Skyfall takes Bond to new heights

Cert 12A | ****

AFter deftly eluding MGM’s creditors and safely delivering the Queen to the Olympic opening ceremony, James Bond is out of bankruptcy, off diplomatic protection detail, and back on the big screen for a superbly crafted and confident action thriller.

With a dangerously unpredictable enemy bent on vengeance, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall combines the best elements of classic Bond with modern concerns about cyber-terrorism, to tell a more personal story, which is both a fitting tribute for the series’ fiftieth anniversary, and a solid piece of entertainment in its own right.

The mandatory pre-title action sequence gets the ball rolling with a rooftop chase through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and ends with Bond missing, presumed dead. But that wouldn’t be much of a movie, so after a musical interlude from Adele, and three months living on a beach, a spectacular attack on MI6 headquarters prompts his return.

Much of the action takes place in London. Despite his quintessential Britishness, Bond doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, so his extended stay seems like an appropriately patriotic coda to the capital’s long eventful summer of 2012, and gives residents the added fun of spotting places they know.

Skyfall is aware of its history – filled with in-jokes and call-backs to previous Bond adventures – but lays the foundation for the future development of the franchise.

This is Daniel Craig’s third outing as a colder, less heroic, fallible and world-weary Bond. The series was rebooted with Craig’s entry in Casino Royale, but faltered in Quantum of Solace, so Skyfall uses Bond’s “resurrection” to get things back on track.

One of the ways it does this is by realising that if Judi Dench is in the cast, it would be idiotic not to make the most of her. MI6 chief M is central to the story, as she fights bureaucrats, politicians and an anonymous foe whose high-tech assaults are focused on her. Always dignified, competent, and willing to make difficult decisions, Dench’s seventh appearance as M is decidedly her best. Skyfall reintroduces Bond’s gadget-man, Q. Although he eased the transition from the much-missed Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese was never convincing as Q (or R). He was passable comic relief, but he looked like the kind of man who would unwittingly use the tray of his CD-ROM drive as a cup-holder (or indeed, the kind of man who would unwittingly use a computer with a CD-ROM drive). Ben Wishaw is excellent as the detached young boffin who has taken over the role. His initially combative first meeting with Bond takes place in the National Gallery, in front of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire – an old battleship about to be broken up – and is emblematic of the film’s elegiac theme; the relentless cycle of progress and obsolescence.

Also making a welcome return is extravagant villainy. It’s a decade since the genetically engineered North Koreans (a public school boy and a diamond studded albino) in Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace presented arguably the least interesting villain of the whole series: having the frog-like visage of a young Andrew Lloyd-Webber is unsettling but nothing like as gratuitous as an auxiliary nipple or metal hands.

On first inspection, Silva’s chief deformity is a ridiculous hairstyle, but Skyfall’s villain is played with a creepy camp exuberance by Javier Bardem, who previously won the Academy-Award-for-best-supporting-actor-with-a-ridiculous-hairstyle, as the lumbering killer in No Country for Old Men, so the filmmakers clearly knew what they wanted. Clad in a beige lounge suit that suggests a conscious evocation of the more outlandish foes of the ‘70s, Silva’s ebullience barely conceals a monomaniacal sociopath who is rotten to the core.

As for the Bond girls; Bérénice Marlohe is effective as the femme fatale, while Naomie Harris seems rather too bright-eyed and enthusiastic as MI6 field agent Eve, whose interactions with Bond are among the worst moments in the film. The lack of chemistry between the two makes their pointedly single entendre office flirtations seem horribly awkward, more gamesmanship than lust; and their needlessly zeitgeisty “Fifty Shaves of Grey” interlude with a cutthroat razor is as uncomfortable as watching siblings kiss. But, in what might be the film’s most blatant act of fan service, a twist in the final minutes renders all of this retrospectively charming.

Mendes’ theatrical roots are showing in this production. It’s visually stunning and a sense of hyper-reality is only reinforced by the casting of brilliant actors like Rory Kinnear and Albert Finney, who breathe life into what would otherwise have been marginal roles.

Perhaps Skyfall is too tightly plotted, but as Craig’s first film without Paul Haggis (Crash) sharing a writing credit, it’s refreshingly unsentimental. Meet it on its own terms and the only complaints about the film are nitpicking, like what exactly is that minister-lead inquiry? Or, how come Bond’s suddenly wearing gloves when he drops that guy off a building? But these quibbles are greatly outweighed by all that is good about it, like the return of the Aston Martin DB5, and a henchman being eaten by a Komodo dragon. A Komodo dragon!

Skyfall is easily the best addition to the Bond franchise since The World is Not Enough. Bond and M go on a journey together that culminates in dramatic character developments, the likes of which are seldom seen in action movies. But don’t let that put you off, because it’s also a literal journey that ends in massive explosions.

The low-down on the London premiere
Stars and statesmen turned out for the “Skyfall” world premiere on Tuesday 23 October at the Royal Albert Hall. Current Bond Daniel Craig, sporting a post-Olympic glow, was flanked by new Bond girls, Naomie Harris and Bérénice Malohe.

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, walked the red carpet, along with Minnie Driver, Naomi Campbell, Tess Daly, JLS, fashion designer Valentino Garavani and Olympic medalist Victoria Pendleton.

Bond premieres have doubled as Royal Galas sice the 1964 premiere of “Goldfinger.” This year’s gala raised £300,000 for charities serving members of the MI5 and the UK Government Communications Headquarters and charities designated by the Prince of Wales.

The after-party, at the Tate Modern, had a crowd of 600 downing shaken, not stirred, martinis. Turbine Hall was a secret lair, fit for any maniacal villan, complete with an Aston Martin.

Judi Dench, who reprised her role of “M,” stepped out in full bling, with a rhinestone “007” on her neck.

“Skyfall” opens in cinemas nationwide today.