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Review: James Bond, filmmakers still deliver in Skyfall

The Bond Genre is truly the toughest of all nuts to crack, ironic given that we are now on the 23rd official film in a series celebrating 50 years. How do you shoehorn the Bond Formula contrivances — the stunts, the song, the girls, the one-liners, the gadgets and locations — into a coherent piece of storytelling? Even tougher is making the films work tonally, by creating a world that is larger than life but still credible, where Bond is neither a tortured le Carréan spy nor a cartoon superhero, but somewhere, compellingly, in between.

The new Bond, Skyfall, is as eagerly awaited as any, what with high class director Sam Mendes on board, a four-year gap after the successful but little-loved Quantum of Solace, and the question of whether Team Bond could recapture the magic of Daniel Craig’s outstanding debut in the 2006 series reboot, Casino Royale.

Given the Oscar-winning talent in front of and behind the camera, we’d expect nothing less than one of the best Bond movies of the cycle, and Skyfall delivers an engaging adventure that successfully balances spectacle with human concern.

The plot involves the theft of a hard drive containing the identities of undercover British agents and Bond’s attempt to retrieve it. The mission takes him from a superb chase in and above Istanbul, on to Shanghai and Macau, and finally — satisfyingly — back to the U.K. to defend the homeland from Javier Bardem’s peroxide blonde Silva, a cyber terrorist waging a personal vendetta against Bond’s boss, M (the crisp Judi Dench). Along the way he makes time with fellow agent Eve (Naomi Harris) and femme fatale Severine (Bérénice Marlohe).

Though the female leads are underutilized — Dench is the real Bond Girl in this one, and a damn tough one at that — the performances are strong throughout, including Ben Whishaw as a younger Q and Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, an intelligence bureaucrat trying to push M into retirement.

Bardem plays the strangely sympathetic Silva with a bit more mischief than menace, but he’s certainly the strongest presence to challenge 007 in decades — and there’s one brilliant moment that allows Bardem to showcase the true nature of a Bond villain. It’s not outlandishness or megalomania. It’s sheer grotesqueness. Of course, Craig remains fabulous as Bond — tough and weary, a little wittier this time out, and always heroic.

In celebrating Bond’s cinematic past, there are a few out-of-place nods to other movies — though one, involving 007’s Aston Martin, is likely to bring such a cheer to audiences that they won’t care — but these are quibbles, in the end. The cinematography of Coen brothers’ regular Roger Deakins is sumptuous, as is Dennis Gassner’s production design. Only Thomas Newman’s score fades into mediocrity, failing to carry forth the mesmerizing sonic sheen of John Barry.

Bond films have questioned their hero’s place in the modern world since at least GoldenEye, way back in 1995, and Skyfall pushes this theme further. The tension between the old and the new is an appropriate subtext for a 50-year-old series, because it’s both the bane of Bond filmmakers — how to walk that tightrope, movie after movie — and the key to the character’s enduring appeal. Both resolutely modern and staunchly old-fashioned, Bond persists as neither spy nor superhero, but as a kind of myth, a symbol of the possibilities and perils of the times. Skyfall ends on such a perfect note of old-school grace that it leaves us anxious for Bond 24, and should put to rest the series’ soul-searching. As long as the popular culture needs heroes to battle the dragons of the day — and as long as the films are made with this much care — we’ll always welcome James Bond’s return.

SKYFALL Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, directed by Sam Mendes, rated PG-13, 143 mins