A Bond best 

Director Sam Mendes adds grit to franchise.

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Daniel Craig was born in 1968, six years after the first James Bond movie was released and 44 years before the release of the 23rd Bond flick, "Skyfall." That comes high in this discussion of "Skyfall" because much of the film is predicated on how old Bond is -- it's a hard life of late nights, fistfights, martinis, bedding beautiful women only days or hours before they're killed, getting shot in the torso, and on and on, and Craig spends much of the film looking weathered, haunted. His blue irises pop all the more dramatically with scarlet capillaries flowering around them. Never one to smile easily, this Bond is your "Dark Knight" 007, a hero so burdened by the mantle that he appears not only mortal but perhaps ready to welcome whatever fate may find him. To borrow a line from Auric Goldfinger: Mr. Bond, we expect you to die.

The trouble, though, is that a world capable of killing James Bond is one that probably also needs him. That fact is underscored early in "Skyfall" when a hacker manages to detonate a hefty slab of MI6 headquarters in London -- a shot aimed not at M (played again by a stone-cold Judi Dench) but right past her, a warning. The mastermind has a list of NATO deep-cover operatives that he's bent on exposing, and M must send an unsteady Bond into the field to bring him down, perhaps too soon after 007 has taken a spot of friendly fire from a fellow field agent, Eve (Naomie Harris). Virtually nothing goes right for the guy, up to and including his finding the source of the hacks and attacks is a deliciously wicked Javier Bardem, who delivers murderous crazy as no one else can.

Bond flicks have always been as much style as substance, and in Sam Mendes' first bite at the franchise (and only his sixth directorial credit since 1999's "American Beauty") he shades an evocative Bond-worthy universe of menacing Macau casinos and Chinese skyscrapers and Turkish traintop fisticuffs and Scottish Highlands vistas. But he also soaks it in shadows. You'll lose track of the times you see a backlit Bond, skulking or fighting in silhouette. The soundtrack, beginning with Adele's stunning theme song and continuing through Thomas Newman's varied, evocative score, matches any achievement yet in a series of films known for their music. The obligatory femme fatale, played by Bérénice Marlohe, could be neither any more femme nor any more fatale. Even where the script does modernize MI6, it does so with aplomb. The new Q, a geek-chic Ben Whislaw, surprises Bond by equipping him with a pistol and a radio, and joking about the lack of an exploding pen.

After generating more sequels and more revenue than any non-Potter franchise in cinema history, the Bond brand can withstand these evolutions. In grit and tone, "Skyfall," like "Quantum of Solace" and "Casino Royale" before it, reflects the success of the "Bourne Identity" movies as much as the previous Bond installments. It's gawdawful hard work being a spy, and the post-Cold War fracturing of power and threat has only complicated matters for the intelligence agencies of American and British cinema. The scales have been falling from the West's eyes for some time now; an anti-hero government agent seems more in line with what we know our agencies to be capable of. "Skyfall" reflects that sense of moment while also touching on something timeless. As a movie, "Skyfall" is quite good; as a Bond movie, it's superb. Haggard and battered though Craig's Bond may be, his continued longevity is assured when this is the state of his stories.

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