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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Skyfall' one of the best new Bond films, but falls short of great

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Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productionsi action adventure SKYFALL.

Skyfall

(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

In the 50th anniversary year of the most successful and enduring franchise in movie history comes one of the more interesting installments in the storied James Bond canon. It's by far the best effort in the now three-film Daniel Craig era and the most engaging effort since "GoldenEye" from way back in 1995. Notice the absence of the words "great" and "classic" here.

When longtime producers Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael Wilson chose to overhaul the franchise in 2006 with "Casino Royale," they did so whole hog. They jettisoned the perfectly capable Pierce Brosnan in favor of Craig, a fine actor in his own right but one also as far from the brunette, vodka-swilling, skirt-chasing, gadget-fixated, wise-cracking Bond prototype imbedded in our collective memory. Some liked the new look; others -- myself especially -- hated it. Craig and his first two overly sullen flicks were slick and perfunctory and "Bond" in name only.

In reflecting the current world-weary attitude and uncertainty of our shaky global geo-politics, Craig's Bond has reached a marked level of personal burn-out and professional frustration that fits in well with the attitude and plot of "Skyfall."

At the end of the pulse-racing but unorthodox opening scene two things take place that give Bond every reason to throw in his secret agent towel and that's exactly what he does. He anonymously relocates to a tropical island, nearly drinks himself to death and -- in a moment of blazing clarity -- realizes that his country and his boss need him.

Returning to the fold battered, ornery and spent, Bond halfway implores M (Judi Dench) to put him back on active duty and she does so but not before putting him through a veritable physical and mental wringer. She then partners him with a very young, computer-geek Q (Ben Whishaw), who -- in keeping with the franchises' new low-tech mindset -- gives Bond just two gadgets -- both of which come in handy down the road.

In a manner that only makes sense in Bond movies, 007 kills some time by visiting two continents, bedding down a hot babe, drinking some more and whacking some dudes before getting a bead on his ultimate target.

As with "GoldenEye," "Skyfall" features a villain that was once an MI6 agent who has an axe to grind with his old employer and M in particular. Not showing up until nearly an hour into the film, Silva (Javier Bardem -- sporting a bad blonde dye job and blue contact lenses) starts out as a supremely interesting, highly atypical bad guy but eventually descends into a standard-issue Bond foe: witty, eccentric and evil yet completely unable to pull off his most important task.

Generally pegging directors with proven action/adventure track records, the producers went far against the grain by hiring Sam Mendes for "Skyfall" and it was a hindsight masterstroke. A veteran of the stage who won the Best Director Oscar for his first film ("American Beauty"), Mendes infuses this installment with a high level of authentic drama the franchise has never known before and in the process, turns it into something far more than just another collection of pithy quips, sexual double-entendres, explosions and chase scenes.

A lot of Mendes' success needs to go to four-time Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade whose collaboration here with John Logan ("Gladiator," "Rango," "Hugo") took what would have probably been just another average Bond screenplay and turned it a great one. Logan has already been hired to write the next two Bond films -- by himself.

Keeping "Skyfall" from being very good or even great lies not with the director, the writers or the cast but rather the producers' insistence on sticking with the tradition of turning what should be a two-hour movie into a semi-bloated 143 minutes. The overblown finale ends on a relative whimper but in its aftermath we get not one but two major character developments. Look for the re-emergence of a staple figure popularized during the Connery/Moore era showing up with a refreshing 21st century makeover.

If this sort of thing matters to you (as it does to most hard-core Bond fans), the title theme song co-written and performed by current "It girl" singer Adele is easily one of the finest in the history of the franchise. At once lush, haunting, fragile and commanding, it could be thought of by some to be the most realized and complete song of Adele's young career. (Sony/MGM)