In an early scene in "Skyfall," an aging M angrily turns to James Bond and says, "You know the rules of the bloody game. We've played it long enough."
Replies a battered and psychologically scarred Bond: "Maybe too long."
"Skyfall" is the 23rd film in the franchise's 50-year history, and at times, it has felt that, indeed, this spy game has gone on for too long. There have certainly been attempts at the tricky proposition of bringing Bond into the modern world while still keeping all those elements that have made it one of the most successful film series ever. It worked with 2006's "Casino Royale" (the first to star Daniel Craig); not so much with 2008's "Quantum of Solace."
But with "Skyfall," it turns out that there is still a lot of life in the world of 007. Once again starring Craig and directed by Sam Mendes (not anyone's first choice to direct an action flick), this is a brilliant reboot of the canon, mixing a sense of melancholy, the shock of changing times and the darkness of loss with thrillingly staged chase and fight scenes and clever references to all that has come before.
On one hand, there is the car (yes, the iconic Aston Martin makes an appearance), the tuxedo, the casino scene, the exotic locales, the gorgeous women and Adele's shimmering, sexy title song. But it is all underlined by the changing nature of the spy game, with danger coming from cyberterrorists who truly live in the shadows, a game driven not so much by country or political beliefs but by revenge, retribution and resurrection.
Keeping with the requirements of a Bond movie, "Skyfall" opens with a spectacular chase. It's a particularly gripping one: through and over the rooftops of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and onto a hurtling train, eventually involving Land Rovers, motorcycles and, oh, yes, a Caterpillar backhoe. But the end sends us tumbling into a darker place.
The chase is one of several set pieces that are flat-out dazzling to behold. Mendes ("American Dream," "Road to Perdition") was savvy enough to sign up the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men," Mendes' "Revolutionary Road") to take on the varied looks that are part of "Skyfall." A fight between Bond and a hit man in a Shanghai skyscraper is a thing of beauty, all color and neon. The final showdown at Bond's ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands is a grim, gritty affair set in an imposing landscape.
The smart, witty script is credited to Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, although it seems largely the work of Logan, a playwright ("Red") who has worked all manner of film genres, from the animated "Rango" to "Gladiator" and "Star Trek: Nemesis" with considerable skill.
Craig has evolved into arguably the best Bond ever (and reportedly deserves the credit for convincing a reluctant Mendes to direct). He is just terrific as a spy on the edge of a new, far more complicated era. His performance is matched by that of Judi Dench as M. Dench has been playing the part since "Goldeneye" in 1995 but for the first time, gets to really delve into the psyche of a driven spymaster who is on the verge of being pushed into retirement.
Ralph Fiennes has a nice turn as M's new boss, who thinks her time is up. Ben Whislaw ("Cloud Atlas") gives an amusingly subtle performance as the new (and much younger) Q, now more computer whiz than weapons expert. Naomie Harris from "Pirates of the Caribbean" flashes some sexual pop (and a lot of brains) as one of Bond's fellow agents.
And then there's Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") as this film's Big Bad: Silva, a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent with a score to settle. He is truly scary, a brilliant psychopath Bardem makes even more frightening with a witty performance that recalls Heath Ledger as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."
In recent days, there has been some buzz about "Skyfall" being a possible Oscar contender. That probably won't happen, because the Academy has a hard time with some genres of film. But it should be in the conversation. "Skyfall" is that good.
* * * 1/2
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, sexuality and language)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes
Director: Sam Mendes
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
© 2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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