Fifty years ago this October, Dr. No introduced James Bond to the movie-going public—and 20-plus movies later it's second only to fellow man-in-suit adventure Godzilla as the most prolific franchise of all time. Only recently, though, has it been a cinematically interesting one. For decades, the series found success in trend-savviness while insulating itself from a film culture that increasingly put A-list directors in search of pulp icons to legitimize, or to at least to wring some critical flattery out of them.
Faced shortly before 2002's Die Another Day with a shift in how we think about terrorism and intelligence gathering, a proper reboot was finally put into motion, pulling James Bond into the 21st century by ditching the gadgetry and pageantry. Daniel Craig's 2006 Bond debut Casino Royale may have been directed by a guy whose previous most notable gig was Goldeneye, but it was still clearly the beginning of a change that went well beyond 007's accent.
This reinvention and reinvigoration continues with Skyfall, the third of at least five prospective Craig Bond films. (Owing to money problems at MGM, its four-year path to the screen marks the longest hiatus that didn't involve a new face behind the martini glass.) Though less of a direct sequel than 2008's angsty Quantum of Solace, Skyfall continues to chip away at Bond on a personal level, this time after the usual high-energy opening leaves a cache of secret-ops identities in the wrong hands and 007 himself presumed dead. He recuperates in an island paradise, drinking and cavorting in self-pity rather than the classic her-majesty's-secret-partystarter mode, then resurfaces as the names begin to leak (on YouTube!) and his bosses at MI6 find themselves with similarly explosive developments. Bond presents himself as physically and mentally ready for duty, but everyone up to and including M (Judi Dench, the final holdout from the Pierce Brosnan years) has doubts.
The series hasn't quite surrendered itself to the upper tier of Hollywood directors by putting Road to Perdition's Sam Mendes in charge, but in finally letting go of the journeyman non-sensibility, the franchise has made an artistic stride. There's still a good bit of globe-hopping and nail-biting—with a little extra brooding thrown in to make it edgy—but Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins bring Skyfall an aesthetic dignity that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace could only fake. Whether Bond is boating through lantern-lit waters to a Macau casino, stalking an assassin through a mirrored-glass skyscraper, or merely tied to a chair in an abandoned city, Deakins keeps his celebrated eye on the gravity of Skyfall even when Mendes straps in for the thrills. Less than a year ago, the Mission: Impossible franchise, never shy about hiring name directors, offered Ghost Protocol as a new standard in name-brand espionage adventure; next to Skyfall, it looks kind of like an old James Bond movie.
Audiences, of course, are more interested in a certain handsome secret agent than handsome shot composition, and while Mendes could hardly have avoided improving on Marc Forster's largely forgettable Solace, a pair of serious strengths elevate Skyfall. The first is instant-classic Bond villain Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem as a charming, type-A riff on his breakout role in No Country for Old Men. From his stellar opening monologue on, Bardem nails all the hallmarks of a good villain, walking a line between extreme competence and rattled psychosis that coaxes the audience from "How will Bond defeat this guy?" toward "How could he possibly—?"
The second strength has to do with a single environment that dominates Skyfall's final act, and won't be spoiled here except to say that the contrast of tactics in play makes for a sequence as definitive (and illuminating) to this new strain of Bond as it is irrelevant to what the series was before. That, and Roger Deakins isn't really shining until something's on fire.
Of course, it would be too much to hope (or at least too big of a perceived risk for a series that took half a century to start hiring legit directors) that Skyfall might shake off the "Then he goes here! Then he goes there! Then he goes to bed with a likely assassin!" sleepwalk that clings to the series. The story does tighten up along with Silva's master plan, but flaws still distract. For a film dramatically motivated by keeping secret agents' identities secret, to choose an example, James Bond takes notably few opportunities to disguise himself as anything but a hotshot MI6 operative. Will that sort of frivolity ever clear up? It's as likely now as it's ever been, because Skyfall isn't a great film, but it's as close as Bond has come.