It’s a long, fun way down

No planes, no trains: This automobile will do.

No planes, no trains: This automobile will do.

Rated 4.0

We’ve had James Bond movies for 50 years now, and Skyfall treats the benchmark like a special occasion. In its urbane yet never-too-serious way, it honors the formidable legacy not just of this particular franchise, but of British spy fiction as a whole.

For starters, it’s clever how Daniel Craig’s Bond is still becoming the devilish 007 we’ve always known, even as his third outing in the role applies a framework of fussing over oldness and possible obsolescence. Part of Skyfall’s project is sorting relics from ruins.

As it happens, the requisite pre-credits pulse pounder—a chase through Istanbul by way of car, motorcycle, train, steam shovel and fateful sniper’s bullet—doesn’t do the old (horn)dog any favors, and reevaluating his fitness for duty is the movie’s first real order of business. Is he even going to make it?

Meanwhile, some passive-aggressive baddie has a top-secret list of MI6 special agents and has begun circulating it online, blowing their cover—or, with slightly more active aggression, simply blowing them up, as in bombing the division’s London headquarters. Bond lives through that, at least, if only to find himself subjected to a battery of pull-ups, poor marksmanship and word-association tests. Was it “Skyfall,” the man just said or “stifle”? What’s that all about? And might any confusion there also relate to how Bond talks to his boss, with every “ma’am” sounding like “Mom”?

His boss is of course the immortally matriarchal M, played again by Judi Dench, who finds herself here brooding in a room full of flag-draped coffins, and there quarreling with her own boss, an apparent grey-faced bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes. Under the unfortunate circumstances at hand, he’s urging her retirement, and thinking of her dignity. “To hell with dignity,” she says. “I’ll leave when the job’s done.”

Dignity is important to Skyfall, and so is getting jobs done. Although not above sacrificing minor players (Bérénice Marlohe doesn’t have much chance to transcend mere Bond Girldom), it takes tender care of the majors, particularly in matters of their comings and goings—some of which are permanent, or at least as permanent-seeming as any half-century-old institution might suggest.

The best scene might be when Bond meets his new quartermaster, very well-played by Ben Whishaw, at London’s National Gallery, in front of a famous painting of an old warship being tugged away to the scrapyard. Bragging about how much he can achieve with only a laptop while still in his pajamas, and deliberately touching a nerve, Whishaw’s Q also makes clear his respect for the agent’s tradition of keenness and cultivation.

Similarly, Skyfall also introduces Naomie Harris as a witty, pretty fellow agent who’s on the fence about whether she belongs in the field or at a desk. Both our hero and the movie itself seem protective of her, but thankfully not too paternalistic.

And then there’s the aforementioned baddie. He’s played by Javier Bardem, with a solid sense of what the role requires and a useful balance between pathos and preposterousness. Bond villains often find themselves forced to choose between camp and menace, but Bardem understands how camp itself can be a menace. With a commanding monologue and a showy, long take by which to make his entrance, he seizes the day.

Some of this guy’s conflict with Bond has to do with backstory they have in common, and it amounts to a rather cheeky British take on Freudian mama’s-boy anguish (queen and country and whatnot). Skyfall expands to Shanghai and Macau, but for all its glitzy globe-trotting—beautifully photographed by British cinematographer Roger Deakins—it still seems coziest in the Scottish Highlands, where we discover the Bond family’s ancestral home, complete with Albert Finney in fine form as a shotgun-toting gamekeeper. Here occurs the climax, a literal blast if also a ludicrous one.

It’s another good fit for the impeccably tailored Craig, and for director Sam Mendes, who, in general, has made his career imposing a sort of British pretense on American movies. The posh popcorn muncher seems like just what the Bond experience always was all about. Nice to see there’s a future in it.