Because the latest James Bond movie arrives in U.S. theaters with breathless Internet praise following its overseas release a couple of weeks ago, let's start by getting the superlatives out of the way: Skyfall is awesome. Daniel Craig is the best 007 since Sean Connery. Javier Bardem is the best Bond villain since Roger Moore. Awesome, best, boom.
But let's be clear about punctuation: That's awesome, period; best, period; boom, full stop. If you like your superlatives shot through with exclamation points, Skyfall isn't the Bond for you. (Exception: Adele! Born to sing a Bond song!) Over his 50 years onscreen, this least urgent of screen heroes — as concerned with shooting his cuffs as he is with shooting thugs — has never been a shouter. And on director Sam Mendes' watch, Craig's Bond muscles past elegant sangfroid to reach an icy, near-meditative state.
James Bond, mutely contemplative? What could he possibly be thinking about?
The past, say screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan. Country, identity, mortality. Octopussy, not so much.
So, right, plot: After a couple of bullets and a fall from an impossible height fail to extinguish him, Bond hides out in Turkey. He drinks. He gets laid. He stays improbably beefy. And he apparently spends some of his presumed-dead time Netflixing the Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, because he returns to duty feeling kind of origin-story. (Like Bruce Wayne in this year's The Dark Knight Rises, he also manages to get a haircut and a smart outfit on his moneyless way back to the grid.) Meanwhile, his nemesis is Bardem's Silva, a mustard-haired psycho obsessed with his own MI6 history, one that includes a betrayal to avenge.
That's basically it. No stolen warheads, no deadly lasers, no gadgets. What multinational threat there is amounts to a tincture of the cyber-attack dread now familiar to anyone who has watched a network-TV thriller since 24 hit the airwaves 11 years ago. There's just one tricked-out car, and saying more about it would dampen one of the few laughs in this mostly stern little event.
Most of the other mirth on display comes courtesy of Bardem, who makes Silva a more talkative version of his Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. His one long scene opposite Craig is a love song, delivered with just enough threat to generate suspense later, with the awareness that he's still getting valuable mileage from having played the indestructible Chigurh. And there are, for the first time in a while in this series (maybe ever), a couple of suspenseful moments, thanks to that echo of menace.
If that's a cheat, well, this is a Bond movie. The most self-aware (all right, the car is Goldfinger's Aston Martin), nostalgic (see last parenthetical), English (ibid) Bond movie ever conceived, but still.
It's also the most stylized and arthouse, thanks to Mendes' favorite cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins. (Also the Coen brothers' go-to camera guy, Deakins shot Bardem in No Country.) Rebuking the shaky action of Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies while outwitting genre convention, Deakins uses light, color and filtration to make some of Skyfall's action sequences memorably balletic and painterly.
But it's a plain, quiet scene, co-starring a painting, that Mendes wants us to think about. As Bond awaits a new Q (Ben Whishaw) at the National Gallery, he stares at J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up," an 1838 depiction of a steamship towing a vessel of the Napoleonic Wars to the scrapyard. By this point, several people have wished Bond good luck, all with an implied, "You're going to need it, old chap." Craig doesn't play Bond discernibly older than his own 44 years, but he finds some weary new notes in the character.
He needs those notes to sell a climax that cranks the backstory pathos to Harry Potter levels (drowned out when Silva shows up blaring the Animals' 1964 single "Boom Boom" from a helicopter full of the usual faceless henchmeat). The idea of Bond and M (Judi Dench, as Judi Dench) billeting at the Bond family estate in Glencoe (the Scottish place Fleming said his creation was from after he saw Connery in the part) is more of that looking back, more of that Nolan urge for exposition. But don't think about it too much or else you'll start missing the old world-domination plots, and that would be worse.
Besides, Skyfall's sometimes cloyingly self-aware nostalgia is a witty nod to the amnesiac Bourne and a firm assertion of British identity. This is, after all, the kind of movie that gives one of Charles Noke's Royal Doulton ceramic bulldogs more screen time than the first of Bond's exotic conquests. For now, anyway, it feels oddly right to see a 007 with a license to Churchill.