For once you can believe the hype. This is not just the best Bond film ever, but it’s a bloody good, intelligent thriller by any standards. Under the direction of Sam Mendes, the Bond franchise has caught up with, and maybe overhauled, the Bourne brand that looked set to consign 007 to the dustbin of history.
Actually, a central theme of Skyfall is the idea that Bond may be past it, rendered obsolete by modern technology, the end of cold-war certainties and -not least- by advancing middle age, too much booze, and declining physical prowess. Judi Dench’s M is similarly threatened with enforced retirement as the politicians question her competence, MI6 having unfortunately allowed a list of its top agents round the world to fall into the hands of a vengeful lunatic who also manages to blow up their London HQ. Said lunatic is ensconsed with his henchmen on a deserted island and bent not so much on world domination (so passé) as upon the humiliation of those who failed to appreciate him when he was himself an M16 agent. Played with evident relish by a camp, giggling Javier Bardem, this may just be the most interesting Bond villain yet, and certainly the first to display such a degree of sexual and emotional ambiguity.
In fact the triangular love-hate relationship between the baddie, Bond and M is the other leitmotif of the film, culminating in a suitably Oedipal penultimate scene that is actually rather moving.
There are, of course, the required high-octane action scenes: the opening sequence in Istanbul is a buttock-clenching chase by car, motorbike and train before the action moves to the vertigo-inducing skyscrapers of Shanghai. There are a few self-referential jokes at the expense of previous Bond films (the new Q – a spotty young nerd – says “we don’t go in for exploding pens these days”). Even the old silver DB5 is retrieved from a lock-up, giving Dench/M the opportunity for a joke about ejector seats.
There are, naturally, the obligatory Bond girls, one of whom is pretty, black, British and a good sport. The other is sultry, foreign, untrustworthy and clearly destined for an unpleasant end. Bond’s relationship with both is fairly superficial but not blatantly sexist. And for the first time ever, Bond has an intelligent and profound relationship with a woman: M/Dench, of course.
I won’t risk giving any more away and spoiling it for you, but I must just add that in many ways you get two films in one. The final action-scenes move to the Highlands of Scotland as Bond decides he can only win by fighting in “the old fashioned way.” This is more Buchan than Fleming and the pace slows (in a good way), the film becoming austere, brooding and almost elegiac.
No question, then: the best Bond film ever. And in the complex, troubled and intelligent portrayal by Daniel Craig, the best 007 ever.