rating: 4.5Aptly, the opening shot in James Bond's 23rd outing is of the inimitable spy emerging out of the shadows, what with the lukewarm response to Daniel Craig's second film, Quantum of Solace, following the near-universal praise for series reboot Casino Royale. Bond has been forced to regroup in Skyfall, assembling the strongest cast and crew of any film in the series to date, for what is without question one of the very best entries. Much fuss was made about whether director Sam Mendes - who is unquestionably better-acquainted with drama than frantic action - could pull off the dual-identity directorship needed for a James Bond film, but from minute one, there's no doubt. Mendes seems keen to prove himself right out of the gate, flinging Bond (Craig) right into the fray, in pursuit of an operative who has stolen a much-coveted MI6 hard drive containing the real identities of countless embedded NATO spies. This opening set-piece, a transformative, lengthy vehicular chase, makes it clear that Mendes is up for the work-out, lithely embracing the outlandishness inherent to Bond's identity as an action icon, while presented in a more coherent form than Marc Forster's prior sub-Bourne stylings, meanwhile anchored by Thomas Newman's booming score. When M has to make a tough judgement call, Bond ends up on the wrong end of a sniper rifle bullet, and finds himself taking the titular plummet from atop a moving train to the watery depths below. It's a truly chilling moment of Bond lore, seamlessly seguing into the haunting opening credits - set to Adele's anthemic title song, a loving Shirley Bassey throwback - which above all else cements the more sombre, haunting quality of this take over the last instalment. Comparisons are likely to be drawn with Christopher Nolan's gritty, "realistic" take on the Batman mythos, for Mendes' film is, compared to pre-Casino Royale entries, something of a dirge, with M on the cusp of forced retirement, and Bond having to almost literally return from the grave once a terrifying new threat targets MI6. However, the script - written by the returning Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, alongside new recruit John Logan - is also terrifically funny, fielding out witty banter between Bond and his cohorts, while winking and nudging to the various tropes that have come to define our Tom Ford-apparelled hero (notably the added danger of a Komodo Dragon during a Shanghai fight scene, and a laughably gratuitous sex scene). Like Nolan's disassembly - and ultimate reconstruction - of the hero myth in The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall begins by questioning the relevance of a hired gun like Bond, pawned off as an unfortunate necessity needed when someone "needs to pull a trigger" and little more. At one point early on, Bond instructs a character, "Do not overcomplicate the plot", and unlike Nolan's films, Skyfall is a relatively simple, pared-down story, but all the better for it; Mendes is more committed to conveying a mood and putting stock into characters over old-hat espionage. Still, he similarly manages to touch on contemporary fears of home-front terrorism, particularly during a daring sequence set on the London Underground. Over a lengthy but not over-long 143-minute runtime, Mendes dares us to soak in this gorgeously-realised world, oozing atmosphere, cool, and most unexpectedly, heart. It's all about the characters here; Dench's M, the film's emotional and narrative anchor, is the clear stand-out, for her quizzical banter with Bond might on the surface suggest mild contempt, but there's a clear mutual respect there, perhaps even sentiment as one character suggests, for Bond's personal approach in a world of increasing technological automation. Dench's real-life deteriorating eyesight made headlines during Skyfall's shoot, implying the possible departure of the character, and while revealing M's arc throughout the film would be a criminal breach of journalistic ethics and personal decency, it is among the series' most brilliantly-wrought, emotionally gratifying ones. Craig, meanwhile, is the reliable Bond we've come to expect - even if his last outing didn't give him too much meat to feast on - thoroughly out of step when he first emerges from his watery "demise", the nagging pain of his opening injury afflicting his ability to shoot straight. Here Bond's character is, in a seldom-seen feat, crowbarred open, revealing minor but intimate details of his young life - specifically the deaths of his parents - allowing the film's climactic stand-off, and its iconic setting, to resonate through and through. Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, the villain of the piece, doesn't make his first appearance until Skyfall's half-way mark, a bold choice that ultimately pays off, with the eccentric, grotesque Silva fleeting in and out of the film's remainder like a phantom, not unlike Heath Ledger's The Joker or Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, with a fiendishly convoluted plan to boot. Mendes presents to us a character inherently sympathetic once the nature of his villainy is learned, albeit still steeped in the caustic, murderous psychopathy that makes rooting for Bond a breeze. Bardem, an enormous talent and inspired choice for a Bond baddie, leaves no scenery left unchewed as he playfully taunts Bond, before turning up the homo-eroticism in a way sure to evoke giggles from audiences. Kitted out in a ridiculous dyed-blonde coiffure and camping it up like his life depends on it, Bardem looks like he's having a blast here, and helps render his lengthy dialogues - often captured in single takes - riotously, uproariously funny.
As for the ubiquitous Bond girls, less focus than ever is placed on them this time; field agent Eve (Naomi Harris) - who at M's behest fires the bullet that takes Bond initially out of commission - is a feisty but sensitive soul, attuned to Bond but held at arm's length from him for the majority of the film's latter half. Similarly, Berenice Marlohe's femme fatale Severine has an indomitable presence - and beautifully piercing eyes - but like Harris, ends up taking a back seat to the woman really worth taking about; M. Other supporting parts include Ralph Fiennes as snotty stuffed-shirt Mallory, and Ben Whishaw as a youthful incarnation of Desmond Llewellyn's beloved Q; the latter certainly had the potential to misfire, but the self-referential wit with which the part is written ensures it is simply a loving tribute. Albert Finney - the umpteenth Oscar nominee adorning the cast - is also effectively used in a small part, as Bond's spunky old mentor, Kincade. One of the first things you'll notice about Skyfall is just how damn good it looks; Roger Deakins, long-snubbed Oscar nominee - being given the nod nine times and never winning - might finally have his year, with eye-wateringly gorgeous lensing, apparent particularly during the Shanghai excursion and the fiery finale, which makes this without question the most sumptuous, ravishing Bond film to date. Partied to this is Mendes' clear understanding of the action film, despite having never directed one before; the focus on organic stunt-work is refreshing, with CGI being employed in only the most sparing of means. In terms of set-pieces, the aforementioned crowd-pleasing chase sequence set on the London Underground will make many a commuter smirk, though it's the madcap finale - oddly drawing inspiration from Home Alone of all films - which will best dazzle viewers, a spectacularly demented, thunderous sequence that manages to make us care about who might or might not be taking a bullet. Keeping it simple and telling a more personal story, Skyfall is leaps and bounds ahead of Quantom of Solace, while matching Casino Royale near-enough blow-for-blow and quite often exceeding it, even if we concede it to be grown from more familiar elements. Pragmatism rarely results in movie magic, but in so aggressively pursuing a striking, "gritty" post-9/11 aesthetic while not forgetting the cheeky pleasures of old, Mendes has created a film at once old-school and new-school to disarming effect. Better than any other film in the series, Skyfall thematically acknowledges the iconic value of Ian Fleming's character, that he is the relic who can endure, because he must. It won't diminish Sam Mendes' extraordinary achievement to say that those wanting a Bond film by way of Christopher Nolan shan't be disappointed. The pleasure is all ours, James. Skyfall is released in the UK on October 26th, and in the US on November 9th.
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