The sky is falling in “Skyfall,” the newest and most ambitious of the ancient and formulaic tales of James Bond.
The movie series began with “Dr. No” in 1962, and by now a real Commander Bond would be puttering about the garden in Kent, helping the grandchildren gather seashells on Mallorca, or more likely moldering in some unmarked grave in the former East Germany.
So it is fitting that a palpable sense of mortality drenches “Skyfall,” right from the standard outlandish set piece of the opening, along with many pleasurable winks at iconic settings, events and props from the superspy’s past adventures.
This marks Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond, and it is by far his best. This time, he plays a man who might be slipping, just like the house of secrets he works for, looming thuggishly over an otherwise pleasant stretch of the Thames.
As usual though, Bond begins far away from the London headquarters of MI6. He also starts off with help, in the thin but lovely form of Naomie Harris as a young agent, Eve.
They are racing through Istanbul, a key setting in the second — and best — Bond adventure, “From Russia with Love,” and revisited in the very decent “The World is Not Enough.” FRWL came before the series settled into its outlandish routines, and "Skyfall" attempts to recapture its hard edge.
As the series has aged, the openings have become stand-alone episodes, whose combination of spectacle and silliness serves as reminder that this is the same franchise, not as an introduction to the new adventure.
So in “Skyfall,” things are going along in typical Bond fashion: a motorcycle chase along the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. That somehow moves to the top of a moving train, where, when the villain decouples cars, Bond grabs control of a backhoe and uses it to bridge the gap, smashing the bucket through the roof of the next down.
It is a scene where Bond gets shot, but nonchalantly hops down through the gaping hole, tugs his shirt cuff back into place, and continues the chase.
And then, things go terribly wrong.
James Bond is dead.
That seldom happened to any of the other guys.
Of course, it would not be much of a Bond film without Bond. But the script, begun by Peter Morgan and then credited to Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan means to put Bond and Craig through their paces.
So when we see James again, he is grizzled, dressed like a beachcomber, drinking heavily and performing tricks for an appreciative crowd in a beachfront bar. But like an annoying but less effective version of Bond, CNN is inescapable. When he awakes in the gray morning, alone but for a bartender, there is bad news on the box.
Chickens come home to roost in “Skyfall,” particularly for Judi Dench, in her seventh appearance as Bond’s ruthless boss, M. It seems one of her star agents from her days as MI6 station chief in Hong Kong, bears a grudge. Unlike other films in this series, "Skyfall" at least suggests that the good guys are not all that good, and not always smart.
As a further sign that this is a serious undertaking, director Sam Mendes recruited Javier Bardem to play Silva, embittered and playful, crazed and needy. Over the years, he has turned himself into the world’s best hacker, but he has never forgiven M for her past sins.
His role is no “Biutiful,” but Bardem gives “Skyfall” something recent Bond movies have generally lacked, a memorable villain. Coming from the same workhouse, Silva can see Bond for what he is: broken. This Bond sweats and strains, breathes hard and struggles to control his shaking hand.