He’s been shot, beaten, bloodied, blindsided and, yes, both shaken and stirred over the years. James Bond always bounces back, and he’s rarely bounced higher and more spectacularly than he does in “Skyfall,” the 23rd installment of the 50-year-old series.
It takes a village to create a solitary man of action. In the case of “Skyfall,” credit must go not only to Daniel Craig’s Bond and a top-notch supporting cast, but also director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Away We Go”), who mixes the perfect blend of action, drama, humor, new tricks and old-school Bond nostalgia. Like the movie’s title song, an alluring hit single by the British singer Adele, the movie manages to feel boldly fresh and strikingly familiar.
The opening sequence is a show-stopper, a breakneck chase through Istanbul that employs cars, motorcycles and a train. It ends with a rookie agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), trying to shoot Bond’s quarry but hitting 007 instead. With Bond missing and presumed dead, M (Dame Judi Dench) must deal with the more immediate problem that the man Bond was chasing had stolen a database of all of NATO’s undercover operatives in the Middle East — and that someone is using that information to target MI6, and M specifically.
When M witnesses an explosion at MI6 headquarters, killing several agents and prompting the new intelligence minister, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), to seek M’s resignation, Bond returns to duty. He’s shaky, but M puts him back in the field anyway, to track down the assassin he tried to nab in Istanbul and find out who hired him. The trail takes him to a Shanghai casino and the loving arms of the mysterious Severine (French beauty Bérénice Marlohe) — who leads Bond to the sadistic cybercriminal Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a bleached-blond smoothie with a personal vendetta against M and a talent for getting under Bond’s skin.
Mendes, along with screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have worked on the last four Bond films) and John Logan (“The Aviator,” “Hugo”), blends in some classic Bond elements — the action sequences, the sexuality and the return of the persnickety gadget master Q (Ben Whishaw) — and a compelling storyline that explores Bond’s personal backstory. This leads to a thrilling climax in Scotland and the timely appearance (for reasons that won’t be divulged here) of Albert Finney.
Craig, in his third outing as Bond, solidifies his hold on the character. He had already mastered Bond’s suave surface details (note the way he fixes his cufflink after landing in a torn-open train car in the Istanbul sequence), and now he’s found the dark heart of Bond’s tormented soul — and the stiff-upper-lip sense of personal honor that keeps that pain in check as he performs his duty for queen and country.
Backing Bond to the hilt is Dench, who adds some shades of regret and fire to the imperious MI6 boss she’s played since “GoldenEye.” Bond needs M, and Harris’ sweetly seductive Eve, in his corner — because Bardem’s Silva is one of the kinkiest and most menacing villains this side of Auric Goldfinger.
“Skyfall” saves its best surprises for the final 45 minutes, including some big reveals that will have Bond fans smiling. When the credits declare, as they traditionally do, that “James Bond will return,” you’ll be eager for that return to come as soon as possible.
James Bond returns to duty in a movie where the character development is as strong as the action.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking.
Running time • 143 minutes.