Let's lay the baccarat cards on the table: Skyfall is the greatest James Bond adventure since Goldfinger. If that seems impossible after 50 years, 23 movies and six actors playing the secret agent, think of how thrilling it is to watch it happen. • The most obvious credit goes to craggy-cool Daniel Craig, now nipping at Sean Connery's heels in the half-century marathon to be considered the best Bond ever. Craig's third turn as Agent 007 shows him tailoring the role as perfectly as his Tom Ford suits, brutishly suave, dangerous and damaged. Bond is put through both physical and emotional wringers in Skyfall, with Craig confidently pulling viewers along each step of the way.
Yet the movie's assured direction by Sam Mendes can't be underestimated. Mendes, an Oscar winner for American Beauty, initially seemed an odd choice to helm a white-knuckle Bond flick. Any doubts are laid to rest with the customary opening action sequence — one of the franchise's best and most elaborate — and a Shanghai shootout brilliantly silhouetted by cinematographer Roger Deakins almost tops that.
Mendes also brings an emotional gut-punch in line with his creative comfort zone, as everyone Bond trusts raises suspicion and scorn, even M, again played with steely officiousness by Judi Dench. Bond goes through seamless crises of duty, loyalty and survival and Mendes savors those moments, creating some of the franchise's richest characterizations.
Skyfall especially goes right where many Bond chapters have gone wrong, establishing a memorable villain with more than merely world domination in mind. Javier Bardem eerily teases and taunts as Raoul Silva, a former MI-6 agent seeking revenge against M, and perhaps something more intimate from Bond. Sporting a weirder wig than his sociopath in No Country for Old Men — and no less deadly — Bardem makes Silva one of 007's worthiest adversaries ever.
Silva's chief weapon — cyber-terrorism — also leads Skyfall to an extraordinary third act when Bond, not a mouse click-and-kill kind of hero, must level the playing field. The only place where these enemies are on equal footing, where Silva's computers and Bond's gadgets are useless is the last place Agent 007 wants to go, to his past.
The result is a stripped-down showdown reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, an assault and defense waged with wits and booby traps. Seldom has Bond seemed this vulnerable, so close to actually losing, and that's exciting after so many years and last-minute escapes.
Skyfall winds up going where no Bond movie has gone before yet remains rooted in 007's legacy of cold-blooded kiss-offs, death by strange causes (Komodo dragon this time), slinky women, a zippy Aston Martin and Monty Norman's classic, bombastic music cues. Mendes completes the franchise's makeover in Craig's rough-hewn image, with a snarky new Q (Ben Whishaw) and a final twist cleverly wrapping up the past and propelling James Bond into the future.
Toss in Adele's rapturous title song and mesmerizing opening credits to showcase it, and everything about Skyfall is on par with anything this franchise ever offered. Fifty years is a incredible run but this movie makes you hope James Bond sticks around 50 more.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.