Ah, Mr Bond, we’ve been expecting you . . . for quite a long time, if truth be told, writes Carl Jones.
It’s been well over a decade since the world was treated to a truly sumptuous adventure in the very best, vintage 007 traditions.
Yes, Daniel Craig’s debut as Ian Fleming’s not-so-secret agent, Casino Royale, was a mighty fine movie which ruthlessly rebooted the series in 2006. But in the eyes of many fans, the moody action thriller was more Jason Bourne than James Bond.
Craig’s hugely disappointing follow-up, Quantum Of Solace, was then a perplexing, frenetically edited mess; an assault on the senses which barely paused for a single entendre, let alone a double.
So it’s definitely a case of third time lucky – because Skyfall, which opens at Shropshire cinemas on October 26, is a triumph on almost every level.
In Javier Bardem, it has one of the best baddies since the days when Sean Connery was abseiling into hollowed-out volcanoes to lock horns with bald men and white cats.
He delivers a part chilling, part comedic cross between Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson’s Joker which is ever-so-slightly camp and theatrical, and all the more memorable for it.
In Sam Mendes, it has a director who clearly ‘gets’ why Bond has been so successful for the past five decades, paying due reverence to the past with some touching tributes, while offering plenty of provocative new ideas and – contrary to many people’s fears – handling the action scenes well.
And in Daniel Craig, it has a Bond for the 21st century who, slowly but surely, is injecting more of the classic 007 traits into his granite tough persona. He looks, for the first time, like he truly believes he owns the role.
Even Q’s back on the scene, albeit in the shape of nerdy, scene-stealing computer hacker Ben Whishaw, who bears little resemblance to the late, great bumbling Desmond Llewelyn.
This Q is a computer genius who tells a sceptical 007 that he can wreak more havoc with his laptop, at home in his pyjamas, than any double-0 agent can ever hope to achieve out in the field.
His first meeting with Bond is one of the highlights of the movie.
The screenwriters have jettisoned the evil Quantum organisation from Craig’s first two movies to create a stand-alone spy adventure which prods at Bond’s mental demons and family history.
Like all the best entries in the series, it opens with a rollicking pre-credits sequence as Bond pursues a stolen computer drive containing the identities of all the MI6 agents immersed behind enemy lines, by jeep, motorbike, and freight train.
M (Judi Dench for a seventh time) is in the doghouse with the Prime Minister, because she’s the one who lost it.
We get an early shape of things to come when Craig – impressively doing his own stunts – leaps from a runaway digger on to the moving train, pausing for just a split second after landing to adjust the cuffs on his smart Tom Ford suit.
It’s the sort of quintessential Bond moment which has been sadly missing from his previous appearances. Bond’s pursuit of the stolen information takes him from Istanbul to Shanghai, Macau, and ultimately back to London where the MI6 headquarters is under threat from an unhinged madman with a personal grudge.
Action gives way to atmosphere as the movie nears its conclusion, and the minimalist, retro feel to the final half hour, which evokes the earliest 1960s Bond films, is likely to divide opinion.
The cinematography is breathtaking throughout, though, taking us on a multi-coloured travelogue and even managing to make the often grey London look mighty fine. And if there’s been a more spectacular explosion in the series than Skyfall’s climactic fireball, I can’t bring it to mind.
The support cast, including a wonderfully wily Albert Finney and Ralph Fiennes as a Government official with uncertain allegiances, has never been better.
And the Bond girls? Naomie Harris enjoys some deliciously flirtatious byplay with 007 when she joins him in the field to offer sassy support, and Berenice Marlohe smoulders in a brief but pivotal role as the pent-up oriental playgirl Severine.
But there’s only one Bond girl who really matters in Skyfall, and that’s Judi Dench.
The kernel of the whole story is the surrogate mother-son relationship between M and orphaned 007, and Craig and Dench translate their off-screen friendship into a powerful partnership.
And don’t rule out Bardem becoming the first Oscar-nominated 007 baddie. He really is that good as blonde-haired Silva, the man putting MI6 at risk with his genius computer hacking skills.
Bond devotees who arrive with their mental check-list will leave with almost all of their boxes ticked. Stylish delivery of the line ‘Bond, James Bond’ – check. Return of gadgetmaster Q – check. Vodka martini, shaken not stirred –check. Gadget-laden Aston Martin hitting the road – check.
The self-deprecating humour, the iconic and slightly pompous 007 traits, the womanising, the playful banter, the classic travelogue backdrops; it’s all there. So, too, is the much publicised product placement which sees 007 drinking Heineken. But it’s subtle, and works in the context of the story.
The four-year break between films appears to have benefited the Bond family, giving them chance to craft an intelligent, thought-provoking story which exposes some of the agent’s raw family secrets first written by Fleming in the 1950s.
Craig has never been better, throwing himself manfully into the stunt scenes, allowing cameras to get up close to the action with a brighter glint in his eye, and flashing plenty of toned flesh for his female admirers.
Let’s not forget, it took Sean Connery three films to truly settle into the tuxedo before unleashing the iconic Goldfinger in 1964, and Roger Moore’s third adventure, The Spy Who Loved Me, is also widely regarded as his finest.
Skyfall isn’t just the best of Daniel Craig’s Bond adventures, it comfortably gatecrashes the top half dozen films of the 50-year-old series.
And that’s no mean praise from a man who may not have signed up to the ‘Craig Not Bond’ web campaign when he was first chosen to replace Pierce Brosnan, but understood and sympathised with the views of those who did.