One thing the James Bond series has been known for is the “Bond girls,” those hot women of various ethnicities and varying degrees of usefulness in a crisis whom 007 unfailingly takes to bed. The newest Bond movie, Skyfall, abounds with delicious ironies, but surely the tastiest one is that the most interesting Bond girl turns out to be the septuagenarian he hasn’t slept with. I’m talking about M (Judi Dench), the spy chief who has given Bond his orders since he was played by Pierce Brosnan. She’s front and center in this latest adventure, as if the powers that be suddenly realized after 17 years that they have a great actress on their side. They finally give her something to do, and it’s a major reason why Skyfall is such a bracing return to form.
The film opens with an ingenious chase scene through the streets and railroads of Istanbul, involving a backhoe tearing open a moving train, during which M — speaking remotely from her London office — makes a decision that results in Bond (Daniel Craig) being shot. Presumed dead, the agent survives and hides out in some tropical locale to recover. He’s drawn out when a shadowy villain with a deep personal grudge starts to stalk M, first exposing several of her undercover agents and getting them killed, then using her computer to blow up MI6 headquarters.
Behind the camera is Sam Mendes, the best talent the Bond series has ever had in the director’s chair. He can stage a gunfight as well as anyone, but he’s just as keen on seeing how Bond interacts with the people around him. This movie surrounds him with a host of new allies, too, like Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), an officious flack in the prime minister’s office who earns Bond’s instant dislike by trying to push M into retirement. Bond is even tetchier with the new Q (Ben Whishaw), a shabby-chic, tousle-haired geek who looks about half Bond’s age and clearly regards field agents like 007 as a necessary nuisance. Much friendlier toward Bond is Eve (Naomie Harris), a fellow agent who shares Bond’s laissez-faire attitude toward sex. As a Bond who’s trying to regain his fighting shape, Craig looks properly hollowed-out and a step slow, but the delicately edged dialogue and the caliber of his co-stars has a rejuvenating effect on him nevertheless. The banter with Eve is particularly piquant, and Harris, atypically cast in a sexy role, sets the screen alight.
All that, though, is just prologue to the skillfully built-up entrance of a bleached-blond Javier Bardem as Silva, a former agent of M’s who feels betrayed by her. Baleful and playful at the same time, Bardem creates a Bond villain who’s grotesque, funny, and self-pitying in equal, fascinating measure. Speaking of sexy banter, Silva shamelessly and hilariously comes on to a handcuffed Bond during their first encounter, trying to get 007 to lose that famous cool of his. Silva also refers to M as “Mommy” and, less jokingly, reminisces about the time when he was her favorite. The clash between Bond and Silva is full-on Oedipal psychodrama, with these two physically and emotionally scarred younger men battling to the death for the motherly affections of this older woman. How many spy thrillers give you that?
This clash plays itself out in some lucidly staged action sequences, such as an attempted assassination at a parliamentary hearing, which results in a surprising turn by one of the supporting characters. The finale set in the Scottish highlands also gives tantalizing hints about Bond’s trauma-ridden childhood as well as revealing the meaning of the movie’s title. The property damage incurred during that finale is truly spectacular, but Mendes’ visual rigor serves him just as well in quieter moments, like a great shot of M standing behind a row of coffins all draped with the Union Jack.
Still, the emphasis on M is what raises this Bond film above the others. It neatly upends several decades’ worth of sadistic misogyny that the Bond series has historically trafficked in. It allows Dench to show, under her air of steely authority, layers of fear, regret, and courage that she’s never been allowed to exhibit before in this series. And it makes Skyfall into a reflective piece about aging and staying in step with a changing world. Late on, M quotes the last lines of Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which serves as a valedictory, an expression of resolve to continue in old age, and a tribute to a faded but still vigorous empire. (No wonder the British are jumping up and down about this movie.) This would be an excellent spy film even if it had nothing to do with James Bond. This year marks the Bond series’ 50th anniversary, and for an agent who has been in the field for half a century, he looks pretty spry.
Starring Daniel Craig and Judi Dench. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan. Rated PG-13.