Skyfall

Bond celebrates his 50th cinematic birthday with a serious and spectacular show.

The movie James Bond is now 50 years old and wearing his years very well in Skyfall. Dramatically gripping while still brandishing a droll undercurrent of humor, this long-awaited third outing for Daniel Craig will be embraced as one of the best Bonds by devoted fans worldwide and leave you wanting the next installment a lot sooner than four years from now.

Bond watchers have been especially eager for Skyfall's arrival, mainly to see whether the Craig sequence of films can bounce back from the crushing low of Quantum of Solace after starting so high with Casino Royale and to evaluate what fresh perspective might be delivered by such big-name and unexpected talents as director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

The answers are "yes" to the first proposition and "quite a bit" to the second.

Whereas Casino Royale tasted like a fine old vintage served in a snappy new bottle, Skyfall seems like a fresh blend altogether -- yet one with some weight and complexity. To be sure, much of this stems from Mendes, who, with series veteran writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with John Logan, yanks Bond, M and MI6 out of the world of colorful megalomaniacal villains and into the vexing world of shadowy terrorists and cyber warfare.

In the process, they also give Bond not only a few aches and pains but a sense of mortality, hinted at by opening credits festooned not by silhouetted naked women but images of the secret agent's tombstone and him being sucked to his doom underwater. It's just reached the end of the 10-minute action opener -- an elaborate and logistically outrageous chase through bazaars, over rooftops and atop a train in Istanbul -- and M is seen writing her veteran agent's obituary.

But when the London headquarters of MI6 are bombed in a terrorist attack, Bond suddenly materializes for duty, to a boss who herself is being nudged out the door by the Intelligence and Security Committee's new chairman, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).

"So this is it, we're both played out," Bond says to her, prematurely as it turns out, though he still is put through some arduous tests to earn his old job back. Bond never has endured so many rude remarks about his physical prowess since Sean Connery made his middle-aged one-shot return in the ill-advised Never Say Never Again. For her part, M plays a more central role than ever before, and Judi Dench, as per usual, makes the most of the opportunity, investing her authority figure with great dignity undercut by a sliver of insecurity.

Bond's globetrotting continues to Shanghai, where he stealthily pursues the assassin/hard-drive thief he narrowly missed in Istanbul, then on to Macau, where old-school Bond re-emerges in a tuxedo to drink his martini (very smartly shaken but unstirred by a deft lady bartender) in a casino where he proceeds to get hot and heavy with the striking yet nervously neurotic Severine, who is given a distinctive preoccupied edge by Berenice Marlohe.

It is Severine who can take Bond to the man who's causing all the trouble. At the 70-minute mark, Javier Bardem makes his fabulously staged entrance as Silva -- complete with dyed blond hair, insinuating humor and heavily armed henchmen -- who, like many Bond villains past, is half persuasive, half maniacal and partial to explaining many things to his captive before he means to kill him. He also has a theatrically sexual side that brings something new to the gallery of Bond villains. In all events, Bardem makes him a riveting and most entertaining figure.

Also along for the ride is the new Q, the MI6 weapons and technology guru now reimagined as a very young man in full geek drag and wonderfully played by Ben Whishaw. The scene in which he and Bond meet for the first time in an art gallery is an instant mini-classic.

Ultimately, there is a very conscious effort to balance the old and the new, the traditional and the modern in Skyfall -- stylistically, dramatically and thematically. Longtime series producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli never have gone so far as to hire a fully fledged control-demanding director to helm one of their films, and while Mendes certainly is the most distinguished outside director they've ever brought aboard, he's one as tradition-minded as he is innovative.

Tonally, the fundamental seriousness of the film places Skyfall at the other end of the Bond spectrum from the monkeyshines of some of the silliest Roger Moore entries, such as Moonraker and A View to a Kill.

The drawn-out climax, set in Scotland at an isolated old house presided over by a thickly bearded Albert Finney, plays out partly like a highly elaborate version of Straw Dogs, albeit with far heavier artillery. The moving and highly satisfying ending nicely tees up the ball for the next round.

Cinematographer Deakins' work is dense, colorful and impactful, noticeably a notch or two above the series' norm. Production values are similarly high-end, and Thomas Newman's score is far from generic, finding many moods while delightfully allowing room for Monty Norman's immortal Bond theme when the moment calls for it.

And, oh yes, there's Daniel Craig. He owns Bond now, and the role undoubtedly is his for as long as he might want it. Perhaps a tad less buff than in Casino Royale and certainly more beaten up, he entertains the ladies less here than perhaps any Bond ever has. But two other women, his boss and the queen, have first call on his favors, and he repays them for their confidence many times over -- as he does the audience.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 26 (U.K./international); Friday, Nov. 9 (U.S.) (Sony)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Javier Bardem, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli Rated PG-13, 143 minutes

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