James Bond gets better with age

Skyfall's cloak-and-dagger thrills raise the series' emotional stakes

Over the course of 50 years and 23 authorized films, fans of the James Bond series have come up with a fun theory to explain the British super-spy's on-screen history. The idea holds that in the films' version of British Intelligence, the name "James Bond" is an alias that agents inherit along with the "007" designation. This accounts for the rotating roster of actors playing Bond, whose cloak-and-dagger career has spanned from the Cold War to the post-9/11 world.

Despite having no official support from original author Ian Fleming or the films' creators, this interpretation holds water, since Bond reveals so few details of his personal life, beyond a penchant for wry quips and dry martinis. The 23rd and latest film in the franchise, Skyfall, stands out by personalizing the secret agent to an extent unmatched by any Bond film since 1969's underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Skyfall pushes most of the series' requisite buttons, including exotic locales, crunchy action scenes, and smokin' hot sex symbols, but director Sam Mendes raises the emotional stakes sky-high.

A typically outlandish pre-credits chase sequence sends Bond (Daniel Craig) from cars to motorcycles to backhoes to trains, until he suffers grave collateral damage following an order from M (Dame Judi Dench), a spy boss willing to sacrifice her own operatives for the greater good. Presumed dead for a few months, Bond comes in from the cold after a bomb targets M's office as part of a scheme meant to discredit her, and the whole of MI6, before claiming her life.

The culprit's trail leads to anarchistic hacker Silva (Javier Bardem), one of M's former operatives with a vicious grudge. Bardem doesn't appear for more than an hour into the film, but makes a memorable entrance with a richly metaphorical speech about rats while walking toward the camera in a long, single shot. Bardem's fey, sexually suggestive performance harks back to his formative years in Almodóvar films.

Globe-trotting missions and deathtraps aside, Skyfall's dynamic resembles that of a dysfunctional family, with M as a harsh, emotionally withholding mother, Bond as the dutiful son, and Silva as the resentful, rebellious one. Dench, who joined the franchise with Pierce Brosnan in 1995, presents M as flinty and unapologetic. Her lack of conventional likeability may be her most likeable quality.

And while the film delivers two appealing love interests in Naomie Harris' capable field agent and Bérénice Marlohe's haunted femme fatale, Skyfall primarily explores Bond's relationship to M, and not just as the embodiment of MI6. Instead of building to frantic set pieces involving a space death ray or some other world-threatening scheme, Skyfall delivers an intense, smaller-scale final act that takes place literally close to home for Bond.

Skyfall comes close to hammering a theme of Bond getting older and his old-school espionage methods growing obsolete in the high-tech 21st century. At 44 years old, Craig sports wintry stubble on his chin and shows a vulnerable Bond struggling to get back in the spy game after his near-death experience. It seems unfair to play up Craig's age when Roger Moore's 007 was making out with Bond girls until his late 50s. At least Skyfall actually has themes, which sets it apart from most of its predecessors. Plus, it's a perfectly satisfying slam-bang espionage thriller that emphatically renews James Bond's license to kill.