Any James Bond movie worth a damn gives you the entire candy store, the whole pop culture checklist: a breathlessly tense preliminary battle followed by a wavy-hazy-lady opening credits sequence (and title song preferably performed by whichever version of Shirley Bassey is currently having her moment -- in this case Adele, and rightly so), exotic locations, timely political menace and less timely sexual politics, the threat of extinction and Bond's superhero capacity for bottom-of-the-ninth triumph, tricks, gadgets, cars, speed, suits, perversity, effortlessness. If Stefon from SNL's "Weekend Update" were announcing a new club called SKYFALL that's "got everything," it'd be this movie. It leaps above and beyond, ranking as not only the best of the Daniel Craig films but one of the best of the entire 23-movie run.
But I lied about effortlessness. Bond, here, is anything but. He's straining. He's unhappy. He's out-of-shape (well, by Bond standards, at least). He's wrung out. At the starting bell he's presumed deceased and probably wishes he'd stayed there, seemingly annoyed with himself for failing to genuinely die before he got old. Pushed back into service to figure out who's Internet-terrorizing MI6, the path leads him to places he's not sure he wants to go. His stations of the cross involve his complex relationship with the equally unsettled and beleaguered M (Judi Dench), his murky past, his own neuroses and fears of irrelevance and, best of all, the slippery menace of Javier Bardem as the most flamboyantly funny, creepy and terrifying Bond lunatic in recent memory. This guy's entrance scene alone should win him some kind of award, even if it's just one of those fake popcorns that MTV hands out.
Framing this battle at every turn is director Sam Mendes and his second set of eyes, the wizardly cinematographer Roger Deakins. Together they've created the most beautifully deep focus context for Bond yet, pushing and pulling him into landscapes that overwhelm him: high rises, speeding trains, crowd-crushed marketplaces, drowning lakes, martini-filled casinos and giant lizard pits that each promise the physically compromised spy nothing less than the most cinematically gorgeous sort of doom.
And it's reactionary, crackling with a tingling fear of its own demise. Not just as subtext, either. When a Bond movie's universe has to play catch-up to the current moment, when young people and their new-fangled technology (whether employed for good or evil) are problems to be solved, when the story is forced to question its heroes' efficacy in the face of a changing world of espionage and feels the need to overtly side with old-fashioned methods of dealing with trouble, when its characters have to invoke the accumulated knowledge and spirit of its own brutishly dominant Mad Men-era origins, you know that Bond has taken a turn. Whether it's a u-turn toward the comfortably, pleasurably retro or just a dog-legged lurch into an unformed future is anyone's guess for now. But the trip -- and all of its backward-glance nostalgia -- is worth it if it means more scenes of Judi Dench constructing and hurling nail bombs at the attacking hordes.