Already, however, there are intimations that this will be no mere rehash. M (Judi Dench) orders Bond to abandon a wounded agent, presumably to his death. And for all its backward glances, the opening sequence will end in novel fashion: As a consequence of M's pitiless efficiency, Bond is shot, fallen, evidently drowning. Cue up Adele's moody, evocative theme song: This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten.
Obsolescence and decay hang heavy over all that follows. Has M grown too old? Has Bond? These themes were toyed with in the non-canonical Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again, which saw Connery return to action 12 years (and one broken "never" vow) after Diamonds Are Forever. But if that examination of 007's mortality was quasi-farce, Skyfall tilts toward tragedy. A cyber-terrorist, someone out of M's past, has targeted MI-6 itself, and it's unclear whether Bond—injured, disillusioned, full of drink and pills—is still a man to take on such challenges.
Craig and Dench are again superb, and superb together, as the hardened killer and the one person harder still. It is hardly a surprise that Mendes, who directed American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, has an ear for the strained and prickly marriage between the two. (M: "You know the rules of the game. You've been playing it long enough. We both have." Bond: "Maybe too long." M: "Speak for yourself.")
Less expected is Mendes's eye for elegant venues on a planet Bond had long ago seemed to crisscross into exhaustion: the summit of a glass tower in nighttime Shanghai, with luminous billboard jellyfish blooming in the background; a luxurious gambling den floating off the shore of Macau; a battered and abandoned ghost-city on a forgotten island in the South China Sea.
Like Casino Royale before it, Skyfall is at pains to advertise its breaks from the franchise's past excesses, as when Bond's new Q (Ben Whishaw) offers him a meager haul of gadgetry. "A gun and a radio? It's not exactly Christmas, is it?" grouses Bond. Q's response is tart: "Were you expecting an exploding pen?" Yet even on this score, the film is not without its sentimental indulgences, as when Bond brings into service an old friend last seen in—no, I won't spoil it.
There are new friends along the way as well, played by Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, and Albert Finney—himself a candidate for the role of Bond once upon a time. Memories are uncovered and past sins revisited. There are nods to Tennyson's "Ulysses" and to the famously stolen Modigliani Woman with a Fan. And Bond enjoys what is to date his most explicit (and by far most amusing) brush with homoeroticism.
The movie stumbles here and there. Though Javier Bardem has some nice moments as Bond's new nemesis, he leans a bit heavily on Ledger's Joker and Hopkins's Lecter, before the script disappointingly demotes him to a near-generic villainy. And while the closing act provides abundant catnip for Bond nostalgists, it veers a few degrees hokier than necessary.
But make no mistake. Skyfall both honors and revitalizes what has come before, and offers compelling evidence that 007 is indeed back. As Bond himself replies, when asked what hobbies he might have: "Resurrection."