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Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: November 7, 2012
When James Bond dashed into Buckingham Palace in July to pick up Queen Elizabeth so they could parachute into the Olympic opening ceremony, it was tough to picture what he could do for an encore. Zip Line into the next European summit meeting with Angela Merkel tucked under his arm? Wrestle nud3 on the frozen banks of the Volga with Vladimir Putin? Turning Britain’s royal octogenarian into a Bond girl was a stroke of cross-marketing genius that profited queen and country both, while also encapsulating the appeal of the 007 brand in the age of aerial drones.
It’s the human factor, to borrow somewhat perversely a phrase from Graham Greene, who worked for Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI6. In his novel “The Human Factor,” about a double agent, Greene sought, he said, to portray the British secret service unromantically, with “men going daily to their office to earn their pensions.” Bond is wearing a silver-gray suit when he powers into “Skyfall,” the latest 007 escapade, but it isn’t cut for office work. The suit is seductively tight, for starters, and moves like a second skin when Daniel Craig in his third stint as Bond races through an atavistic opener that — with bullets buzzing and M (Judi Dench) whispering orders in his ear — puts him back on mortal, yet recognizably Bondian, ground.
And just in time too, given that he looked as if he were on the Bataan death March in his last film, “Quantum of Solace.” Directed by a surprisingly well-equipped Sam Mendes, “Skyfall” is, in every way, a superior follow-up to “Casino Royale,” the 2006 reboot that introduced Mr. Craig as Bond. “Skyfall” even plays like something of a franchise rethink, partly because it brings in new faces and implies that Bond, like Jason Bourne, needed to be reborn. The tone is again playful and the stakes feel serious if not punishingly so. This is a Bond who, after vaulting into a moving train car, pauses to adjust a shirt cuff, a gesture that eases the scene’s momentum without putting the brakes on it.
That “Skyfall” includes a sequence on a train — a passenger one, no less — suggests that this may be very much like your granddaddy’s Bond, even without the bikinied backdrop. From the initial sequence, one of those characteristic supersize set pieces that precede the opening credits, Mr. Mendes shows that he’s having his fun with 007. The opening doesn’t just take place in Turkey, one of those putatively exotic locales adorned with woven carpets and dark-complexioned extras, it also includes smoothly choreographed mayhem in both a crowded bazaar and outdoor market. There, amid these familiar action-cinema signposts, Bond and another agency operative, the suitably named Eve (Naomie Harris), chase down a baddie as locals and oranges scatter.
Bondologists may linger over that Turkey location. Globe tripping has always been as crucial to the movies as groovy gadgets: it’s an elegant way to map the geopolitical coordinates while providing armchair adventure for the rest of us. Here, though, you have to wonder if Mr. Mendes and the writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have folded some 007 arcana into the mix. Turkey plays a major role in the second, often most critically celebrated Bond film, “From Russia With Love,” which, like this one, includes a lethal f!ght on a train, a formidable blond male adversary and an island headquarters. But whether the filmmakers want to intimate that this is the rightful follow-up to the rebooted Bond is less interesting than this type of longitudinal thinking the movies inspire.
One of the satisfactions of these screen spectaculars, one that Mr. Mendes nicely capitalizes on, is that they have made all of us Bondologists. We each have favorite Bonds (Sean Connery for me, followed by Mr. Craig), our preferred 007 women, outlaws, slick gizmos, sweet rides, command centers and double entendres. We know what kind of c*cktail Bond savors and whom he works for and that he often behaves more like a k!ller than a tradecraft wizard. We also know that, like the cowboy’s six-shooter and horse, Bond’s gun and sports car are genre givens, as is a sizable body count. And while, over the years, there have been cruel, suave and silly Bonds, there is always only one Bond, James Bond. The movies have schooled us well.
Mr. Mendes, a British film and theater director whose dubious screen achievements include embalming the American dream in “Revolutionary Road,” gets Bond just right in a story that first turns on a domestic threat and then on a personal one. Mr. Mendes grasps the spy’s existential center, as typified by the ritualistic mano a mano grappling that almost every action movie now deploys to signal that, when push comes to punch, the hero can still k!ll with his bare hands. There’s brutal death here, but there’s also a pervading sense of mortality that makes the falling bodies register a little longer than they sometimes do in a Bond movie. As a director of films like “American Beauty” and “Away We Go” Mr. Mendes has indulged in a noxious blend of self-seriousness and condescension. There’s none of that here.
Instead he honors the contract that the Bond series made with its fans long ago and delivers the customary chases, pretty women and silky villainy along with the little and big bangs. Whether Mr. Mendes is deploying an explosion or a delectable detail, he retains a crucially human scale and intimacy, largely by foregrounding the performers. To that end, while “Skyfall” takes off with shock-and-awe blockbuster dazzle, it’s opulent rather than outlandish and insistently, progressively low-key, despite an Orientalist fantasy with dragons and dragon ladies. As Bond sprints from peril to pleasure, Mr. Craig and the other players — including an exceptional, wittily venal Javier Bardem, a sleek Ralph Fiennes and a likable Ben Whishaw — turn out to be the most spectacular of Mr. Mendes’s special effects.
“Skyfall” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The usual. if mostly bloodless, violence.
Opens on Thursday nationwide.
Directed by Sam Mendes; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, based on the character written by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Stuart Baird and Kate Baird; music by Thomas Newman; “Skyfall” performed by Adele; production design by Dennis Gassner; costumes by Jany Temime; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Javier Bardem (Silva), Ralph Fiennes (Gareth Mallory), Naomie Harris (Eve), Bérénice Lim Marlohe (Severine), Ben Whishaw (Q), Rory Kinnear (Tanner), Ola Rapace (Patrice), Albert Finney (Kincade) and Judi Dench (M).