Skyfall, James Bond, review

Dir: Sam Mendes; Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace. 12A cert, 142 min.

When is a Bond film not a Bond film? It’s a question likely to prey on the minds of the very many cinema goers who will see this 23rd official 007 adventure. Skyfall shakes together familiar elements of the Ian Fleming canon – the cars, the guns, the exotic locales with the dames to match – into a blistering comic book escapade that the old Bond, and one suspects Fleming too, would find altogether alien.

Sam Mendes’s frequently dazzling, utterly audacious entry in the franchise has less in common with its much-loved predecessors than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. After its release in 2008 (when it left Quantum of Solace, the 22nd Bond film, trailing in its wake), Nolan’s pathbreaking superhero picture almost single-handedly reconfigured the modern blockbuster template. Like a wise old dog, 007 has studied it carefully, and learned some new tricks.

Here, Bond (Daniel Craig) faces a foe almost as inscrutable as the Joker himself: Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an ex-MI6 agent who worked with M (Judi Dench) in her pre-Handover Hong Kong days who has returned, unhinged by a perceived betrayal, as a master computer hacker bent on vengeance.

Bardem’s lip-lickingly camp turn makes him the oddest Bond villain since the Roger Moore era, and his nicotine hair flops queasily over his forehead in a way that calls to mind Julian Assange. By acknowledging the rise of cyberterrorism in the same way Nolan played on the West’s new vulnerability in the wake of 9/11, Skyfall is a Bond film for the Anonymous generation.

Mendes is unafraid to let the quieter dramatic moments breathe (a loaded conversation between Bond and Silva drew cheers at last night’s preview screening), and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins makes the wildly ambitious action sequences the most beautiful in Bond’s 50-year career. (The release of Skyfall marks the series’ half-centenary.)

The sensational Istanbul-set prologue is soon bettered by a early soujourn to Shanghai, in which Bond pursues an assassin through a glass skyscraper lit up like a neon Aurora Borealis. This is Skyfall’s popcorn-dropping moment, and an uneven third act that harks back to the Bond films of old (the Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5 makes an appearance) never quite coheres.

“We don’t go in for exploding pens any more,” quips young Q (Ben Whishaw). Nor do audiences, which is why I suspect Skyfall will be a stratospheric hit.

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