We also know that, like the cowboy’s six-shooter and horse, Bond’s gun and sports car are genre givens, as is a sizable body count. And while, over the years, there have been cruel, suave and silly Bonds, there is always only one Bond, James Bond. The movies have schooled us well.
Mr. Mendes, a British film and theater director whose dubious screen achievements include embalming the American dream in “Revolutionary Road,” gets Bond just right in a story that first turns on a domestic threat and then on a personal one. Mr. Mendes grasps the spy’s existential center, as typified by the ritualistic mano a mano grappling that almost every action movie now deploys to signal that, when push comes to punch, the hero can still kill with his bare hands. There’s brutal death here, but there’s also a pervading sense of mortality that makes the falling bodies register a little longer than they sometimes do in a Bond movie. As a director of films like “American Beauty” and “Away We Go” Mr. Mendes has indulged in a noxious blend of self-seriousness and condescension. There’s none of that here.
Instead he honors the contract that the Bond series made with its fans long ago and delivers the customary chases, pretty women and silky villainy along with the little and big bangs. Whether Mr. Mendes is deploying an explosion or a delectable detail, he retains a crucially human scale and intimacy, largely by foregrounding the performers. To that end, while “Skyfall” takes off with shock-and-awe blockbuster dazzle, it’s opulent rather than outlandish and insistently, progressively low-key, despite an Orientalist fantasy with dragons and dragon ladies. As Bond sprints from peril to pleasure, Mr. Craig and the other players — including an exceptional, wittily venal Javier Bardem, a sleek Ralph Fiennes and a likable Ben Whishaw — turn out to be the most spectacular of Mr. Mendes’s special effects.