'Skyfall': James Bond still going at 50 ★★★ 1/2

Thanks to Mendes, Craig and Dench, the Bond franchise stays current while still feeling its age

Early on in his stage career, director Sam Mendes worked with Dame Judi Dench on a production of "The Cherry Orchard." Now they have reteamed for a slightly less Chekhovian project: the 23rd official James Bond film (24th if you count the Sean Connery off-brander "Never Say Never Again"). It's the seventh featuring Dench as M, Bond's steely handler, and more to the box office point, the third featuring Daniel Craig as 007, the licensed and, in fact, bonded killer.

This time our man James is charged with rescuing a rapidly shifting geopolitical world from a computer-savvy adversary who shares one trait, at least, with the Bond villains of the pre-digital Cold War era: an ability to attract and retain a mini-army of machine-gun-toting minions, ready to take the fall for their leader.

The peculiar thing is, "Skyfall" — a terrific entertainment most of the way — contains an undercurrent of loss and bitter nostalgia that wouldn't be out of place in Chekhov, the motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul notwithstanding. This Bond suffers harsh setbacks, physical and psychological, and must get his mojo back (just like Austin Powers, to name one of many Bond-dependent comic leeches) before his hard-won triumph and assertion, through action, that there'll always be an England, and very likely a British secret service to serve and protect.

The action's often stunning in "Skyfall." This was the worry going in. Did director Mendes, best known for "American Beauty" and the violent but hermetic "Road to Perdition," have any real facility for expansive, explosive, kinetic movement on screen? The answer was yes. He did. He does.

The opening launches a frenetic chase — Bond is after somebody with a list of agency operatives — conducted in cars, on motorcycles, and then aboard a speeding train, in and outside Istanbul. It's a gas. Not incidentally, the sequence introduces Bond's field ally, played with great relish and authority by Naomie Harris, and ends with a surprising turnabout, setting up "Skyfall" as a two-track adventure. One track follows Bond as he rehabilitates himself and pursues the shadowy rogue played by Javier Bardem, the most singular Bond baddie in decades. The other track follows the fortunes of M, the head of MI6 (Dench, better than ever), as she fends off criticisms within her own government about the viability of the agency, and of fighting terrorism the old-fashioned way.

This is where we are now with this franchise, which just turned 50 with a bang ("Skyfall" has already made $300 million outside America). Bond and M and their ilk must justify their methods, their very existence. The movie is serious business. But rest assured: "Skyfall" doesn't feel like a 10-ton load of morbid self-seriousness, the way "The Dark Knight Rises" did. It's reasonably grown-up escapism, but with the swank and polish and movie smarts to deliver what Bond has always delivered: death, over and over, by various means and in glamorously diverse locales. Early in "Skyfall" Craig's Bond undergoes a word-association personality test at headquarters. "Murder," says the examiner. "Employment," answers Bond, through his teeth.

The story trots from Turkey to London to Shanghai to Macao to Scotland, starting with a conscious throwback (the train sequence) to "From Russia With Love"-era Bond, moving on to grim acts of 21st century-brand urban terrorism (London under attack from Bardem's master sniveler) and culminating in a scene taking Bond and M to the wilds of Scotland. At this point "Skyfall" becomes a kind of Western, albeit a Western with helicopters. This part goes on, and while the protracted third act doesn't kill the two-hour, 23-minute picture, "Casino Royale" remains the best of the recent Bonds, with "Skyfall" just a notch below it.

The movie looks gorgeous. Roger Deakins, one of the greatest cinematographers alive, makes everything glow, even in the Scottish mist. There are some swell character re-castings and updatings, thanks to Harris (no spoilers here) and to Ben Whishaw's officious young Q, who issues Bond his rather meager spy equipment with the line: "Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore." The script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, revised by John Logan, displays some wit and manages to tell its story straight, a nice improvement over the previous and mechanical Bond exercise, "Quantum of Solace." In a Time Out London interview, Craig acknowledged the previous Bond film's weaknesses. "We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers' strike and there was nothing we could do," he said. "The rules were that you couldn't employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just."

"Skyfall" is more like it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Skyfall' -- 3 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking)
Running time: 2:23
Opens: 12:07 a.m. Wednesday

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