Skyfall: Bond and Bardem Go Boom

For its golden anniversary, the old franchise gets spiffy and serious

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Francois Duhamel/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions

Back from the dead, again, James Bond (Daniel Craig) shows up late one night in the apartment of his MI6 boss M (Judi Dench), who, weeks before, gave orders for him to be shot by a fellow spy while battling a bad guy on the top of a high-speed train. M, never one for misting up, explains it was just the rules of the espionage game, which he should know by now: “You’ve been playing it long enough.” Bond squints and says, “Maybe too long,”

Is a half-century too long a career for a movie secret agent? The Bond series, which began 50 falls ago with Dr. No, outlived its ’60s eclat, which made Sean Connery a worldwide star and inspired dozens if not hundreds of smirky secret-agent capers, then managed to coast through subsequent decades with the lightweights Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan as 007 and the minutest variations on the theme. Craig, the sixth official Bond, introduced a brute, curt tone to the spy: no suave dandy, he was Her Majesty’s most efficient thug, a Jason Bourne with sharper clothes and an English accent. But, still, 50 years. Why go on, except to feather the estate of author Ian Fleming, sustain the ambitions of the Broccoli family—the series producers from the beginning—and to feed an undemanding, lifetime habit of the global audience?

(READ: Corliss on 50 Years of Bond Films)

The cool accomplishment of Skyfall, 23rd in the Broccoli franchise, is that it seems a necessary, rather than mandatory, addition to the year’s popular culture. While trading on viewers’ familiarity with the series’ venerable fetishes (a cheer rises at the sight of Bond’s old Aston Martin and the sound of Monty Norman’s guitar theme from Dr. No), Skyfall has the life, grandeur and gravity of a satisfying, stand-alone entertainment. There are times, notably when Javier Bardem commandeers center screen as the preening villain Silva, when you can sit back in wonder and forget it’s a Bond film.

The script, by old Bond hands Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with emendations by John Logan (RangoHugoSweeney Todd), nicely recasts its indomitable adventurer as a middle-age salaryman in a rut. The man needs rehab to overcome incipient alcoholism and a personal cause — protecting M from Silva’s revenge — to stoke his spirit. As Bond is revived, so is the franchise. This is one of its strongest efforts, and surely the fizziest film ever directed by the over-awarded Sam Mendes, whose previous work (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) fells victim to tiresome social statements. Mendes seems fully energized here, aided by Craig in his third Bond effort and some veteran craftspeople, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner (both from Coen brothers movies), at the top of their game. Eve (Naomie Harris), the MI6 recruit set to assist, and then shoot, 007, has the right idea when she purrs, “Old dog, new tricks.”

Let’s see, which brilliant madmen is plotting global havoc this time? In Skyfall it’s Silva, a cyber-brainiac who has stolen a list of Western undercover agents embedded in terrorist cells. Retrieving that computer chip was Bond’s reason for being in Istanbul, enduring a motorbike chase of Silva’s henchman through the Grand Bazaar and over rooftops (three Craig Bond films, three rooftop chases) and continuing the battle on the top of that speeding train, where Eve shot Bond, not the bad guy. While Bond is out of action, the evil genius has hacked into M’s computer and blown up MI6 headquarters. While M’s government overseer Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) suggests she consider a graceful retirement, the agency is moved to a subterranean cavern that would dwarf the Baths of Caracalla. Indeed, much of the film takes place underground (in the London tube network) or underwater (where Bond falls to his presumed death at two crucial points).

(READ: Javier Bardem talks to TIME about becoming a Bond villain)

From the moment Silva appears, on an island whose inhabitants he scared away with another of his cyberthreats, Skyfall ascends to a weirder, wilder level. Making his Oscar-winning performance as the crazed, stun-gun killer in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men seem like a triumph of minimalism by comparison, Bardem parades the sick majesty of derangement. Silva’s bleach-blond hair, effeminate manner and fondness for stroking Bond’s thighs and chest are mere ornaments to his psychopathy; what’s scary is the way he has channeled his rage against M into an end-the-world view. He scores his atrocities with onomatopoeic tunes — Charles Trenet’s “Boum!” and The Animals‘ “Boom Boom” — and makes as pounding and resounding an impression. Bardem must have been instructed to go big, Hannibal Lecter big, and for most of the film he persuades that overacting is the only kind of acting. The other performers are just stenographers and stunt players.

In the hour of movie time before Silva shows up, the Craig Bond is enlisted to recall the Connery Bond: drinking (though more than a gentleman should), fighting (in a splendid scene that shows the combatants as MMA silhouettes against the gaudy neon of a Shanghai skyscraper) and wooing. Skyfall‘s disposable Bond girl is Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), silky ornament of the Macao casino and Bond’s conduit to Silva. Marlohe, of French-Chinese ancestry, suggests a lustrous hybrid of Eva Green, who played Bond’s love Vesper Lynd in the 2006 Casino Royale, and Gong Li. A vamp who is also a victim, Sévérine can’t quite mask her fear of Silva and his murderous minions; the thought freezes the edges of her practiced smile, and lends her a poignance rare in the series, for she wears her wounds with style.

(READ: Corliss on the 2006 Casino Royale)

Except for a shave (with Eve) and a shower (with Sévérine), Bond has little time for sexy women. His central relationship here is with M, his MI6 mum. Tiny, frosty and powerful, she is Queen Elizabeth II to Bond’s (more assertive) Prince Charles. The Queen has her corgis, M her beloved paperweight of a Churchillian bulldog draped in the Union Jack. Unlike Bernard Lee, who played M as a gruff but understanding uncle in the first 11 Bond films, Dench’s M has shown a streak of meanness and an assumption that Bond is a valuable but replaceable asset. She assumes both that he will put his life on the line and that she can terminate him for purposes of national security. Yet Bond, the abused son, remains loyal — why? He must love his country, or her.

Recall that at the opening ceremony of this summer’s London games, Elizabeth made a guest appearance, implicitly in the M role, with Craig as Bond; the two purportedly leaped from a helicopter and, sporting Union Jack parachutes, landed in the Olympic Stadium — a perfectly executed skyfall. The movie imagines a direr descent for M and Bond. Her life is threatened by another of her underloved sonny-boy spies: Silva, whom she turned over to Chinese agents for torture 15 years ago. He cannot forget mother’s mistreatment. The screen of her computer, which he has hacked, shows a cartoon of M, as the Queen, morphing into a skull, with the warning, “Think on your sins.” For Silva, taking down Britain is just collateral damage to killing mommie dearest.

All right, Silva has mother issues to resolve, but should Bond? One reason for the sustained appeal of 007 is that he was born grown up. Viewers could assume an aristocratic background and an Oxbridgean education, but those social accoutrements mattered less than his choice in wines and guns. Fleming’s Bond, a descendant of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer, was a fantasy agent. It was his job, not a way of exorcising family demons.

(READ: Roger Moore on why Daniel Craig is the best James Bond ever)

But the writers of Skyfall, undoubtedly noticing the origin stories of Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man and Iron-Man, decided to concentrate on Bond’s past: the death of his parents when he was a lad originally referred to in Flemings’ You Only Live Twice. As M observes with her standard chilliness, “Orphans make the best agents”; we’re to infer that Bond is so devoted to her because he lost his own mother. Thus, at what should be its climax, the movie takes a long detour to Scotland and Castle Bond (you can guess its name), where 007, M and Silva will have their final rendezvous.

I realize that to be disappointed by the last act of Skyfall is to admit exhilaration at the preceding two hours. Grading Bond films is not the priority of a critic, who, like the rest of the world, tends to consume them like multi-hundred-million-dollar TV shows (with the many product placements substituting for commercials). So one could call this the Best Bond Ever, as some reviewers have, and not mean it as the highest praise. Better to see it as a welcome defibrillator for a venerable franchise. On its way back from the dead, like Bond, the old dog has learned some new tricks.

MORE: 50 Things You Didn’t Know About James Bond