennes) and MI6's newly installed pipsqueak Quartermaster (Ben Wishaw), both deriding 007 as an antiquated fossil as a means of falsely elevating the stakes for his triumphant return. If the nudging needles, it's only because Skyfall so obviously asserts itself, enrapturing and wholly entertaining for every one of its 143 minutes. Whatever you make of its politics, and its head-on ideological defense of organizations like MI6 or the CIA (delivered largely in a literally head-on direct address, in which M quotes "Ulysses," Tennyson's tribute to weathered heroism), they're at least honest, ducking sneaky opportunism and mush-mouthed topicality.
Even more pertinent than its robust defense of the lost art of super-spying, Skyfall forcefully preserves Bond's blockbuster birthright. It demonstrates that even a dusty, beat-up, archaic film series defined in no small part by its high glamor and corporate sponsorship can prove more relevant, and more importantly, enjoyable, than ever. (Among its string of suspenseful set pieces is one of the most memorable action sequences in recent memory: a nearly silent, stealth shadow play unfolding in the indigo wash of a Shanghai skyscraper.) By the time Skyfall arrives at its this-is-where-we-came-in conclusion, 007™ has been torn down, rebuilt, and persuasively reinstated atop popcorn pantheon, cemented there not just by virtue of history but merit—a revision of Bond's stuffy old-world obsolescence, an inversion of nature. As Craig snipes as a nameless henchmen is dragged to certain death by a komodo dragon, in what's may be the most ironically funny Bond one-liner ever: "That's the circle of life."