James Bond should be forgiven a little creakiness. Ian Fleming's super-spy has spent 22 films and 50 years getting punched and shot. His jet lag has to be excruciating. Let's not even think of the wear on the old horndog's nethers.
As a franchise, creakiness set in a while back. Sean Connery, by the end of his tenure as 007, was sleepwalking. Roger Moore made Bond an AARP superhero, and poor Pierce Brosnan went from resurrecting Bond's image with GoldenEye to surfing away from an Arctic superstorm as the series got cheesier with each installment. Even Daniel Craig, who put in the best Bond performance since Connery in Casino Royale, derailed in his sophomore attempt, Quantum of Solace, a muddled, boring and herky-jerky Bourne wannabe.
So it only makes sense that Bond's a little rickety as Skyfall begins. After a spectacular opening chase sequence, Bond (Craig) is presumed dead and loving it: His days consist of anonymous sex and blackout benders. He snaps to when terrorists targeting boss M (Judi Dench) hit MI6 headquarters, but he reports to duty only to endure physical and mental training and endless debates about whether he's too old and out of shape for the job.
But any concern about the franchise's relevance is silenced within two seconds of Skyfall, which picks up in the middle of a batshit chase culminating in one of the most inventive train-top melees since young Indiana Jones rode the rails. To its very last moment, Skyfall brilliantly maintains the gritty modernist aesthetic of Casino Royale while injecting elements that were largely absent in that installment, including gadgetry, sass and humor. In other words, everything that makes Bond Bond.
Director Sam Mendes (of American Beauty and Road to Perdition) seems an odd choice to helm a $200 million genre flick, but the Oscar winner subtly humanizes Bond by focusing on his relationship with M while keeping up a breakneck pace, with 007 leaving a trail of bodies from Shanghai to Scotland. He brings a deft artistic touch but remembers that we're here for spectacle, which is delivered in a white-knuckle subway chase and only derails when CGI komodo dragons enter a fistfight. Cinematographer Roger Deakins brings verve to each sequence, particularly a neon-drenched fistfight in a high-rise and a prolonged shootout at a creaky Scottish manor with shades of Straw Dogs. Gone is the shaky cam of Quantum. Each action sequence is shot wide and with the precise choreography of a dance. It's breathtaking.
Another recent absence has been an appropriately megalomaniacal villain, which Skyfall delivers in the creepy, bleached-blond Javier Bardem. He's completely unhinged as a crazed, revenge-bent computer whiz with an itchy trigger finger and an Oedipus complex that would make Norman Bates cringe. Bardem is all scenery-chewing tics, a deeply unsettling menace who ranks with Christopher Lee's Scaramanga in grandiose ridiculousness.
Craig faces a different challenge here than in Casino Royale. In that debut, Bond was portrayed as a rookie on his first assignment. Here, he has already lived through all the events we've seen since Dr. No, and Craig brings a hard-edged cockiness and well-earned swagger. There's no doubt that he is Bond. All he needed to prove himself was a classic adventure that harks back to the past while bringing the character full tilt into the present. Skyfall manages to do that and more, offering one of the year's most crackling adventure films, one of Bond's most satisfying outings, and proof that you can indeed teach an old horndog new tricks.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Skyfall is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, CineMagic, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, City Center, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Roseway, Sandy.