"SKYFALL" — ★★★½ — Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes; PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking); general release.
"Skyfall" is far and away the best and the most British of the Daniel Craig-James Bond movies. Director Sam Mendes ("Road to Perdition") gets Bond back to the basics — bullets, babes, big-time bad guys and bawdy humor. And the result is an entertaining romp, an old (spy) school Bond film that reins in the more violent and Germanic Bond of Marc Forster's "Quantum of Solace."
In the film's opening gambit, Bond bites the bullet. He's accidentally shot while wrestling with a generic villain on the roof of a train speeding through Turkey.
Since he's chased this guy by car and motorbike through the crowded bazaars and narrow streets of Istanbul (and settings from "Taken 2"), spy chief M (Judi Dench) is willing to risk the marksmanship of a fellow agent, played with a sexy pizazz by Naomie Harris, best known as the sexy witch of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
What Bond was trying to nab was a computer hard drive with a "list" on it. Some supervillain with Wikileaks tendencies wants to expose spies. Bond getting "killed" means that he's failed. And that M has failed, too. The fallout for 007 is an obituary. For M, it's a political raking over the coals, where she's called an "old-fashioned" relic of a bygone era, "the golden age of espionage."
"We can't keep living in the shadows," her new boss, the intelligence minister (Ralph Fiennes) tells her. "There are no more shadows."
We, of course, know better. When MI6 is hacked and bombed, Bond comes back from his babe-and-beers and drinking games (very Indiana Jones) to save the day. Except he's gotten old. He's lost a step. And he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a Walther PPK. No matter — M won't have anybody else.
The biggest problem with the first two Craig Bonds — both films were huge hits — was the villains. This time, Oscar winner Javier Bardem shows up as a murderous hacker with a Julian Assange blond mop top. And he brings the pain.
The writing — three screenwriters pitched in — is jokier, crisper. The "Bond Girl" is played by the ultra-exotic Bérénice Marlohe.
And there's a new quartermaster, "Q" — played by waif-thin Ben Whishaw in a radical re-interpretation of a witty role that has been beloved by fans of the series for nearly 50 years.
"Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that anymore."
Yes, this marks 50 years of James Bond films, and Mendes & Co. use the film as an excuse to joke about age and trot out old props and older actors (Dench and Albert Finney). Mendes gets that the familiar ingredients are what have made this series, and that "reinventing" Bond was never necessary. He just needed a new suit.
The finale is straight out of John Wayne's "Rio Bravo," and the violent set pieces — ranging from Shanghai and Macao to Parliament and the bunkers of London — are blandly predictable.
But that's kind of the point here. This is action comfort food, from the brand of gun and martini recipe to the quips. "Skyfall" — the title's a tease to a third-act surprise — ensures continuity in that comfort food: that as long as there's a Britain, there will be a "Bond, James Bond" to look after her interests.
Skyfall is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. Running time: 143 minutes.