Arriving amidst a blizzard of marketing and publicity the likes of which has rarely been seen, it's some sort of miracle that Skyfall delivers the goods. Despite worrying surface similarities with Die Another Day - Bond put out of action during the pre-credits sequence, overt nods to earlier films in the franchise - this film doesn't make the same mistake of thinking bigger is better. Skyfall is arguably the most personal entry yet in Daniel Craig's run, and perhaps (with the possible exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service) the series as a whole. Director Sam Mendes brings a gently melancholic perspective to cinema's most famous spy, where Bond is on the backfoot for much of the time and only has drink and an old-fashioned sense of duty to keep him company.
To go in to the intricacies of the plot would spoil much of Skyfall's pleasure, so this review will confine itself to the merest sketch of an outline. After a mission to recover a stolen hard drive goes wrong in Istanbul, James Bond is dispatched to Shanghai to track down its whereabouts. The trail leads him to Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyber-terrorist whose past is connected in some way with M (Judi Dench), and who plans to exact his revenge on Bond's home turf: England.
Bond has always been a patriotic sort of chap of course, but Skyfall seems especially proud of its British roots. Not only is a good portion of the film spent in this country, the idea of patriotism - and the double-0 section itself - being an outdated institution runs throughout the script (written by John Logan and veteran series writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade). With the series reaching its 50th anniversary earlier this month, some element of looking back at the past was bound to creep in. But for the most part, it is organically woven in to the story. Bond here is feeling his age, with some not-so-subtle suggestions from his superiors that perhaps he's a bit long in the tooth for this spying lark. It captures the flinty spirit of Ian Fleming's later novels quite beautifully.
There are more obvious nods to the series' history: the return of Q as Bond's armourer (not seen since John Cleese briefly took over the role in Die Another Day) as well as the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger have long been public knowledge. Q (Ben Whishaw) is now a young techno-geek nearly half Bond's age, a sensible enough development that works rather well. The first, slightly abrasive, chat they share feels both strangely different and instantly familiar, and bodes well for future stories. On the other hand, the re-appearance of the Aston Martin makes no narrative sense whatsoever, but to question it too deeply would deprive one of the simple pleasure of revisiting an iconic moment from the franchise's history.
Skyfall is unquestionably the most ravishing looking of any Bond film. As shot by Roger Deakins, the shady work of spying and assassination has never looked so sumptuous. The night-time sequences in Shanghai and Macau are mesmerising, the rich, vibrant palette glowing off the screen, while the explosive climax is hauntingly monochromatic.
But while most should go away feeling fully nourished, those who crave action and spectacle may feel short-changed. The opening sequence bursts with characteristic thrills and noise, but after that the mood turns darker and more reflective until that aforementioned finale (with one or two exceptions, and even then Bond is the victim rather than the antagonist). This is Craig's more serious-minded Bond though, and he really has settled in to the role. He has a touch of swagger about him here, a measured internal confidence that was missing in the last two films, but his superb rendering of the character first seen in Casino Royale remains intact. Dench, given much more to do here than before, is reassuringly stoic and no-nonsense as always. Bardem's bad guy is flamboyantly entertaining, even if he lacks the menace that defined the most memorable villains. That aside, Skyfall is Bond par excellence, a worthy follow-up to Casino Royale and proof that, even at 50, nobody does it better.