(2hrs 23 mins)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes.
Director: Sam Mendes.
TIME waits for no man, not even the suave and sharply attired 007. In the 50 years since Ian Fleming’s debonair secret agent introduced himself to Sylvia Trench at a card table in Dr No, global politics have changed beyond recognition.
The Iron Curtain has fallen, the Cold War has thawed, the People’s Republic of China has emerged as a superpower and terrorism has shifted into the digital realm, forcing James Bond and his colleagues at MI6 to evolve.
Actors who have been licensed to kill during these five decades each brought something new to the party. Sean Connery married flirtatiousness with rugged machismo and bare-chested sex appeal, providing a template that successors have struggled to match.
George Lazenby invested his short-lived 007 with tender romance while Roger Moore arched an eyebrow with impish glee, doling out innuendo-laden one-liners with aplomb.
Timothy Dalton added darkness and grit then Pierce Brosnan restored parity between athleticism and charm, coming closest to the glory days of the 1960s.
The latest Bond, Daniel Craig, has rugged physicality in abundance but his one-note interpretation of the spy who is shaken but never stirred remains devoid of personality. It’s telling that the abiding memory of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace is a pair of tight, blue swimming shorts.
Skyfall doesn’t dispel those concerns but is undoubtedly the best instalment of Craig’s tenure to date. Director Sam Mendes sensibly surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of award-winning actors, who bring gravitas and humour to their iconic roles.
In the brilliantly orchestrated action sequences, Craig is in his element and Mendes opens with a breathtaking 12-minute pre-credits sequence, which draws heavily from the Bourne franchise to propel Bond and field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) through Istanbul.
The mission ends in apparent tragedy, heralding the sombre chords of Adele’s soaring theme song that harks back to the belting ballads of Shirley Bassey.
With Bond reportedly killed in action, section chief M (Dame Judi Dench) pens an obituary as a political storm rages. A database of MI6 assets has fallen into the wrong hands, compromising undercover agents around the world.
This puts M and her chief of staff in the firing line and they are summoned before a committee including Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and ambitious rival Clair (Helen McCrory).
While M fends off attacks on her reputation, news filters through that Bond has survived and she engages her bruised agent to track down cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).
Working with Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve, Bond traverses the globe in search of Silva, crossing paths with the mysterious Severine (Berenice Marlohe) in a casino, resulting in a steamy shower sex scene.
And Bond unearths dark secrets from M’s past that threaten to bring down the whole of MI6.
Skyfall looks stunning and action sequences don’t disappoint. Bravely, the 23rd Bond assignment pares back the slam-bang thrills to concentrate on characterisation and plot, putting Dench’s authority figure at the centre of the betrayal.
The film dazzles during verbal jousts and Bardem is deliciously camp and menacing, recalling classic villains of yore. Dench is wonderful as ever and excels when she abandons her desk for the field of action. Supporting actress Oscar nominations have been bestowed for far less.
Whishaw asserts himself as a gadget geek with a terrific introductory scene in an art gallery, warning Bond that “age is no guarantee of experience.” A throwaway visual gag with his coffee mug is a hoot.
Fiennes and Harris acquit themselves well but sultry Bond girl Marlohe is forgettable.
The closing 20 minutes are the only obvious misstep by writers who telegraph their intentions early on when Severine asks Bond if he will kill Silva and 007 responds “someone usually dies”.
To tie up the loose ends, the writers hurriedly introduce an additional character, Bond’s old gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney), who exists purely to manoeuvre characters into the correct positions.
Director Mendes gets high on nostalgia to the obvious delight of Bond purists.
However, he spends slightly too long looking back and not enough looking forward, and consequently stumbles with the lacklustre final showdown more befitting The A-Team than the second-biggest film franchise in history.