Judi Dench and Javier Bardem Steal the Show in Skyfall

Astonishing performances in new James Bond flick might produce the series' first-ever Oscar nominations for acting.

Every once in a while, there comes a movie that transcends its genre, like The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight. So it’s not an overestimation to say that the newest James Bond film Skyfall is one of the best of the series—and certainly the best of Daniel Craig’s three. Much of this is due to the reverence director Sam Mendes and the writers show for the original films and its extraordinary cast. But mostly it’s because it has Dame Judi Dench in a gunfight. Yes, you read that right: Judi Dench, gunfight.

For those who (were lucky and) didn’t see the last, almost series-ending Quantum of Solace, fear not: Skyfall is completely independent. As James Bond (Daniel Craig) and another agent Eve (Naomie Harris) pursue a stolen hard drive containing the identification of every undercover MI6 agent, things go horribly wrong: Bond is shot and presumed dead. Months later, after the drive falls into an ex-agent Silva’s hands (Javier Bardem), 007 returns from the dead—weakened from wounds and substance-abuse—to stop Silva from killing M (Judi Dench) and exposing the secret agents.

With a motorcycle chase, a fistfight atop a train, and a beautiful woman on a beach, there are many hallmarks of the series. But this movie could almost be described as throwback 007 or James Bond 1.0. Most recent films centered on flashy cars and gadgets. But here, everything is bit more low-tech—the only gadget is a palm-print recognizing gun (so that Bond would be the only person who could shoot it). Sure there are still beautiful cars, but it’s the Aston Martin DB5 first appearing in Goldfinger. And in a refreshing change of pace, the Bond girl in this film is really M, as played by the 77-year-old Dench.

In Dench’s seventh film as M, she is utterly stunning. With tremendous power and grace, she is both mentor and mother to Bond. Even in moments where the camera belies her small stature, she remains imposing. (Like when she’s shooting at Silva’s men.) As Silva, Javier Bardem is already receiving a lot of hype—which he deserves. He’s amazing. He is an actor, a character that doesn’t seem confined by his part. Like Heath Ledger in Dark Knight, every movement, every decision seems utterly organic and spontaneous, thereby changing the film’s story as we watch. These two previous supporting actor Oscar-winners, Dench for Shakespeare in Love and Bardem for No Country for Old Men, may also have the distinction of being the first actors to receive nominations for a Bond film.

Also of note are Daniel Craig and Ben Whishaw. Craig makes it seem easy. He’s shown that he can wear a suit (bathing- and tuxedo), drive the cars, and shoot the guns. (All which don’t require acting skills above Schwarzenegger-levels.) But in Skyfall as Bond reconnects to his painful past, he finally gets to show more emotional depth, particularly in subdued moments with Dench. Whishaw—now seen in Cloud Atlas and the lovely 2009 film Bright Star—is a young actor to watch. His quiet, old-fashioned, funny but not fussy Q, is a welcome addition.

But ultimately, the success of Skyfall rests with director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Away We Go). With a clear focus, Mendes deftly takes us from high action sequences to moments of quiet character development. Mendes also imbues the film with maturity, both visually and emotionally—never once does the movie feel like a video game or a simple action flick— and ambiguity. You might leave the theater a little more pensive than you might have expected.

Obviously, the film sets itself up for more films (James Bond 24 and 25 are already being discussed). While we have renewed faith in the series, Skyfall will be hard to match.

Grade: A