For Bond’s 50th anniversary, his producers and Cubby Broccoli’s heirs, Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, have thrown off a multitude of bad decisions — such as letting a second-unit guy direct several Bond movies — to rethink 007 in terms of modern action movies, meaning — ahem — the Jason Bourne series that nearly stole its thunder.
“Skyfall” is not only a sleek, contemporary thriller but a vigorous homage to Bond movies past. Its stylization becomes, instead of an encumbrance, an asset.
Daniel Craig, his director Sam Mendes and a smart writing team — Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan — manage to cast a backward glance every time Craig’s 007 introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond.”
This Bond is situated in a scary today — a shadowy world of terrorists and evil-doers who can commit more carnage with a key stroke than a bomb.
So the movie is as modern and forward-thinking as computer hacking yet as nostalgic as dry martinis and that Aston Martin BD5, which does put in a pivotal appearance.
The film feels valedictory and nostalgic yet its vision focuses steadily on the next half-century of Bond-ed entertainment. Every trick of the old and increasingly tired Bonds re-emerges here as psychological insight or electrifying twists on familiar themes.
Less than 20 minutes into the film, you know where things stand: One of the best opening sequences in the entire series takes place on the streets and rooftops of Istanbul —yes, “Taken 2” did beat Bond to that idea. This is followed by one of the best Bond songs (by Adele) and title sequences ever.
Interestingly, that title sequence contains imagery of graveyards and death, prefiguring a movie that plays as pure entertainment but contains philosophical dimensions dealing with morality and mortality.
The great Judi Dench has had a fabulous run as Bond’s minder, M, the super-secret head of MI6, but “Skyfall” lets her become a key player in the melodrama. She is the target this time as her past catches up with her — which is a major theme of this film.
What’s fascinating about this new Bond is that it bears almost as much resemblance to the British espionage world of John le Carré as it does that of Ian Fleming. It seems that once upon a time M made a decision that, let’s say, was morally ambiguous at best, and now it comes back to haunt her.
Only James can save her but a question that hovers ever so lightly above the mayhem is who really is the aggrieved party here and how does right and wrong figure in the scenario?
This Bond connects to a real world. Not that events aren’t outlandish and the villain preposterously evil. The latter is the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who plays the evil twin of his Oscar-winning baddie in “No Country for Old Men.”
The film features horrifying terrorists attacks in London, a skyscraper cliff-hanger in Shanghai, casino gamesmanship resulting in death in Macau and a final showdown in a forgotten corner of England that relates to Bond’s childhood.
I was heartened that the beauteous British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) did NOT go to bed with Bond — let a few women banter suggestively but not swoon before him — and that Ralph Fiennes, whose character is introduced as an intransigent bureaucrat, gets to become an action hero in his own way.
Albert Finney turns up a plausibly silly role while Ben Whishaw represents a new take on Q, the technical genius who thinks of exploding pens as Old School.
In fact, much of the movie deals directly with the fact that Ian Fleming’s world along with many of the former movies belongs more to the Kennedy era. Espionage is “a young man’s game,” Bond is told at one point. A moment later, he gets sympathy for having “lost a step.”
Of course, the movie shows him outmaneuvering opponents with Old School methodology while the movie tries to do the same thing —keeping the focus on Old School stunts supported by CGI rather than overwhelming action sequences with digital artifice.
The movie is as much a commentary on where Hollywood is going with action movies as it is a satisfying thriller itself.
Craig is a Bond that harkens back to Sean Connery while Bardem is a one of the great Bond villains, who comes thisclose to camp but never goes over the border.
Oh, you can quibble with implausibility, from minor things like Bond taking advantage of a modern-day Shanghai elevator that acts like it was build in 1924 to a villain’s scheme that relies too heavily on impossible-to-predict events.
But, hey, it’s a Bond movie. And we’ve been missing those for too many years with “Casino Royale” the one great exception.
Welcome home, James.
Opens: November 9, 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Production: MGM, Columbia, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Executive producer: Callum McDougall
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Stuart Baird
Rated PG-13, 143 minutes