The James Bond franchise seems to be feeling a bit defensive. After 007 (Daniel Craig) chases a killer through Istanbul to recover a hard drive containing information about undercover agents, M (Judi Dench) wonders if it's time for him to hang up his Walther PPK. Bond and the young tech wiz Q (Ben Whishaw) trade zingers about how espionage has changed into something that's not just about "exploding pens." And when M is called before a government committee, she has to explain why her field agents are still relevant. For the past 50 years, Bond films have ended with the promise "James Bond will return." Skyfall suggests that we should ask why.
As it turns out, the better question is how. Craig's two previous Bond adventures - 2006's Casino Royale and 2008's Quantum of Solace - aimed to bring the legendary agent back down to earth. The invulnerable, wisecracking superhero is gone, replaced by a man who survives a near-death experience physically and psychically scarred. His antagonist is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative-turned-cyberterrorist who holds a grudge against his former employers, without a megalomaniacal plot in sight. Skyfall wants to be more authentically human than its predecessors.
That doesn't mean an absence of action. Director Sam Mendes shoots chases and fistfights with clean, minimalist flair but nods to vintage Bond's theatricality by having one brawl take place in a pit full of Komodo dragons. And Bond still encounters lovely, dangerous women with whom he can share repartee - or a shower.
Though past Bond adventures often felt like strung-together set pieces, Skyfall is a cohesive story from a filmmaker who knows how to mount tension subtly. Silva's first entrance provides a brilliant example. In a single, sustained take, he slowly strides toward Bond, oozing confidence. An up-close-and-too-personal encounter between Silva and Bond captures the kind of psychological warfare Bond films have too rarely explored. Add terrific cinematography by Roger Deakins, whether in the neon glow of Shanghai or the dirty light of a Macau casino, and you have a tale that feels like actual cinema.
Skyfall's screenplay is out to blow up - in some cases literally - some of the crutches that have propped up our hero in the past. At times, it gets too strident in making sure we understand this is a different Bond for a different time, and perhaps it becomes too easy to predict how Bond might triumph. But, for the most part, it's good that the film doesn't assume we should care about the franchise. Skyfall shows that every new Bond adventure needs to convince us that a secret agent with a soul can be just as exciting as an exploding pen.