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Daniel Craig in "Skyfall."

Mum's the word


Skyfall is the best James Bond movie ever.

Of course that’s just my opinion, and I don’t expect Bond fans to take it too seriously, as I’ve never been one of them. I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, and couldn’t try to count the ones I have: Too few of them actually linger in the memory. The character, of course, remains indelible in whatever incarnation, but that’s to be expected after 24 films in which he has barely changed. (The official count is 23, but why shouldn’t we count Never Say Never Again?)

Some of the lines stay with you, but few of the plots, most of which seem to be variants on a small handful of possibilities. I’ve always found that I can only tell them apart by recalling who played the villain in each. I’m sure there are those who distinguish them by the “Bond girls,” who are only marginally more heterogeneous than Playboy centerfolds.

As a whole, the films have been a Hollywood throwback, an ongoing exercise in maintaining a studio style (even without an actual studio) that no auteur can mess with. Some respected directors have been bought in over the years—Michael Apted, Roger Spotiswoode, Irvin Kershner—but in general James Bond movies are the work of the second unit directors, the guys who do the car crashes and speedboat races and island fortress explosions that have always been the meat of these films.

Skyfall was directed by Sam Mendes, who certainly ranks above the usual hired hands hired by the Broccoli family to shepherd these productions, though not so much that he’s likely to generate as much excitement as, say, the directors brought onto the Harry Potter series after someone wisely decided that Chris Columbus wasn’t going to be able to handle their increasing darkness.

The name in the credits that tips you off that this Bond is going to be a cut above is Roger Deakins, the cinematographer who has done most of the Coen Brothers movies. He’s a DP who works in terms of the whole film instead of individual sequences, and his presence alone indicates that this is going to be more than a collection of action sequences broken up by a few sex scenes and a chance for the star to promenade in a tuxedo.

That star is again Daniel Craig, in his third outing as Bond. In the past when new actors were brought in nothing was changed: I don’t recall that Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton ever had lines referring to their battles with Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but they could have. But Craig’s first outing, Casino Royale, was a reboot that took Bond back to his beginnings. Quantum of Solace was a direct sequel, but Skyfall drops the ongoing story of terrorist leader Mr. White.

Instead, it turns its story inward. At the opening, Bond is out of the picture, presumed dead by everyone except the audience. M (Judi Dench) is on the hotseat for losing a list identifying undercover agents, as well as a handful of actual agents. She is being pressured to retire by her new superior, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, looking dapper with his nose restored). And MI6 itself comes under terrorist attack, bringing Bond reluctantly back into action.

What puts this Bond head and shoulders above its predecessors is its script. As far as I can recall, it’s the first one to delve in the psychology of both the character and his occupation, just enough to connect you emotionally to the story. Bond’s womanizing is kept to a minimum, and the center of the story is his relationship with M, a quasi-maternal figure who is starting to seem like a very bad mother indeed, unafraid to give kill orders for her own agents.

The film’s visual scheme (and when has a Bond movie ever had one of those?) cleverly reinforces its psychological underpinnings, with much of it taking place in labyrinthine underground locations (of which London has a fair share). It’s splendidly accomplished by Mendes and Deakins, with so much of the film just arresting to look at: the Shanghai skyscraper where an extended sequence takes place; the first appearance of Javier Bardem as the film’s villain, telling an evil little parable while strolling across the room; his island lair (a Bond cliché given a novel twist); the crumbling Scottish estate where the story comes to a climax.

Another Bond touchstone that falls away: along with hiring a name-value director and cinematographer, the producers also put some money into casting some actual marquee-worthy names. Albert Finney is on hand, though I won’t tell you as who. Ben Wishaw is the new Q, and a very droll one: He gets the film’s funniest line.

Bet of all is Bardem. He doesn’t show up, isn’t even spoken of, until halfway through, though when he does he threatens to steal the film as a character as memorable but more plausible than his relentless killer in No Country for Old Men. (It’s probably unintentional that he looks a bit like Buster Poindexter: At least I hope it is.)

The title song is by Adele and its good; even better is the score by Thomas Newman, making up for the syrup he contributed to HBO’s The Newsroom that always makes me fast-forward though the show’s opening credits.

It took 50 years, but if the next Bond films are anywhere near as good as this one, I’ll be looking forward to them.

Watch the trailer for Skyfall

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