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'Skyfall': Bond bounces back

I'll come right out and admit that, prior to seeing this picture, I didn't find the prospect of a James Bond with more emotional depth to be particularly scintillating. Don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," the Bond story in which the secret agent finds, then loses the love of his life. But because the movie was kind of a one-off (the sole picture in the Bond series to star George Lazenby), I wasn't particularly eager to see the Bond movies go there again. Instead, I settled in for a good long time and waited for them to get good again. I didn't think that "depth" was gonna help.

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And yet here's "Skyfall," starring Daniel Craig in his third outing as Bond. His first, "Casino Royale," was a very solid and un-jokey Bond action thriller with some missteps. The follow-up, "Quantum of Solace," was a dour, dire letdown. This picture's a substantial bounce back, and easily the best Craig Bond picture. Emotional depth and all.

Don't worry: The movie doesn't overplay that aspect. Or, rather, the way it does play to that aspect is both clever and apt. The movie begins, as all Bonds do, with a crackerjack action sequence in which 007 and a comely female operative (Naomie Harris) race through Istanbul in pursuit of a mercenary with a hard drive that's got some highly dangerous classified info on it. It's so highly dangerous that spymaster M (Judi Dench), monitoring the action from London, issues what seems a ruthless direction. It's one that takes Bond out of the picture for a while. As he licks his wounds over his boss's seeming betrayal, things get worse at home. MI6's headquarters is nearly blown sky-high by a terrorizing computer hack of incredible reach and power. The upshot of this disaster is a request for M's resignation from a higher-up bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes. "Like hell," is the short version of steely M's answer. At which point the presumed-dead Bond returns, a little worse for the wear after his partying sabbatical. M sets him loose despite his shakiness. And so the quest for a villain who knows too much begins.

That villain doesn't even turn up until about an hour and 20 minutes into this slightly over-two-hour movie. As played by Javier Bardem, he's a pretty baroque and nasty creature with a sunken face and a ghastly smile that gets ghastlier. One might say that director Sam Mendes is lifting a page from Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies. Or he could be said to be getting some of his own back: I recall Mendes' last collaboration with Daniel Craig, 2002's pre-"Dark Knight" picture "The Road to Perdition," which featured an oddly grinning monomaniacal killer itself. This movie's killer keeps entreating M to "think on [her] sins" and pulling off more and more in the way of outrageous escapes and causing myriad disasters. His personal crusade against M is an exemplary test of both Bond's skills and his ultimate loyalty, and it bears the two of them back into Bond's past for a remarkable climax.

The way to that climax is rendered with incredible cinematic sumptuousness by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins. This is hands down the most visually beautiful Bond movie in recent memory, or even ever, and the globe-trotting settings, from Shanghai at night to the deep Scottish countryside in the mist, are all rendered with equal attention to detail. As a result of delivering the spectacle goods so effectively, some of the improvements in drama register more subtly than they might have. Bond's interaction with the film's one potential femme fatale, played by beautiful Berenice Marlohe, is in fact practically sensitive compared to the rough, dismissive way the character's often behaved with his bad girls. (Of course, that truism isn't entirely accurate, as Bond's determination to avenge Jill Masterson testified. Still ...) Which isn't to say he doesn't take his opportunity with her when it knocks.

But the overall theme of Bond's arc here has more to do with getting his act together than getting it on. The movie kind of overemphasizes how "old-fashioned" Bond's way of spying is, and how old Bond himself is. Given that Craig is nine years younger than me, I found this to be a little bit of piling on. But since the ultimate takeaway is that sometimes old equals good, I can't complain too much.

Although the movie has fun with its new, young and online-savvy Q (a very droll Ben Whishaw) and his gadget-minimizing directives, "Skyfall" shows once again the wisdom of Godard's dictum that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Or in this case a few girls, one of them an older one. For it is on M, so irritating at the movie's opening and so poignant and admirable at its end, that "Skyfall"'s fulcrum finally turns. And it is one of Dame Judi Dench's finest hours. From her to Fiennes to Craig himself to Albert Finney, who turns up late in a role that could be his own "take that" to Michael Caine, this is the best-acted Bond film ever. So kudos to Mendes for that, and for the way he laces in the in-jokes without looking coy, forced or stupid. Thomas Newman's first-rate score, to my mind the best since the days of John Berry, is the cherry on top.

Bond is back for real, and worth the four-year wait. Hope it's not as long until the next one.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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