(Sam Mendes, 2012)
Skyfall is the classiest film in the history of the long and occasionally glorious Bond franchise. Avoiding the usual genre journeymen who have directed more or less every other official instalment in the adventures of 007, the producers have this time opted to hire Sam Mendes as director. And while Mendes is far from an auteur - he is, in a way, a sort of tasteful hack, with extremely good taste in collaborators - his presence does guarantee a certain pedigree. His films all play like high-quality, big-budget middlebrow entertainments, which is quite a rarity in dumbed-down, lowest common denominator modern studio film-making. He has in turn hired Roger Deakins as his cinematographer, ensuring that this Bond film is visually sumptuous, filled with breathtaking compositions, colours and camera glides, and textured in a way that makes it feel unlike any of the films that preceded it. There are still an awful lot of helicopter establishing shots of cityscapes - some of the visual conventions of the series are unshakeable, it seems - but Deakins finds some incredibly rich and evocative imagery in the exotic locations spread through the film. Mendes' name also attracts the sort of cast rarely seen in the Bond world, and so Skyfall features Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris in some new takes on iconic characters. Whishaw in particular is excellent as the boyish new Q, darkly witty and smug about his own intelligence to just the right extent, while Harris and Daniel Craig concoct a genuine chemistry in their scenes together.
Craig, who looks like a battered old kettle with big ears, owns the role of Bond by this stage, and his confidence in the part carries much of the film. The plot disables Bond in the pre-credit sequence ( a fantastic pursuit through Istanbul which might just be the films single standout action scene) and, much as predecessors Connery and Brosnan both endured in different films, questions his potency and efficiency for the majority of the first act.
Craig is at his best here - not coincidentally, the portion of the film where he is asked to do the most acting - with a convincingly hollow, haunted quality to his work. The script reassures him and us repeatedly that age is not necessarily a bad thing - nostalgia is a big part of the DNA of the modern Bond film, and this film positively wallows in it, with characters stressing that they like to do things the "old-fashioned way" and that "the old ways are the best ways", while the climax strips away all gadgetry and computer hacking to make it a battle between hunter and hunted in a very 19th Century, near-elemental landscape.
But the film itself really goes up a gear with the introduction of its villain, arguably the best in the franchises history. Victor Silva is an ex-agent with a grudge against M (Judi Dench) and a genius for hacking, and Javier Bardem makes him charismatic, hilarious and terrifying. Mendes aids that with a brilliant introduction, Silva exiting an elevator at the far end of a huge hall and walking towards a bound Bond while he tells a story about an infestation of rats, all in one shot. Their exchange thereafter is electrifying; sexually ambivalent and ironic, with Silva zeroing in on Bond's perceived frailties and identifying them as both mistreated by "Mommy".
The plot is simple - someone has stolen a hard drive containing the identities of all of MI6's undercover agents, and is threatening to reveal them week by week. At the same time they attack the heart of the Agency, blowing up the London Headquarters and hacking the computer networks. Bond, thought dead after that opening Istanbul operation, returns and is sent to find the source of the attack. The plot then takes him through Shanghai and Macau - and Silva's eerie headquarters on a deserted Island-City - before returning to Britain for its last act in London and the Scottish Highlands, where something of Band's past is revealed.
The writing is a strange mix of clunky lines and witty dialogue, but the acting and technical credits make it a consistent pleasure to watch. It is the Bond film as a high-class heritage drama, ticking off boxes with class, beauty and humour throughout. But that status as a drama - not surprising from a director like Mendes - does suggest its possible flaw: it is relatively light on action.
What there is is beautifully handled - a fist-fight in silhouette against the Shanghai skyline is particularly memorable, and the usual jaw-dropping stunt work abounds - but after the credits, the first hour or so concentrates on the dramatic aspects, at the possible expense of the genre side. The climax corrects this, and the emotional kick delivered in the last act justifies Mendes' careful attention to characterisation and dramatic conflict in the early stages.
There is plenty here aimed straight at Bond fans, references to various scenes, moments and characters from across the series' history - one or two truly groan-inducing - but generally they are nicely worked into the material, and they only serve to make the overall product more satisfying. Skyfall operates then as a tremendously well-crafted, crowd-pleasing Bond film, indeed, one of the best in the series' history, which ends by pointing a new way forward for these films.