Casino Royale marked the first time we laid eyes on this generation’s 007, but Sam Mendes is the only director in Daniel Craig’s topsy-turvy tenure to make sure we’ve been properly introduced. Helming the most essential chapter of the modern James Bond era, Mendes’ uncharacteristic swing in the big-budget-action ring is tempered by exacting amounts of contemporary context, with enough glances back to satisfy the few Fleming purists rumored to exist in the wild. While 2008’s Quantum of Solace bungled the icy tidings Craig offered in his inaugural Bond movie, Skyfall nearly nullifies the existence of that sack-o’-potatoes sophomore slumpfest.
Mendes goes for broke from minute one, initiating us into the chase as Bond and babely agent Eve (Naomie Harris) pursue chaos-bringer Patrice (Ola Rapace) through the alleys of Istanbul. Patrice has gotten hold of a drive containing the identities of every undercover MI6 agent in the world, intel the ever-dissatisfied M (Judi Dench) would like to have back. Stuff gets hairy and Bond goes missing, only to surface in London half-drunk on the eve of a pace-shifting event that forces MI6 onto “war footing,” taking up residence in an abandoned subterranean bunker. Physically hampered by his boozing and screwing, and newly ambivalent about his love for the crown, Bond fails the screenings required for him to re-enter active duty, but M games the paperwork to get him on the case. Clues lead him to Shanghai and Macau (both gorgeously captured by Mendes) en route to a face-to-face with the juiciest Bond villain this side of Odd Job: Silva (Javier Bardem), a swishy, self-obsessed hacker who dresses like an Iberian prince on holiday and emotes like one, too.
While well-paced, Skyfall falters when it tries to convince us that the public has the clout to hold an agency like MI6 accountable for its sins. Such clandestine orgs will always be fueled by secrecy, which Mendes remembers in his overhauls of time-tested double-0 tropes — Ben Whishaw shines as a baby-faced Quartermaster with a minimalist approach to gadgetry. Craig’s job description hasn’t changed, but he’s been visibly invigorated by his new coworkers.