The title How James Bond Got His Groove Back might have been too hokey.
But that's the feeling elicited by Skyfall, as directed by, of all people, Sam Mendes (American Beauty).
The 23rd official Bond movie was obliged to regain its footing after the misstep of Quantum of Solace. It does, and then some. In the 50th year of the franchise, Bond manages to be realpolitik-pertinent while paying discreet homage to the films of the past, including a title sequence that recalls designer Maurice Binder's sexy-kaleidoscopic openings of the Connery-Moore years.
It also comes as close as possible to taking Bond into the realm of a family drama.
Things kick off in action mode as Bond (the reliably tough Daniel Craig) engages in one of those high-octane pre-credit sequences wherein Bond is in hot pursuit of an assassin who has made off with a hard drive containing a list of all MI-6's undercover operatives. (Why do they leave these things lying around?)
When it comes to fight scenes, the Daniel Craig-Bond imprint has borrowed the intense savagery of the close-quarter donnybrooks in the Bourne movies -- but it's a Bond movie, so that fighting style takes place on top of a speeding train. Bond's fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), is ordered by MI-6's crusty M (Judi Dench) to take a shot at the assassin. But it is Bond who falls off the train, presumed dead.
Soon, MI-6's deep-cover agents are being systematically exposed by a mysterious cyber-genius who specifically seems to be intending to torment M.
After a period of self-imposed, booze-infused rest-and-rehabilitation, a shaky Bond returns to duty to track down the culprit, a fey blond psycho called Silva (Javier Bardem). Like Bond himself, Silva was the victim of an M judgment call and ended up presumed dead. In fact, he has returned with mind and body twisted, eager to mete out vengeance well beyond the initial salvo of blowing up MI-6's headquarters.
"Mommy's been very bad," Silva tells Bond in a 007-meets-villain scene we can say with assurance is like no other.
Screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis have been the go-to Bond scribes since The World Is Not Enough, but it is presumably playwright John Logan who has contributed an extra dimension of potent drama, setting up Bond and Silva as feuding brothers battling over the recognition of a withholding parent. It's like East of Eden -- if John Steinbeck had thought to include a scene in a lush Macao casino where a thug meets death courtesy of a giant Komodo dragon.
Director Mendes brings the dramatic oomph and, in contrast to Quantum of Solace's Marc Forster, he manages the action stuff very well too, particularly the climactic confrontation, which takes place not in some madman's high-tech lair, but in a desolate, run-down estate in Scotland.
The film's pleasures are abundant, including one of the more beautiful and tragic heroines (it actually feels shamefully reductive to call Bérénice Marlohe a "Bond girl"), Judi Dench giving full dimension to the enigmatic character of M, solid supporting work by Ralph Fiennes and an unexpected Albert Finney, and some unusually beautiful cinematography, courtesy of the great Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men).
Deakins evidently believed a Bond movie could be shot like an art film, and not like every other Bond film. Evidently, that dictum came from Mendes, who likewise believed the franchise was reliable enough to withstand improvement.
"Gets Bond back to the basics: bullets, babes, big-time bad guys and bawdy humour."
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"This is a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon, with Daniel Craig taking full possession of a role he previously played unconvincingly."
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
"This is perhaps the most visually stunning Bond movie ever made."
-- Richard Roeper, Richard Roeper.com
SDLqSkyfall's fatal misstep is its slavish hewing to event-movie trends."
-- Karina Longworth, Village Voice
In Skyfall, Mendes has given us a thrilling new chapter in a franchise that by all rights should have been gasping for air -- which really makes him the hero of this saga."
-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
Starring Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem
Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, McGillivray VIP, Polo Park, Polo Park, IMAX, St. Vital, Towne
4 out of five stars