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‘Skyfall’ Review: Nuanced Thriller Leaps to Top Five of 007 Movies

With wit, sex, smarts and excitement all on display, this franchise entry proves that after 50 years, James Bond still has a license to thrill

A case can be made that Daniel Craig has become the screen’s most vulnerable James Bond, both physically and emotionally, while at least tying with Sean Connery as the most ruthless and vicious. Both sides of Craig’s 007 get a full workout in “Skyfall,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Bond franchise by mixing new twists with just enough shout-outs to please the nostalgic among us.

Even if the Bond series has lasted this long through an adherence to a fairly strict formula — nefarious villain, cool gadgets, Bond sleeps with several women, one of whom always dies — “Skyfall” dares to play around with the structure a bit, paying more attention to character than usual and providing a villain who is both over-the-top and psychologically damaged in a recognizably human way.

That villain would be Silva (Javier Bardem), who’s been nursing a decades-long grudge against M (Judi Dench) for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent. His scheme against her begins with having a minion steal a disc with information about MI6 and its agents, a theft that puts him in the line of fire of Bond and fellow field operative Eve (Naomie Harris).

Bond and Silva’s henchman fight atop a moving train in Turkey (as one does), and M orders Eve to take a shot at them that apparently hits Bond and sends him hurtling off a high bridge into a river. He’s happy to be thought dead, until a terrorist attack organized by Silva destroys MI6, forcing the bureau to relocate underground in one of Churchill’s old bunkers.

While M faces tough questions from PM Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and an inquiry committee, Bond and Eve go after Silva. Casino fights, sex in a shower and highly explosive showdowns ensue.

If, on paper, this sounds like business as usual for 007, “Skyfall” feels like anything but, from the intelligent and jaunty script by John Logan (“Hugo,” “Rango”) and Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade to the sure hand of director Sam Mendes, working as far outside of his previous wheelhouse as one might imagine.

When it comes to mixing pyrotechnics and character development, Mendes appears to be on much surer footing here than with “Jarhead.” (And, thankfully, miles away from the histrionics of “Revolutionary Road” and “American Beauty.”) Having the great Roger Deakins onboard as cinematographer certainly helps, capturing everything from the high-tech sheen of intelligence headquarters to the autumnal shadows of a moldering country estate.

Three movies in, Craig is James Bond whether you’re on board or not, and he’s managed to make the character less of an action figure and more a real person; if you prick him, he does indeed bleed, and there’s a feeling that Craig’s Bond can demonstrate actual empathy without compromising 007’s ruthlessness. But this is the rare film in which it feels like he’s got a supporting ensemble rather than just bit players along for the ride.

This is probably the most M we’ve ever gotten in a Bond flick, and Dench turns it into a showcase, while the rest of the cast — from Harris and Fiennes to Ben Whishaw as the new Q (gadgets are a young man’s game, after all) — gives their relatively brief appearances memorable heft as well. With the film placing Bond into a realistically modern world of politics and terrorism, this crew helps place Her Majesty’s Secret Service into a context that makes Bond seem as relevant to life post-9/11 as he once was to the Cold War.

And then there’s Bardem; not the first Oscar-winner to play a Bond villain (that would be Christopher Walken in “A View to a Kill”), but he definitely takes the whole bad-guy thing to a new level. He’s not out to rule the world or corner the gold market; he just wants revenge on M, and his mania is palpable throughout.

There’s also been no one, of the many psychopaths who have tied James Bond to a chair, who has lifted the gay/S&M subtext of these movies up into the text. Rather than feel gimmicky or extraneous, however, the crazy vibe that emerges between the two plays out like the culmination of a long-simmering undercurrent for the whole series.

Lest old school Bond-philes feel left out, however, Mendes wisely throws in a music cue here, a car there, that offer a twinge of recognition for the legions of fans worldwide who have kept the series afloat all these years. Those inside jokes remind us where the character has been, and the rest of the film — among the franchise’s best ever — offers hope that there are enough new and under explored facets of James Bond to make him viable for another 50 years on the big screen.