Here's a tip for audiences headed for Skyfall, the 50th Anniversary James Bond outing. The code word is "game"...as in playful. Indeed, in this twenty-third official Bond film, the most conspicuously repeated word is "game," the most dangerous of which Bond typically is, pursues, or plays. Directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripted by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, Skyfall finds Daniel Craig's Bond musing aloud to Judi Dench's M, "We're both played out" and, soon thereafter, once more striding tux-clad into a house of games. Bond plays along as his masters and colleagues subject him to a number of tests, including word association (the "word game") and a coy, impromptu Rorschach test in an art gallery.
Skyfall's most satisfying scenes—arguably more memorable than the spectacularly sporting action—are the multiple rounds of verbal jousting, between Bond and "M," Bond and "Q" (series newcomer Ben Whishaw, conspicuously sporting a Scrabble mug), Bond and fellow agent Eve (a snappy Naomie Harris), Bond and exotic beauty Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe, sticking her landing), and, of course, Bond and super-baddie Raoul Silva (a deliciously vicious Javier Bardem). Under Mendes' sensitive direction, Craig and company play each of these duets as a kind of seduction (Bond's specialty): look sideways at any of them, and it seems as much a slow dance as a tilting match.
Don't get me wrong: Skyfall isn't a deep film. But as a movie-movie (the franchise's marked territory), this Bond proves elegantly designed and constructed, making it as classy as they've come over the last half-century. As we've come to expect from our franchise pictures these days, Skyfall comes with more than a soupçon of navel-gazing, and the doubts are as on point as they are familiar: relevance ("Isn't it all rather quaint?" M asks), "unresolved childhood trauma," getting too old for this (a rattled, grey-beard Bond and an "M" facing retirement), remorse ("Think on your sins," taunts Silva), and terrorism's threat to accelerate the crumbling of empire (to which Mendes supplies an "Ozymandias"-style imagistic analogue).
I'm deliberately avoiding spoilers—best to go in untainted—but it's fair to say that Skyfall both ruthlessly rips off the tales of other iconic characters (Sherlock Holmes, the Dark Knight) and puts into play most of the classic Bond tropes as the picture deconstructs and reconstructs his universe. There's also a character transparently written for a presumably unwilling Sean Connery (Albert Finney plays it with aplomb, croaking, "I was ready before you were born, son").
Like the Harry Potter series, the latest Bond serves up the "best of British" when it comes to talent, from Ralph Fiennes (here a surprisingly spry bureaucrat) to cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) to title-tune-crooning Adele. Oh, and one Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose "Ulysses" becomes a Dench-recited summation of Bond's eternal heroism.
Bond makes a crack about "the circle of life," and indeed the series remains destined to retrace its steps, making the tracks just a bit deeper each time around. Mendes manages Bond's most haunted outing yet, captured in the image of his lone Aston-Martin wending its way through a vast highland landscape, back to the world of hurt that long ago sent him running into the spy game.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]