If the characters in Ian Fleming's novels aged in real time, James Bond would be in his early 90s by now — probably a bit too long in the tooth to take the abuse meted out to him in “Skyfall,” the 23rd “official” Bond film (“official” meaning one produced by Saltzman and Broccoli’s Eon Productions). Luckily, even as the films' settings proceed inexorably through time (like the rest of us), Bond manages to remain in or around his 30s or 40s.
It probably doesn't hurt that, every decade or two, he receives a new body that rolls his age back a few years. Sean Connery was out of the series by the age of 41; Roger Moore was practically 60 when he hung up his 007 status (only one of the reasons the films were heading downhill). The switch to Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” (2006) signaled a much stronger change: It rebooted the series with a different tone and a very different Bond. Gone were the insistent wisecracks, which had grown stale. Craig's portrayal was much closer to Fleming's vision of Bond — a resourceful, ruthless “blunt instrument” (as Fleming put it).
Unfortunately, the next entry — “Quantum of Solace” (2008) — was one of the least gripping, despite the advantage of being the shortest film in the entire series. Thankfully, “Skyfall” is back on track, cementing Craig's status as the best Bond since Connery.
One of the traditions the series still observes is the lengthy pre-credit action sequence, and the new one is a doozy — a nonstop chase by train, foot and car, the latter being driven, not by Bond, but by Eve (Naomie Harris), a flirtatious junior agent and (hopefully) a recurring character. It morphs into a typically dazzling credit sequence, accompanied by Adele singing the theme.
For once, thank goodness, the villain is not a greedhead with plans for global dominion or destruction. Silva (Javier Bardem) is driven by vengeance; and, even though he's mad as a hatter and seeking disproportionate redress, he is not entirely unjustified.
One of the pleasures here is the greatly expanded presence of M (Judi Dench); likewise, the new Q (Ben Whishaw, dressed to make him look even younger than he is) has an active role in the story. He also provides Bond with one accessory of iconic status. After 45 years, that accessory's technology has stayed the same — impressive high tech back then, nostalgically quaint and pokey now.
Its resurrection is in keeping with the whole “back to basics” tone. There are almost no gimmicks or trick weapons; the action involves plenty of guns, but its best aspects rely on Bond and his allies' ad-lib ingenuity with the crudest of means.
Bardem's villain has only minor resemblances to his most famous role — the utterly cold killer in “No Country for Old Men.” The latter was terrifying in the flatness of his evil; Silva, on the other hand, is all about passion, which can be no less terrifying, particularly when peppered with unexpected erotic intimations.
Craig suggested Sam Mendes — who had given him his breakout American role as Paul Newman's cowardly son in “The Road to Perdition” — for the directing job. On the surface, it seemed like a terrible idea. Despite a certain amount of action in “Jarhead” and “Road to Perdition,” Mendes is still best known for his debut film, “American Beauty” — not precisely the right calling card for a Bond entry.
I'm not a fan of Mendes — “American Beauty” struck me as fraudulent and badly crafted — but he redeems himself here. This is possibly the best-looking Bond movie ever, thanks to Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins; and, after its two ultra-dry predecessors, “Skyfall” is finally letting a little discreet humor creep back into the mix.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times