Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, some sexual content, some profanity and the depiction of smoking.
"Skyfall" is the 23rd James Bond feature film. Or it's the 25th, if you include Sean Connery's 1983 return to the role in "Never Say Never Again," an independent production made outside the context of the MGM Bond series, and the 1967 spoof "Casino Royale," which cast David Niven and Woody Allen as James Bonds.
Some new fans might prefer to think of "Skyfall" as the third James Bond film. This makes thematic if not strictly numerical sense: Unlike, "Dr. No" or "Octopussy," "Skyfall" is not so much a stand-alone adventure as the concluding episode in a trilogy that began with another "Casino Royale" in 2006 and continued with "Quantum of Solace" in 2008.
The four-year gap between "Quantum" and "Skyfall" is the same as the interim that separated "The Dark Knight" and this summer's "The Dark Knight Rises," to cite a more celebrated recent trilogy that transformed a pulpish and overexposed pop-culture hero into a bruised and weary and unappreciated warrior against anarchy and terror. The wear and tear suggest a certain humanity, but both "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Skyfall" require their protagonists essentially to rise from the dead, as if to affirm the heroes' mythic status.
A certain pretentiousness accompanies this transformation; it's possible there never again will be a James Bond movie with the snap of "Goldfinger" or the silliness of "The Spy Who Loved Me." ("Skyfall," however, does include a nice brief homage to Roger Moore's escape from the alligators in "Live and Let Die.") But if our 21st century spies must be dark instead of pop, let them be presented with as much conviction, professionalism and entertainment value as in "Skyfall," the best movie yet with Daniel Craig as a particularly vulnerable bruiser of a Bond for a cynical post-Cold War era.
The first shot of the new movie introduces Bond blurred and at a distance; as he moves toward us, he comes into focus. This is the film in a nutshell — a visual précis that reveals that director Sam Mendes and credited writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan plan to reveal more about Bond — his origins and motivations — than we've ever known before, even if he will remain an enigma and an operative of what his boss, M (Judi Dench), calls "the shadows."
Almost a love story about a surrogate family relationship (which becomes an Oedipal saga after the villain is introduced), "Skyfall" very much focuses on the contentious relationship between the beleaguered M, director of Britain's MI6 spy agency, and Bond, her favorite son, so to speak. "You're sentimental about him," a government official (Ralph Fiennes) tells M, when she resists putting Bond out to pasture. "It's a young man's game," the official argues.
Others agree. The movie will repeatedly require both M and Bond to demonstrate they are not relics. "It's as if you insist on pretending we still live in a golden age of espionage," an antagonistic minister tells M (perhaps remembering that Ian Fleming's first Bond novel was published in 1953). When the villain captures Bond, he teases him about his age: "Chasing spies — so old-fashioned. Your knees must be killing you."
Bond's worth is especially challenged by the new geek-chic Q (Ben Whishaw), a rock-star-skinny whippersnapper who says he can do more damage to the enemies of the free world with a few keystrokes on his laptop than Agent 007 can inflict with an arsenal. Nevertheless, in one of the movie's nods to Bond history, Q supplies Bond with a new Walther PPK pistol that can only be activated by 007's palm print. Says Q: "Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement."
Killing is very much a personal statement for the villain of the piece, a resentful former MI6 agent turned "cyberterrorist" prodigal son named Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who, like Bond, has returned from the dead. Bardem plays Silva as a mincing, weirdly fey figure of implied omnivorous sexual appetite; when he caresses the captive Bond's thighs, the scene is presented as the most direct threat to Bond's "manhood" since Goldfinger's laser.
Bardem's performance is risky, and I'm not sure the character works, in part because Silva's campiness distracts from the viewer's full-on immersion into what otherwise is a convincingly and beautifully realized action-espionage world. Mendes, who won the Best Director Academy Award for "American Beauty' (1999), was hired more for his adroitness with actors and drama than with special effects and violence; he lets his "artsy" instincts get the best of him in an awful montage sequence that accompanies M's recitation of a poem by Tennyson. But Mendes and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (generally regarded as the best in the business) also deliver a stunner of a suspense set piece inside a "Bladerunner"-esque Shanghai skyscraper of glass surfaces and reflected neon; also memorable is a surprisingly kinky scene in which kneeling MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) shaves the seated Bond with a straight razor. Add Komodo dragons, a very fine theme song by Adele, some fabulous Deakins shots of red mist hanging over a Scottish moor (Bond may be an "old dog," but the climax is pure "Straw Dogs") and action effects and stunts that seem practical instead of digital, and you've got a Bond film to rank with the best in the series.