Skyfall is far and away the best and most British of Daniel Craig's James Bond movies. Director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) gets Bond back to the basics — bullets, babes, big-time bad guys and bawdy humor. The result is an entertaining romp that reins in the more violent and Germanic Bond of Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace.
In the opening gambit, Bond bites the bullet. He's shot accidentally while wrestling with a generic villain on the roof of a train speeding through Turkey.
Since he's chased this guy through Istanbul, spy chief M (Judi Dench) is willing to risk the marksmanship of a fellow agent, played with a sexy pizazz by Naomie Harris (the sexy witch of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies).
What Bond was trying to nab was a computer hard drive with a "list" on it. A supervillain with Wikileaks tendencies wants to expose spies. Bond getting "killed" means he's failed. And that M has failed. The fallout for 007 is an obituary. For M, it's a political raking over the coals, in which she's called an "old-fashioned" relic of a bygone era, "the golden age of espionage."
"We can't keep living in the shadows," her new boss, the intelligence minister (Ralph Fiennes), tells her. "There are no more shadows."
We, of course, know better. When MI6 is hacked and bombed, Bond comes back to save the day. Except he's gotten old. He's lost a step. And he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a Walther PPK. No matter — M won't have anybody else.
The biggest problem with Craig's first two Bond films — both were huge hits — was the villains. This time, Oscar winner Javier Bardem shows up as a murderous hacker with a Julian Assange blond mop top. He brings the pain — and the homoerotic undertones (OK, overtones).
The writing — three screenwriters pitched in — is jokier, crisper. The "Bond Girl" is played by the ultra-exotic Bérénice Marlohe.
And there's a new quarter master, "Q" — waif-thin Ben Whishaw in a radical re interpretation of a witty role that has been beloved by fans of the series for nearly 50 years.
"Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that anymore."
Yes, this marks 50 years of James Bond films, and Mendes & Co. use the film as an excuse to joke about age and trot out old props and older actors (Dench and Albert Finney). Mendes gets that the familiar ingredients are what have made this series and that "reinventing" Bond was never necessary. He just needed a new suit.
The finale is straight out of John Wayne's Rio Bravo, and the violent set pieces — ranging from Shanghai and Macau to Parliament and the bunkers of London — are blandly predictable.
But that's kind of the point. This is action comfort food, from the brand of gun and martini recipe to the quips and coital interludes. It's all good, clean, British fun. Skyfall — the title is a tease to a third-act surprise — ensures continuity in that comfort food: As long as there's a Britain, there will be a "Bond, James Bond" to look after her interests.