With Skyfall, the transformation of James Bond from the steely womanizer of the old Ian Fleming spy novels and the early Sean Connery movies is complete. Reinvigorated six years ago in the wake of the first two Bourne films, with dour Daniel Craig stepping into the role, Bond is now a thoroughly modern hero, his emotional vulnerabilities here rounded out with mortal concerns and even mommy issues. This may be a shrewd market calculation in a relentlessly sensitive age, but it undercuts the preposterous fun of the Bond world—which had grown too preposterous over the years, it's true, but is nevertheless missed in its complete absence.
And since the Bond character is at this point one of many in the cinematic action pantheon, it doesn't help that he's now been put into the hands of Sam Mendes, who is not an action director. Mendes, deservedly esteemed for movies like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, seems tantalized by a kind of complicatedly choreographed pandemonium with which we're already familiar. Compelled to come up with a spectacular action sequence of the sort that opens every Bond film, he gives us a motorcycle chase through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (with much predictable fruit-stand damage), a pursuit across the city's colorful rooftops, and a violent confrontation atop a speeding train. All of this is staged with painstaking care, and it's certainly not dull; but for the most part we've seen it—or something very much like it—before.
Bond is pursuing an assassin who has made off with a hard drive containing the names of every British undercover operative—an item that Bond's boss, MI6 chief M (Judi Dench once more), is desperate to retrieve. Bond fails in the attempt, and winds up nursing his wounds in a beach house not unlike the one in which we found Jason Bourne in the opening of The Bourne Supremacy. (Bond is also seen here knocking back a bottle of Heineken, the placement of which reportedly covered a large chunk of the movie's budget, which was no doubt further lightened by contributions from the Omega watch people.)
Back in London, M is being pushed toward retirement by a new intelligence overlord named Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who feels that her Cold War spy shop is a useless relic in an age of international terrorism. "We can't keep working in the shadows," he says. "There are no more shadows." Returning home, Bond finds himself similarly undervalued—he's getting old and gray, and it's felt he should really pack it in. But M, exhibiting a fondness for Bond that can only be called maternal, wants him kept aboard. MI6 headquarters has been blown up in a sudden computer-hacking assault, and only Bond can get to the bottom of it. He starts by scoring some new gear from a disconcertingly young Q (Ben Whishaw) during a secret meet-up in the National Gallery, where they pretend to contemplate a Turner masterwork. (Why they should feel the need for a clandestine rendezvous in the heart of London doesn't bear much contemplation.) Soon Bond is off to Shanghai with a young agent named Eve (Naomie Harris, of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). There they encounter a mysterious woman named Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe, playing the traditional doomed Bond girl), along with a number of testy thugs and even a pit full of boat-size Komodo dragons. Finally, Bond finds himself face to face with the villain of the piece, a curious character named Silva (Javier Bardem), who I thought was also problematic.
Silva is a former MI6 agent who feels he was betrayed into enemy captivity years before by M—clearly a mother figure to him—and is now seeking revenge. He's a formidable computer genius ensconced on a remote island; but as played by Bardem, with a bleached mane and borderline-mincing manner, he just doesn't seem all that evil. He's mainly hurt by M's treatment of him, and in classic abandoned-child fashion, he's lashing out.
Silva gets the best of Bond at first, and ties him to a chair. This allows a baffling moment in which Silva runs a finger around on Bond's bare chest and then slides his hands up Bond's thighs. It's an awkwardly homoerotic scene that serves no purpose in the plot, and you can't help wondering if it was included in the movie solely as a racy talking point for pre-release publicity.
In any case, Bond soon escapes and, with M in tow, makes his way to Scotland, ancestral home of the Bond family, where they're greeted by the ancestral caretaker, a pointless character named Kincade (Bourne veteran Albert Finney). I never particularly wanted to know anything about Bond's family sorrows (Fleming himself was only glancingly concerned with the man's origins), and while some may find that this interlude lends Bond a touching new dimension, mopery doesn't really become him.
The movie has some passages that are beautifully photographed (by the reliably excellent Roger Deakins), chief among them a trip to a casino across a lagoon filled with glimmering lanterns and a wild fight backgrounded by the neon riot of a Shanghai night. And while Craig, in his tight little Tom Ford suits, seems more grimly over-wound than ever, Bardem is at least an amusing, if not especially malevolent, presence. It must also be said that Adele's richly scored theme song is one of the greats.
But at the end—which arrives nearly two and a half hours after the beginning, and features a startlingly lunky bit of sequel foreshadowing—you may find yourself missing the genial fizz and the outsize characters of the best of the old 007 films. Skyfall is a big action movie that does its job in an efficient way. But as was the case with the two previous installments in the long-running series, the earnest new Bond world it presents is really not enough.