When I first heard that "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes had been tapped to make the newest James Bond film, I wondered how the choice might transform the series. Would we find Bond sitting in a McMansion wearing a cardigan and brooding over a failed marriage? Would his spy gadgetry be disguised as high-end kitchen appliances that symbolize the emptiness of American life? Would we discover in the end that the true enemy was, in fact, the inescapable horror of suburban ennui? Would he switch his drink order to white wine?
Fortunately the answer on all counts is a firm no. With "Skyfall," the 23rd entry in the Bond franchise, Mr. Mendes has not altered Bond so much as found the character's core and polished it up for a modern age. He has made a Bond film that is different from its predecessors, but almost entirely in ways that are improvements. It is the most beautiful Bond film. It is the darkest Bond film. It is the most psychologically revealing Bond film. And for these reasons, it may also be the best.
The movie's story is simple — left for dead after a botched mission, Bond (played for the third time by Daniel Craig), the storied British superspy, must rebuild himself in order to confront an enemy from the agency's past, one who knows all its tricks. It's an apt metaphor for the way the movie handles its central character: Bond, facing down his own history and potential obsolescence, asserts both the value of all that came before and his continued strength today. The movie is not merely another globe-trotting adventure but an argument for the permanent relevance of Bond: past, present and future.
And what a beautiful argument it is. Mr. Mendes is the director, but the movie belongs to cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mr. Deakins, one of Hollywood's accomplished photographers, gives the picture a deep and luminous gloom that is both glamorous and foreboding. I've never seen an action movie so hauntingly gorgeous.
That's not to say that Mr. Mendes' influence isn't felt. The director extracts strong performances from the cast, including Judi Dench as M, in a larger role than usual, and Javier Bardem as Bond's new nemesis. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw also turn in strong work in more limited roles.
Still, they're all peripheral. In rebuilding Bond, the movie takes an opportunity to see what makes him tick. This is no stodgy British character drama, but more than any of the previous Bond films it serves as a wry psychological dissection of what makes Bond, well, Bond.
For the last decade, of course, a big part of the answer to that question has been Daniel Craig, whose performances have given the character a chilly distance and a sandpaper edge. His Bond was not merely reserved but defiantly closed off from the world. In "Skyfall," Mr. Mendes takes that distance and exploits its dramatic potential. Who is Mr. Bond? In large part, he's someone who doesn't want to talk about who he is -- not to others, and not to himself either.
Yet for all its explorations in the Bond psyche, "Skyfall" smartly declines to alter the essence of Bond, or toss out the essential elements of the series. He remains the debonair superspy. He still wears a tux, still carries a gun, and still orders the same drink, the same way as always. Yes, "Skyfall" is also overlong and occasionally contrived. But it's a Bond film that will engage, excite and resonate in a manner that few big-budget action movies ever match. By the movie's end, I felt both shaken and stirred.
CREDITS: Directed by Sam Mendes; screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan
RATING: PG-13 for language, violence, sexuality
RUNNING TIME: 143 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS