IN "SKYFALL," James Bond faces his deadliest adversary ever, and no, it's not Javier Bardem doing a goofball impersonation of albino hacker Julian Assange.
It's old age. Time, after all, is the only sure way to get rid of 007. We know that a swimming pool full of alligators will not work, nor will strapping him to a torture device and leaving the room.
"Skyfall" finds Daniel Craig's craggy Bond looking like one of those guys in the commercials for Low T. He's feeling expendable, hearing hints that he should retire. Ditto his boss, M (Judi Dench), about to be evicted in a management purge (led by bureaucrat Ralph Fiennes) brought about by catastrophic intelligence failures at MI6.
Bond on a pension? Wearing grown-up diapers? Wielding a MedicAlert bracelet?
The premise is implicit in the title: Bond has fallen, and he can't get up.
Director Sam Mendes is playing a dangerous game here, afflicting an icon of invincibility and cool with human vulnerability and self-doubt.
But dangerous games are the business of Bond movies, and Mendes manages to make it all work - getting the right mix of required Bond movie rituals and heightened drama.
Mendes starts with the rituals - the opening bit has Bond chasing after some stolen microchip, dodging enemy gunfire, tearing off in a Land Rover, hopping a train, taking an involuntary swim. Designer Tom Ford made 80 bespoke suits for Craig and his stuntmen, and they use up most of them in this sequence.
It ends, of course, with the gun-barrel credits, a new song from Adele (whose debt to Shirley Bassey has never been more clear), and the barest hint of the series' famous theme music. Mendes makes you wait two hours for the full riff, which coincides with Bond's glorious restoration.
In the meantime, we get Bond and M working together to find and stop the computer hacker (Bardem) who's infiltrated MI6 for reasons that turn out to be more personal than global.
"Skyfall" has a playful oedipal streak to it - the plot links Bardem and Bond like a pair of British Smothers Brothers, vying for the maternal attention of M.
I found Bardem to be a bit silly in this role. He has had good luck as a bad guy with bad hair ("No Country for Old Men"), but as a bottle blond, he's no Robert Shaw.
On the other hand, he's not really the enemy. Bond and M face a fate worse than death - obsolescence. And it's cute the way they do it together - she's his tough-love mum (and dad, judging by the references to Winston Churchill and a bygone era of British leadership). Their psychological chemistry gets a good going over here by Mendes, who links it to Bond's distant past and ancestral home, where the movie stages a last-stand, rousing finale.
Along the way, we meet more Bond characters - the irresistible Naomie Harris is another double-oh, Ben Whishaw turns up as the new Q, getting a superbly scripted scene with Bond that debates the merits of youth and software, age and hardware.
"Skyfall" is one of the better entries in the Bond series, and one of the most homegrown (not a Yank in sight). Mendes honors Bond movies past (the monitor lizard is the new alligator), and refers to other fixtures of British cinema (Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed), nodding to the past while also setting it, quite literally, on fire.
You leave with the strange sensation he's rebuilt the franchise by tearing it down.
Happy golden anniversary, 007.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.