***1/2 (out of four)
Though not a reference to Chicken Little, "Skyfall" (opening Nov. 9) does carry a thunderclap of impending doom: A modern threat has emerged, and the old guard that is MI6 may not be up to the task. (Think "Trouble with the Curve," with cyberterrorism replacing baseball scouting.) Bond's boss, M (Judi Dench), will need to do the dignified thing and retire in two months, says rising MI6 honcho Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Responds M: "To hell with dignity; I'll leave when the job is done."
Judging by the best Bond film since I don't know what, Ian Fleming's agent is nowhere near finished. As played for the third time by Daniel Craig, 007 still boasts the chiseled physique and hand-to-hand combat skills of any crime fighter/superhero who doesn't do all his business in a suit. Yet Craig's Bond has never been so vulnerable and lonely, his ripping muscularity no match for a sudden awareness that his organization, always acting on behalf of the greater good, may at some point need to chalk him up as collateral damage. That perspective hits hard when he's battling the latest baddie on top of a moving train (of course), and M orders a colleague (Naomie Harris) to take an extremely risky shot in his direction. Bond says he could have handled it, but it wasn't his call. Consequently, he's the guy with the bullet in him, tumbling off the train into the water below.
Needless to say, it's not long before he's holed up along the ocean and in bed with a beauty. But that's not the point. Even Bond's not above the trembling hand that results from a near-death experience.
Showing a rich understanding for the human side of fieldwork, director Sam Mendes achieves what the directors of many spy films attempt but rarely master: the sense of what agents give up by joining the force and what they lose by staying. Whether flirting with Eve (Harris) or smooth-talking Severine (Berenice Marlohe), Bond's loner status resonates profoundly, despite lurking beneath moments of intense intimacy or sensuality. Mendes also delivers excellent chases and more action goodness in a film that's never less than gripping. The film does, however, possess a misogynistic streak that undermines the usefulness of all its female characters.
Bond's mission involves a stolen list of secret agents—something these agencies always seem to be losing—but that's only the beginning. Javier Bardem's terrific entrance as the villain elevates the gorgeously shot "Skyfall" to an artful, unsettling war of wills. Is he, as some have speculated, the first gay Bond villain? Maybe; no other diabolical character has touched Bond's thighs like that.
Not that the film makes his sexuality an issue. It's just a detail of a character who serves as a thrilling threat to a tough hero still fallible enough to scar.
Watch Matt on "You & Me This Morning," Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U