The movie sports a peculiar alchemy of influences: Film noir, body horror and martial arts all come into play. The sole consistent ingredient is an emphasis on the element of surprise, which Hyams delivers in the context of a relentless pace always one step ahead of our ability to process it. A high-speed freeway chase quickly segues into a duel between two snarling men wielding baseball bats and concludes with one of them missing half his head. The punchline? A cutaway shot to astonished onlookers implying that, even in this made-up universe, these events push the boundaries of reality. The fourth wall doesn't just break; it explodes in calculated mayhem.
For those more enticed by the prospects of playing it safe, you could do a lot worse than "Skyfall." Mendes' treatment of the material lacks that same ingenuity found in "Day of Reckoning. However, as pricey tentpoles go, it's still a satisfying cut above for the sheer elegance of its visuals, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. A newcomer to the Bond series, Deakins' work with the Coen brothers ranks among some of the best American cinematography of all time, so if "Skyfall" holds any weight during the current awards season it should go straight to him. Possibly the most evocative Bond movie of the 23 that have been made, it frames the succession of showdowns in wondrously expressionistic terms. Two scenes of nighttime combat find Bond silhouetted against a ominously dark backdrop, first surrounded by the deep blue of a skyscraper and then later dashing through a flame-soaked field caked in yellow. The poetry that Deakins brings to these images transcends the limitations of the material and almost — not quite, but almost — makes it feel fresh.
That "Skyfall" looks strikingly beautiful may explain why it has already generated waves of positive buzz. At two hours and 25 minutes, the movie runs far too long, but has been artfully rendered to obscure its fundamental simplicity. A long string of incidents only watchable enough to keep the pace in flux, the premise finds Bond briefly going off the grid, much to the chagrin of his maternal supporter M. (Judi Dench, weirdly underutilized despite her elevated role in the story). A full hour goes by before the arrival of a defected former agent played by Javier Bardem. With his absurdly out-of-whack blonde 'do and curiously flamboyant delivery, Bardem's character is weighted with innuendo. Creepy enough for the standards of the material, he faces down Bond on two drawn-out occasions before the explosive (yet oddly anti-climactic) finish. The movie staggers forward with episodic surges that may reflect an evolving commercial pressure to import television sensibilities in the feature-length form. The result is paradoxically enjoyable and tiresome (enjoyably tiresome?), but does the trick for a formula that needs only to stun, startle and titillate its audience to gain acceptance.
Even so, a fatigue hangs over the entire picture. "We're both played out," Bond tells M., and you can see why. By the time an end credit acknowledges the anniversary and promises further sequels, the very idea of more Bond movies arrives like a predetermined mandate. If we're lucky, that will yield further opportunities to use the franchise as an excuse to keep heating up the genre with unbridled energy. Let's hope so, because it will take more than a martini to shake Bond up.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Skyfall" opens in the U.K. this week and in North America on November 9, when it's likely to perform well at the box office for several weeks due to little large-scale competition, Craig's continuing appeal and the ongoing marketability of the Bond franchise.