Of all the marvelous feats that make Skyfall such a thrilling addition to the James Bond movie canon, the greatest may be that the 23rd entry conveys the melancholy of loss, mortality, and future-shock anxiety, while at the same time leaving us plenty of space to enjoy one of the most complexly unhinged villains in Bond history. Bounding back four years after the sour stasis of Quantum of Solace and 50 years after Mr. Bond ordered his first martini on screen, this freshly oxygenated entry the third starring the totally captivating cool cucumber Daniel Craig as Agent 007 is both an elegy and a mission statement. It's also a great, long-lasting jolt of pleasure.
''We're under attack,'' barks the iron-spined MI6 chief known as M, once again played to silvery perfection by Judi Dench. She communicates that heads-up to 007, who doesn't need to be told twice: Following a goggling, hell-for-leather opening chase that climaxes in a shoot-out atop trains speeding through the outskirts of Istanbul, a mission gone wrong results in the grave compromise of M's entire British intelligence organization. And all clues lead to the cyberterrorist called Silva, pale of hair and eyebrow but rich with delicious psychological mischief, supplied by Javier Bardem. (As he proved in No Country for Old Men, the Oscar-winning Spaniard loves a character with a mad hairdo.)
The chase is on, sometimes even in 007's original silver Aston Martin, a relic rich with memories for so many who have watched the secret agent's exploits over the years. Bond and Silva share a past. Bond and M share a past. At one point Bond digs even into his own childhood, which allows for a deepening of dramatic color for Craig, who has by now fixed his character's posture as his own.
The most elegant feat in Skyfall, though, may be the way director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan bestow goodbyes and hellos, setting the franchise up for an interesting future. Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) fits in neatly as a skinny, mop-haired, bespectacled MI6 cyberwonk who's known as...Q. Ralph Fiennes occupies an important space (I'll say no more) as a government type. Naomie Harris steps up as a fellow agent both beautiful and brainy. Under the production design of Dennis Gassner, even London itself displays symbols of past and present, especially when MI6 moves into temporary digs as bare-bones as those of a Web start-up company. Skyfall teaches the cold fact that the world is now run by a new generation of wily players who are adept, almost by birthright, at manifesting both evil and its antidote with the flick of a finger on a computer keyboard. "This is a young man's game," says Bond. The future looks scary in an entirely new way. But M also offers her devoted employee even more valuable advice: ''Don't cock it up.'' Craig, Mendes, and Logan don't. On the contrary, they keep calm. They carry on. And they save the empire. The James Bond empire. A