To borrow a line from Depeche Mode, death is everywhere in "Skyfall." James Bond's mortality has never been in such prominent focus, but the demise of the entire British spy game as we know it seems imminent, as well.
Still, this 23rd entry in the enduring James Bond franchise is no downer. Far from it: simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who's the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig. So many of the elements you want to see in a Bond film exist here: the car, the tuxedo, the martini, the exotic locations filled with gorgeous women. Adele's smoky, smoldering theme song over the titles harkens to the classic 007 tales of the 1960s, even as the film's central threat of cyberterrorism, perpetrated by an elusive figure who's seemingly everywhere and can't be pinned down, couldn't be more relevant.
And yet "Skyfall" seems like it could stand on its own perhaps more than most Bond movies. In the hands of director Sam Mendes, it almost feels like a reinvention; he has said making "Skyfall" left him "knackered," but audiences will leave feeling invigorated. And with Mendes collaborating once again with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, it's definitely the most gorgeous.
Deakins, who also shot Mendes' "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road," provides a varied array of looks, all of them dazzling. The MI6 headquarters, which must be moved to a hidden underground location following a vicious attack, have a crisp and stylish industrial-loft chic about them. The rugged hills of Scotland, where the final battle occurs at Bond's ancestral home, are both wondrous and imposing; by this point in the film, "Skyfall" extends beyond the familiar confines of a spy thriller and becomes a flat-out Western. It's a bold move.
But the most beautiful sequence of all plays out in an empty office space in a Shanghai skyscraper: a mesmerizing mix of cool glass surfaces, delicate projected images and bold color, reminiscent of the lush hues in Mendes' "Road to Perdition." Within this precise setting, Mendes knows well enough to let the hand-to-hand combat between Bond and a sniper unfold without the kind of needless edits that unfortunately have become so popular in action films these days.
Bond being Bond, he can still get himself out of any dangerous situation; the opening chase, which begins in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and ends in impossibly daring fashion on top of a hurtling train, is a marvel of timing and choreography. Conversely, he can also talk himself into situation, as he does when he seduces the beautiful and dangerous Severine (Berenice Marlohe) after meeting her in a Macau casino.
But Bond's vulnerability - dare we say, his weakness at times - makes him a much more complicated and captivating figure. He's not always totally smooth and slick. The work is taking a physical and psychological toll. Muscular and sexy as Craig is, he looks beat-up and worn-out here, which adds what feels like an unprecedented sense of depth to a character we thought we'd known so well for so long. Three films into the series and Craig owns this iconic role by now, with his stoic cool and willingness to explore a dark side.
This time, James Bond must try and protect his no-nonsense boss, M, from what feels like a very personal attack, even as it seems that she may not necessarily be protecting him in return. The always whip-smart and dignified Judi Dench gets to explore her character's hidden fears in the script from Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, which adds some unexpected and welcome layers to her performance, as well. Ralph Fiennes, as M's new superior, questions her ability to lead this aging behemoth of an agency in an increasingly unstable environment; at the same time, Ben Whishaw provides some welcome, subtle humor as young gadget guru Q, whose modern-day specialty is computer hacking.
And then there is Javier Bardem, who pretty much steals this entire movie away from these esteemed and formidable actors. He is, totally unsurprisingly, tremendous as the villainous Silva, the former MI6 agent getting his revenge against this staid, old-fashioned organization in high-tech, ultra-efficient ways that make him seem unstoppable. Like so many Bond bad guys, he wants world domination through orchestrated chaos. But he approaches the role with a mix of effeminate flamboyance and cold-blooded menace. He's hilarious and terrifying - and that's just in the beautifully shot monologue in which he introduces himself with touches of The Joker in "The Dark Knight" and Bardem's own Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men."
Ultimately, the reports of James Bond's death are greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later, nobody does it better.
"Skyfall," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. Running time: 143 minutes. Four stars out of four.