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‘Skyfall’ may be greatest Bond film of all

They didn’t let the queen down. But then, how could they? When Daniel Craig and the International Olympic Committee somehow got the Queen of England to agree to a good-humored cameo as the grandest “Bond Girl” of all time – wherein doubles for her and Craig parachuted out of a plane to Bondian music into London’s Olympic Stadium – the Bond franchise couldn’t help but be put on notice: Sure this may be the 50th anniversary year of Bond movies, but when you manage to enlist Her Majesty in your pre-movie promotion stunt, you’d jolly well have a final film worthy of a sitting monarch.

Well, they do. In every way, “Skyfall” – the 50th anniversary of James Bond on film since “Dr. No” – may be the greatest Bond film of them all. Certainly, it’s the only one for both permanent adolescents and fully fledged adults. It isn’t just a behemoth, location-hopping, stunt-packed toy fair and action extravaganza. It’s all of that, but it’s a genuinely great movie, too – one of the best of 2012 – and not just a spectacular display case for testosterone fantasies that are shaken, not stirred.

It is, believe me, no accident that a serious, Oscar-winning movie director was in charge here – Sam Mendes of “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” fame. Nor is it purely incidental that the magnificent cinematographer here is Roger Deakins, best known for being on virtual retainer for the Coen brothers and also for such sumptuous-looking films as “The Reader,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Kundun.”

It isn’t just full of the usual mind-boggling stunts around the world with a globe-rattling villain threatening world havoc and endangering all the lives we truly care about in a Bond film, including James’ own. What makes it so powerful a Bond film is that it is simultaneously that and a brilliant mediation by some extraordinarily talented Brits on mortality and just what the point of Bond films ought to be, besides pots and pots of money.

The budget for this golden anniversary Bond was supposedly $150 million.

Immense international success is as assured as a worldwide TV viewership for that opening ceremony stunt at the summer Olympics. It’s virtually a rite of civilization.

Strictly as a film, though, students of movies may some day see “Skyfall” as having the same elegiac relationship to Bond films as “The Searchers” has to Westerns. At the end of “Skyfall,” in fact, there has been death and transfiguration. (The music is by Thomas Newman, not Richard Strauss. The estimable Adele sings the opening theme, one of the better Bond songs though not on par with “Nobody Does It Better,” “For Your Eyes Only,” “Live and Let Die” and “Goldfinger.”)

The Bond films began in a kind of Playboy magazine 1960s world as adolescent and post-adolescent fantasies for the Western male. (Remember that the most famous self-confessed addict of all to Ian Fleming’s original novels was John F. Kennedy, a man with a very real taste for luxury, fleeting sexual encounters and international political bravado.)

“Skyfall” is a majestic defense of something almost grown up that they’ve now turned into (after, their relentlessly cheerful Roger Moore incarnations where they were as adolescent as they’d ever be).

Lest anyone argue that the old thrills, spills and derring-do take a back seat to emotion here, “Skyfall” gives you in its opening minutes, all the chase bravura you can stand. Motorcycles crash through Third World streets in Istanbul, overturning fruit carts (of course; Roger Ebert will no doubt be pleased). Bond launches himself from his motorcycle to the top of a speeding train to crush cars full of Volkswagen Beetles and duke it out with a bad guy while a sharpshooting fellow agent follows the action from far away with the scope on her high-powered rifle.

Let’s just say that doesn’t go optimally, but it brings you fully into the world of “Skyfall,” which is eager to make sure you remember that there are still real shadows in a digital universe and human lives are at stake underneath all the flamboyant cinematic spectacle.

It’s magnificent this time around, whether you’re with James on the job in China or off the job in grubby bars having drinking contests with a live scorpion perched precariously on his knuckles. We’ve always known that James’ are made of brass but in his advancing years in a changing world, he’s clearly lost a step.

Everywhere but within. And there, his resolve is as stout as ever.

“To hell with dignity,” says the mature James Bond in an MI6 full of struggles for relevance and younger agents replete with skills Bond either no longer has or never had in the first place.

To watch a James Bond film with soul and genuine poignance is almost a radical advance in the international megaplex.

But this is your 50th anniversary Bond, after all, where there’s a cameo for Wolf Blitzer, a juicy part for Ralph Fiennes and a final appearance by a grand old bearded Albert Finney to uphold the glory of British cinema (just as, in his way, Richard Harris did in the early Harry Potter films).

Mostly, though, there is Javier Bardem as a terrific Bond villain with the hilariously long blond locks of an ancient wrestling star and, even better, Dench as the apotheosis of Bond’s superior M, now and for all time.

Here, for his 50th year, is a James Bond film that isn’t just meant as a crackerjack throwaway – a hugely entertaining fantasy night at the megaplex to marvel over all that transitory cool.

Here, for this golden anniversary film, is a James Bond film that can give you a James Bond worth more than mere adolescent emulation. Here is a Bond you actually give a damn about. And then some.

I hope I don’t sound disrespectful or ungrateful but it’s about bloody time.


4 stars

Starring: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney

Director: Sam Mendes

Running time: 145 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for spectacular Bond movie action and intensity, language, smoking and some sexuality.

The Lowdown: The lives of James Bond and his superior M are both endangered by a crazy ex-MI6 agent.