THERE are not many films that can prompt a reviewer to consider treason, and it is perhaps fitting that it should be a Bond movie. The franchise, 50 years old this year, is, after all, about loyalty to one's country.
But knock me down with a referendum ballot paper if Skyfall, the 23rd film in the series, didn't have this Scot wondering if Daniel Craig wasn't shaping up to be a better Bond than Sean Connery. Pause for collective sharp intake of breath and cries of "lock her in the dungeon of Edinburgh Castle".
This is Craig's third outing as 007 after the outstanding Casino Royale and the not so outstanding Quantum of Solace, the film with the impenetrable title and a plot to match. It is helmed by Sam Mendes, a British director better known for his work in theatre and, in cinema, on the more arthouse, indier side of the street.
That said, the Mendes who directed the overwrought Revolutionary Road (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio bickering stylishly) was the same Mendes who made his debut with the Oscar-winning American Beauty. In short, he can do mainstream, but could he do a Bond?
Yes he can. Any director new to Bond must slap their cards on the table in the opening sequence, and Mendes plays an ace hand here with a chase scene in Istanbul packed with more action and inventiveness in five minutes than some movies have in 95. On and on it goes, so long that one begins to wonder if the traditional opening titles have been dispensed with. Mendes does draw breath eventually, but his message is clear: if you thought this was going to be some sort of namby-pamby cerebral Bond, The Glass Menagerie with guns, Uncle Vanya with a few vampy Bond girls, then think again.
After this exhilarating opening, and save for some baggy moments and a couple of rather too chaotic action scenes, Skyfall is a tightly coiled, well-oiled machine of a film. It makes many an affectionate nod to Bonds past, but nothing feels forced and it all adds to the general sense of giddy fun.
Skyfall finds Bond, M (Judi Dench) and the rest of MI6 on the back foot. A list of secret agents embedded in terrorist organisations has been stolen, and those who have it are threatening to publish the names on the internet. The political establishment, embodied in MP Clair Dowar (Helen McRory) has already grown tired of MI6 and its cash-draining ways, wondering if it needs all these expensive agents in the first place when there are satellites watching and drones available.
M's protestations that agents on the ground are worth any number of spies in the sky are not going down well at Westminster, and the organisation is under threat as never before. Bureaucrats and politicians, it is made clear, are to the secret services what Daleks are to Doctor Who.
Skyfall is only gently political –unless you choose to see it as one big begging letter for more cash for MI6 – but it is just sharp-edged enough to feel relevant. As with the story, which centres around computer intelligence and hacking, there is an air of freshness about this Bond that was lacking in its immediate, pre-Craig predecessors. Skyfall is a little bit Spooks, a touch Homeland, and all the zippier for it.
Adding to the sense of this being a leaner, keener Bond are the number of new characters. There is Naomie Harris, as Eve, Bond's colleague in the field, and Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, the suit who liaises between MI6 and Westminster. Some old characters have new faces, with Ben Whishaw (Perfume, Bright Star) taking on the scholarly mantle of Q the quartermaster. One feels Desmond Llewelyn would approve.
Of course, there has to be a villain, this one in the shape of Javier Bardem's Silva. To say too much would be to spoil the enjoyment you'll have watching the No Country for Old Men star rip the bones out of his character and spit them in the face of Bond.
Most refreshing of all about Skyfall is that Bond not only has his mojo back after Quantum, but his sense of humour too. It is humour of the waspish, sometimes daft but always endearing, quintessentially British kind, so much so one wonders what the folks abroad will make of it all. There are still some groan-worthy elements, such as the presence of the obligatory Bond girl (here Berenice Marlohe) but even that is handled with some class.
All hail though, to Craig. Together with Dench and several others in the new movie, he has given Bond some genuine acting heft and a few added layers. He can do the mortal superhero stuff, but he's pretty super at the acting lark too, making the character genuinely intriguing again. As intriguing as Connery? Decide for yourself.
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