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Though uneven, much of new Bond film is brilliant

Released on the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films, “Skyfall” is simultaneously one of the series’ most rousing entries and one of its most vexing.

Delayed several years by studio bankruptcy, Daniel Craig’s third 007 outing doesn’t sustain its high points as elegantly as the magnificent “Casino Royale,” but it is miles better than the ADD-afflicted “Quantum of Solace.”

In many ways “Skyfall” is the movie “Quantum” should have been, particularly in the way it ends. The final scene of “Quantum” reiterated the final scene of “Royale” – the new guy is James Bond now! – but the final scene of “Skyfall” gives the series room to grow. The deck has been cleared, the table reset.

It’s too soon to talk about the ending, though. You want to hear about the beginning, right? “Skyfall” opens with a stunner of an action sequence, an open-throttle chase through Istanbul that starts in cars, switches to motorcycles and winds up on a train with a crane.

This robust and audacious set piece, 007’s best since the “GoldenEye” tank chase, gets more inventive and hair-raising as it plows ahead. It showcases Craig’s pugnacious athleticism and finally allows him a moment of quintessentially Bond savior faire when he straightens his cuffs after a daredevil leap.

Craig recruited Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, who directed him in “The Road to Perdition,” to take charge of “Skyfall.” Mendes is not the genius the industry proclaims him to be (for reasons I don’t have time to go into, he got lucky with his first film, “American Beauty”), but he was a childhood Bond fan and hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the character.

That is a promising situation. Over in British television, wonderful things happened with the revived “Doctor Who” when writers Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat were given the reins of their boyhood hero. Mendes follows their lead. “Skyfall” is a more sophisticated, more knowing and more adult Bond movie while remaining true to the character’s essence.

Even more than “Casino Royale,” this story delves into Bond’s emotional and personal life. After a computer drive containing the list of all undercover British operatives goes missing (shades of the first “Mission: Impossible” movie), the secret service comes under assault on two fronts. M (Judi Dench) is called before Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the politician in charge of intelligence oversight. Then an unknown villain with a grudge against M detonates a bomb in MI6 headquarters.

Bond remains loyal to M through these travails, but he learns M wasn’t always loyal to him.

One of the worst things that happened to the Bond films in the last 20 years was Dench winning her Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.” For the producers, Dench could no longer be merely the person who gave 007 his assignment at the beginning of the movie; she had to be integrated into the story. Increasingly, the films became the James Bond and M show. “Skyfall” is the biggest James Bond and M show yet, but they do get it right this time.

With earlier attempts, especially “The World Is Not Enough,” traditional elements of the Bond formula interfered with the focus on the love-hate relationship between Bond and his boss. Most of the old elements were swept aside with Craig’s arrival in “Casino Royale,” so nothing gets in the way of Craig and Dench’s intense soul searching. There can be no question that “Skyfall” is the most dramatic and well-acted Bond. You can question, though, how well this suits the series.

One traditional element of the old Bond formula sorely missing from “Skyfall” is romance. Craig enjoys clinches with two actresses, Naomie Harris as fellow MI6 agent Eve and Bérénice Marlohe as mysterious contact Sévérine, but neither qualifies as a full-fledged leading lady. This is the second film in a row Craig hasn’t been given a worthy romantic interest. The producers had better fix this, because all work and no play can make James a dull boy.

One traditional element impossible to miss in “Skyfall” is the villain. Oscar-winning Javier Bardem portrays the bad guy, Silva, as the answer to the question “What if Hannibal Lector were a James Bond villain.” Silva is the scariest villain Bond has ever faced, and with a vendetta against M he declares all-out war on MI6.

Mendes makes Bardem’s introduction memorable. Silva appears halfway into the film delivering a monologue about rat extermination as he walks toward Bond in a long, single take. However, like too many of his recent forbears (Jonathan Pryce, Sophie Marceau), Bardem is a world-class performer who views playing a Bond villain as a license to overact. Things get really weird when he starts referring to M as “Mommy.” The world did not need a Bond villain with an Oedipus complex.

Another traditional element finally back in the fold is gadget master Q. Played by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”), the younger Q is waspish and more computer-savvy than fusty old Desmond LLewelyn. He still hectors Bond about returning equipment intact, even though he provides only a new Walther PPK and a radio transmitter. “You were expecting an exploding pen?” Q asks. “We don’t really go in for that any more.”

You may be wondering that if Q is back, can Miss Moneypenny be far behind? Keep watching.

For the film crew, Mendes imports two of his past collaborators, cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also shoots for the Coen Brothers) and composer Thomas Newman.

Deakins gives “Skyfall” a burnished and haunting, almost gaunt, look unusual to Bond. In a gorgeously shot fight, Bond and an assassin are silhouetted by a Shanghai skyscraper’s changing neon signs.

Newman’s score doesn’t rely as heavily on John Barry’s archetypal Bond music as previous composer David Arnold did, although those brassy cues still blare at the right moment. Newman also incorporates an instrumental version of Adele’s sumptuous theme song, the best since Sheena Easton warbled “For Your Eyes Only.”

As a director, Mendes often does a fantastic job of polishing the individual pieces of his films but a poor job of assembling them into a coherent whole. The first and second acts of “Skyfall” seem to come from different movies, while the third act spins off into a different genre altogether.

A comprehensible plot has always been more luxury than necessity for Bond, so Mendes’ uneven handling doesn’t cause lasting damage. Oddly, the first half – at least until Silva appears – is built from plot points taken from three of the weakest films, “You Only Live Twice,” “The Man With the Golden Gun” and “The World Is not Enough.”

When “Skyfall” reaches the point where other Bonds would start wrapping things up, it veers into a direction new to the series. However, this very specific direction is familiar from about a dozen other movies. Naming their titles would give away too much, but if you know movies, a few will pop into mind.

The most frustrating aspect of “Skyfall” is that three films into the Daniel Craig era, the producers remain in relaunch mode. At this point in their secret servitude, Sean Connery and Roger Moore were hitting their stride, but Craig’s Bond is asked once more to prove himself a tough and capable secret agent able to get the job done.

Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli spent Craig’s first two movies reestablishing James Bond as a character (they needed only one, which is why the redundant “Quantum of Solace” is more annoying in retrospect). With “Skyfall,” they aim to reestablish James Bond as a concept. The world that novelist Ian Fleming created 60 years ago, of an imperial-era secret service sending out a single gentleman agent who relies on wits and bravery to fight evil, is put on trial. Silva mocks it, and British politicians threaten to defund it.

When the drab modern world is poised to claim victory, Bond looks for salvation in his past. “We need to go back in time,” he says, and he selects the perfect time machine for the journey. By the end, his world looks more like 1962 than it has since Timothy Dalton’s days.

“Skyfall” is less a James Bond movie than a movie that makes a statement about being a James Bond movie. It celebrates a 50-year-old formula while trying to avoid being trapped by it. This is a fine line, but Mendes walks it without too many missteps. Most of “Skyfall” is very good, and parts of it are brilliant.

Still, I hope Wilson and Broccoli have got all the meta commentary, psychoanalysis and introductory material out of their system. Next time they need to relax and just make a James Bond movie.

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