"Skyfall" is not the best James Bond movie ever, but it is the best one in a long, long time. It's a sharp, nifty piece of modern action filmmaking that definitely respects the history of the character (and the franchise), yet also feels like a gust of fresh air being let in to the universe created by Ian Fleming more than a half-century ago.
"Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace," the two previous Bond adventures, both felt -- as a whole -- like movies that were tripping over themselves to play catch up with more kinetic 21st-century spy thrillers like "The Bourne Identity." This time around, however, thanks to a smart script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, and the direction of Sam Mendes, the Bond franchise shows real life again. If it's not back in the lead, it's at least in the thick of the race.
As the movie opens, Bond is in hot pursuit of a stolen hard drive that contains the actual identities of secret agents from intelligence organizations throughout NATO. After failing to retrieve the drive -- and nearly dying in the process, no thanks to his young partner in spycraft and entendre-trading, Eve (Naomie Harris) -- Bond is roused from a self-imposed exile by the news that MI6 has been attacked.
Bond's boss, "M" (once again portrayed by Judi Dench), now under siege by British bureaucrats -- led by the coolly officious Prime Minister's aide Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) -- who want her to retire, tasks him with a mission to find the terrorists responsible for the bombing. They are the ones who stole the hard drive in the first place, and their actions have a clear target: "M" herself.
Bond's investigation leads him to a downright scary ex-MI6 operative, a sociopathic blond named Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who does, indeed, have a score to settle -- and a fiendish plot to do just that. He's not after world domination like some of Bond's most memorable villains, but what he wants (and how he intends to get it) is no less bloodthirsty of a pursuit.
At the heart of the movie is a terrific performance by Daniel Craig as Bond. He seems to have finally settled into the role this third time around, managing to balance the coiled violence and cool masculine charisma that the role requires. He's no Sean Connery (and no one else could be) but Craig is certainly more sure of himself here than in either of his previous efforts.
The supporting work is noteworthy, too: Bardem's supremely creepy, out-for-himself (and clearly insane) character plays as a dark flipside to Bond; Fiennes delivers as a man who seems the very definition of a rigid bureaucrat (and underline "seems"); Dench is great as a hard-shelled veteran of too many secret wars with a Bond-shaped weakness in her armor; and Harris shows that she isn't just another pretty face -- or notch on Bond's bedpost -- when she leaps into action.
"Skyfall" is a major achievement, an announcement to the world that -- after a few false starts -- this franchise is back on track. At the end of every Bond film, there's a tagline that reads, "JAMES BOND WILL RETURN." For the first time in a long time, that return can't come soon enough. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "Skyfall" is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. There's plenty of the customary action -- deadly hand-to-hand combat, gun battles, explosions and car chases -- but the final stand of Bond against the bad guys is decidedly nasty. The sexual content, while not explicit ('cause this is a Bond movie, after all), isn't implicit, either ('cause this is a Bond movie, after all).