Fiftieth birthdays often are associated with sports cars, younger women and daredevil pursuits.
The James Bond film franchise did all those things before it was 1.
"Skyfall," the exciting, insightful Bond movie that opens today and marks a half-century since 007 began on screen with "Dr. No," includes cars, lovely women and a thrilling chase sequence.
But it's not just living for today. "Skyfall" pays close attention to the years leading to this one and their effect on the movie series, its characters and the world.
The signature Bond musical theme is evoked throughout "Skyfall." The extended titles sequence showcases Adele's torchy title number so reminiscent of Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" and adds an arty crispness to familiar lava lamp visuals. Beloved series supporting character Q, absent from the determinedly grittier previous two Bond movies, appears here.
Nearly as contemplative as it is active, the film also confronts aging, mortality and the relevancy of shoe-leather spy capering in the cyber age. It is not the breath of fresh air that was 2006's "Casino Royale," the first Bond film to star the intense Daniel Craig, but it is nearly as satisfying.
Directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), "Skyfall" offers a sense of quality, from its visuals to its casting, that surpasses most Bond films. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a longtime collaborator with the Coen brothers, embraces the movie's showier, big-scale scenes and subtly enhances the mood of quieter ones.
Craig still shows an icy cool in jettisoning bad guys and seducing a potentially dangerous woman (French actress Bérénice Marlohe, the most stunning "Bond girl" since Halle Berry). Craig also continues to give Bond the hints of vulnerability that have become his signature in the role.
But there is less focus on Craig than in "Casino Royale" or its inferior follow-up "Quantum of Solace." "Skyfall" is an ensemble piece.
Judi Dench's MI6 boss M, usually shown in bursts, figures prominently in the story. The abundant screen time given to this character, who is just as no-nonsense and decent as Bond, instantly elevates the film.
So do Ralph Fiennes, as a government official overseeing MI6; Naomie Harris, as a smart, gorgeous MI6 agent; and Javier Bardem as Silva, a cyber-terrorist and the most memorable Bond villain in years.
After a dissolute stint on an island and inside a bottle, Bond sobers up to help M and MI6, Silva's primary targets. Battle-worn by injuries acute and cumulative, Bond endures the indignity of undergoing tests to see if he can re-enter the field.
Craig and Dench match each other's flintiness, each melding wariness and affection as Bond and M square off. Bond resents M for her intractability and for not letting him be a screw-up. M wants her favorite agent to fly just a bit righter so she will not have to spend so much time on him.
They unite in a belief that gathering intelligence the old-fashioned way still works, despite the Cold War being long over and Silva hacking past most MI6 defenses.
That the old ways still sometimes are the best ways is a "Skyfall" motif one that becomes overused as the film progresses. But it's nice to see the Bond films, always so intent on advancing gadgetry and perpetuating adolescence, acknowledge the value of history and experience.
A verbal showdown between young, skinny device expert Q (a game Ben Whishaw) and Bond reveals the latter's crankiness and age. Like all forward thinkers and progress itself, Q is unimpressed and unimpeded by a dinosaur's arguments.
Craig, dead serious in "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace," goes lighter at times and even gets off a few quips.
But comedy honors go to Bardem.
Blond of hair and eyebrow, his lust for revenge palpable, Silva is smart, funny and equally gleeful and merciless in his criminal pursuits.
Bardem's comic timing is impeccable. His little shrug and wrist flick, as Silva tosses an explosive device, almost make you root for him.
Bardem suggests Ernst Stavro Blofeld and other classic Bond villains. Then he takes it further, giving Silva more than a hint of the cat-stroking Dr. Evil from "Austin Powers."
Accepting one's age means celebrating the ridiculous parts of the past along with the cool moments. Bardem's performance helps the Bond franchise come fully to terms with being 50.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Sam Mendes
Rated PG-13 (intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking)