When Daniel Craig took over as James Bond with 2006’s Casino Royale, the long-running franchise (which turns 50 this year) took a conscious step away from the campiness that had become one of its defining qualities, and focused instead on serious, intense action. That approach successfully reinvigorated the series, and while it continues with Skyfall, Craig’s third outing as Bond, a number of familiar past elements also return, striking an excellent balance between the grim modern Bond and the globe-trotting adventurer of the past.
Craig’s first two Bond films, Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, formed one long arc about the elite secret agent’s tragic relationship with Vesper Lynd, but in Skyfall, the emotional center shifts to Bond’s longtime boss M (Judi Dench, who’s been playing the character since 1995, when Pierce Brosnan was Bond). Targeted by a mysterious adversary (Javier Bardem) who knows all of the agency’s secrets, M has to confront her past mistakes and rely on Bond to protect her, even while his own fitness for duty comes into question.
Like most Bond movies, Skyfall meanders through a number of set pieces before finally getting down to the main conflict (Bardem doesn’t show up until more than an hour into the movie), but its plot is less convoluted and more emotionally resonant than the previous two series installments. Dench gives her all in her swan song as M, and the friendship between M and Bond is more powerful than his relationship with Vesper ever was.
There isn’t anything resembling a traditional Bond girl in Skyfall, although Naomie Harris plays a fellow agent whose name turns out to be something very familiar, and Bérénice Lim Marlohe plays a kept woman who ends up being little more than a narrative dead end. Instead, it’s Bond’s professional and familial relationships that take the forefront: with M, with the new version of gadget guru Q (Ben Whishaw, marking the character’s first appearance since Craig took over), with a steely government official (Ralph Fiennes) who oversees MI6, and with the caretaker (Albert Finney) of the estate where Bond grew up (and which gives the movie its title).
Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) isn’t exactly known for large-scale blockbusters, but he does a good job staging the movie’s big action sequences, especially the opening chase sequence in Turkey. Once the villain enters the picture, the first hour ends up seeming a bit like narrative wheel-spinning (especially Bond’s liaison with Marlohe’s beautiful plot device). But the events are exciting while they occur, and the movie’s climax at Skyfall, which brings together Bond’s past, the relationship between Bond and M, and the villain’s classically diabolical plan, wraps things up in a deeply satisfying way, making Skyfall Craig’s most effective Bond movie yet.