For various tedious reasons it has been a long time coming, but James Bond has finally returned for his 23rd outing in time to celebrate his 50th birthday. Theatre director-come-Oscar collector Sam Mendes has been handed the task of getting the series back on track after Marc Forster misfired with 2008's Quantum of Solace, and the American Beauty director's clout has brought together a cast and crew that are a mouth-watering prospect.
Skyfall spells a sea change in the modern Bond era, with Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whihsaw and Naomie Harris joining Daniel Craig as OO7 and Judy Dench as M, as well as multiple personnel changes behind the camera. The plot sees Bond returning to service after being declared killed in action by MI6 during a stunning chase through the streets and rooftops of Istanbul in the instantly iconic pre-title sequence. OO7 must quickly get back into shape as one of M's former agents, known as Raul Silva (Bardem) returns with a vendetta, bringing the service to its knees with a series of devastating cyber-attacks.
The masterstroke of casting Judy Dench as M way back in Goldeneye is still paying off, and Skyfall is unquestionably her finest hour. The relationship between Bond and his mothering commanding officer has always been an intriguing one, and now it is fully explored for the first time. Mendes' approach towards characterisation is already drawing comparisons with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but whilst the questions about Bond's traumatic childhood are raised, the film never looses its sense of fun. Bardem's Silva is an unadulterated joy; chewing the scenery whilst also presenting us with the most genuinely threatening Bond Villain the franchise has seen so far. Never have James' chances of survival looked bleaker than in Skyfall's breathtaking final act, set amongst the majestic, barren mountains of Glencoe.
The new additions to the cast are uniformly superb. Ralph Fiennes provides an irresistibly spiky turn as the bureaucratic Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory. Ben Whishaw's precocious Q brings an interesting twist to the schoolboy/schoolmaster dynamic, while Naomie Harris' Eve is an abnormally feisty Bond girl with ambitious career plans. Daniel Craig brings the same intensity and brutish swagger to Bond that he has always supplied, but Mendes' approach stretches him dramatically like never before.
Skyfall may be a more grown up, modern Bond, but the fundamentals remain. Mendes provides the girls, gadgets, cars and quips, although each are served with a very contemporary twist. But, one staple of the OO7 cannon with which we are particularly spoiled this time around is the action. As impressive as the set pieces in the Grand Bazaar and the skyscrapers of Shanghai are, it is in Bond's hometown where the action sequences really begin to raise the heartbeat. Roger Deakins' peerless cinematography lends an unprecedented beauty to the capital, which is not lost amongst the exhilarating stunt work, implacable pacing and pyrotechnics. There aren't many films that would be granted access to Whitehall, the London Underground and Westminster but, with half a century as a British institution, Bond opens doors that stay firmly shut for the likes of Jason Bourne and Harry Potter, and Mendes and his team have certainly made the most of it.
With an ending that will shock, titillate and induce yelps of glee from fans, it is hard to imagine a party that will not come away from Skyfall completely satisfied. Mendes has found a balance between action and drama, light and dark, and old and new Bond that no director has managed to pull off in decades. Daniel Craig's finest outing so far, and quite possibly the best Bond of them all. Happy 50th, James. You don't look it!
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