NEW YORK - If you just looked at the cast and crew of "Skyfall," you could easily confuse the assembled talent for a prestige costume drama. Director Sam Mendes, actors Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes, and cinematographer Roger Deakins might just as easily be mounting a Shakespeare adaptation.
But "Skyfall" is, of course, a James Bond film, and not only that, it's the 23rd installment in a blockbuster franchise marking its 50th anniversary with only slightly less fanfare than the Queen's Jubilee. "Skyfall" is a touch more high-minded than those previous 22 films, but it's also arguably the best crafted movie in Bond history.
Those involved in the 007 empire overwhelmingly credit the higher trajectory for Bond to one man: Daniel Craig.
"Daniel was like, 'Everyone said yes! Look at this incredible cast!'" says Mendes. "I'm like, 'Mate, it's because of you.'"
Now in his third film as 007, "Skyfall" is Craig's most emphatic statement yet on how he'll define his stewardship of the beloved British spy. What's clearest on "Skyfall" is that Craig has taken full ownership of Bond, not only filling out a tux, but molding the entire production.
"That was an ambition of mine," says Craig. "They give us a lot of money to make these films. If we can spend the money in the right way - it's not just me, it's the collective thinking but I'm very much behind it - if we can spend the money in the right way and on the right people, then we're going to create something that's very special."
The result is the best-reviewed Bond film yet, one that's already made a whopping $287 million in its first 10 days of international release. "Skyfall" is the culmination of The Daniel Craig Years, a chapter in Bond history that's proving a resounding success.
Craig's first Bond film, 2006's "Casino Royale," was a visceral introduction to his version of 007. Less successful was 2008's "Quantum of Solace," which was marred by script problems partly caused by the writer's strike. The film's heavy somberness disappointed many and fueled the correction in tone on "Skyfall."
After the postmodern deconstruction of "Quantum," "Skyfall" puts Bond back together, restoring many familiar elements, albeit with certain twists. Ben Whishaw inherits the role of Q, Naomie Harris settles in as Moneypenny and Fiennes comes aboard as the new head of MI6. Bardem plays a flamboyant, effete former MI6 agent whose cyber destruction is motivated by a past with M, the role Judi Dench has memorably inhabited for seven films.
Overall, "Skyfall" is set in a more realistic world - particularly situated in London - where MI6's activities are answerable to government and where the threat of terrorism has firmly displaced Cold War fears as the dominant concern.
It was Craig who, on a sudden instinct over conversation at a party, asked Mendes - better known for his stage direction and dramas such as "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road" than action movies - if he wanted to direct. The two had previously worked together on 2002's "Road to Perdition," before Craig's stardom swelled.
"It mattered that it came from him," says Mendes. "I don't think I would have done it without Dan. It's much easier going to Javier or Ralph knowing they're already into the franchise because of Daniel. He's made it cool in a different way."
Craig also approached Bardem, a selective actor whose performance in "Skyfall" is already being considered among the best Bond villains.
"I asked him as well," Craig confesses sheepishly. "Overstretching my job description. You're an actor! Stick to f------ acting! You can't go hiring people."
But producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who years ago inherited control of the franchise from their father Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, have been quite content with Craig's initiative. The 44-year-old actor is signed for two more Bond films, but Broccoli would have it be longer.
"We're not going to let him get away," says Broccoli. "We want him to keep making these films as long as he's willing."
"Daniel gives you more opportunities," Wilson adds. "He is definitely the main reason people want to be in these films."
Mendes credits another inspiration: Christopher Nolan, whose "Dark Knight" trilogy of Batman films, Mendes says, "made B movies into A films."
"It's very important in an environment now where you can only make very big movies or very small movies, that very big movies are not robbed of meaning," Mendes says. "I'm not saying they all have to be treatises on the future of the world or humanity, but they can carry something that's not just escapism."
"Skyfall" has plenty of that too: the gadgets, the chase sequences, the one-liners. But Craig and company believe they've now successfully recalibrated Bond for a new era. After "Quantum," Craig says, he had no idea where the films could go. Now, he's clearly energized by the foundation they've laid with "Skyfall."
"I want an exploding volcano with a base underneath it," Craig says. "Why not? I think we're allowed. We've set the tone. The tone's good, it's a good tone. It's a serious tone, but it's funny and all those things.
"The stories," he says, "now seem endless."