It occurs to me that, perhaps, there's rather more riding on the success of Sam Mendes' Skyfall than is really ideal for what should be a wholly celebratory golden anniversary outing for the modern world's greatest hetero-normative fantasy icon. The fact remains that the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is not well regarded, and I'll admit to wondering whether the much-lauded rethink of the series under Daniel Craig was actually such a wise idea after all – perhaps Casino Royale just had novelty value to commend it after all.
Nevertheless, for the time being at least, a new Bond movie remains a big event and Skyfall has arrived, preceded by an enormous bow-wave of bespoke advertising and tie-in products. This is undoubtedly the biggest movie of the Autumn, possibly one of the four or five biggest movies of the year in terms of profile. It all adds up to a very high set of expectations.
So how does Skyfall measure up to them? I'll happily confess to being such a big fan of the series that any Bond movie looks good to me the first time round, but – despite a few misgivings which we'll come to presently – I'm pretty sure this is an outing which will find a place in the upper echelon of the franchise. The script, from regular Bond screenwriters Purvis and Wade, with John Logan, is so packed with twists and turns and surprises that it would be a shame to describe it in any real detail. Suffice to say that it features an embattled Bond (Craig) in pursuit of a brilliant cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) – a man with, it would appear, a suspicious familiarity with both MI6 and its long-time director, M (Judi Dench)...
The first thing to be said in Skyfall's favour is that it's such a relief to see a Bond film which obviously isn't afraid to be a Bond film. For me Quantum of Solace came across as much too earnest and even a bit timid – Skyfall kicks off with a terrific, full-scale chase through Istanbul, which showcases immaculate action choreography while still managing to set up the themes of the film to follow. 'Relax,' the film seems to be saying to the audience, 'you're in the hands of professionals: we know exactly what you've come here for.'
What follows doesn't quite count as Bond at its most outrageous, but I certainly wasn't disappointed by the action quotient. Any shortfall in Skyfall on this front is more than made up for by a (relatively) thoughtful and subtle script. In some ways it revisits territory from several of the Brosnan Bonds – at one point Bond is accused of being a superannuated relic of bygone days, and he's depicted as a much more vulnerable, self-doubting, battle-scarred (in every sense) figure than usual.
It's a bit of a wrench to go from the relatively inexperienced Bond of Craig's first two movies to the veteran he's portrayed as here (the plotline left hanging concerning the Quantum syndicate is never mentioned), but this allows the film to develop a rich seam of ideas all related to the theme of age and regret and mortality. There's an almost valedictory atmosphere to a lot of Skyfall – one senses the Bond legend being dissected, obliquely, before one's eyes – which is finely sustained, even when such a tone is clearly not in earnest: Bond is ultimately infallible and indestructible.
This is by no means a heavy film, however, possessing a very dry sense of humour that suits Craig and Dench well, and issued with some very good jokes indeed. Albert Finney pops up as a crowd-pleasing comic relief character, while the revamp of Q is also winning: Ben Whishaw makes the boffin a mixture of spod and steeliness and his relationship with Craig also promises much for future installments. (This is a fairly gadget-light Bond film, with the major exception of a classic Bond item which gets a major role in the third act.)
While Skyfall gets the tone of a Bond movie pretty much bang on, I'm not sure about some of the substance: there isn't exactly a proper Bond girl in it, for one thing, but funnily you don't notice that much. More of an issue is the nature of the plot, which is uncharacteristically introspective – this is very much a personal drama, with little reference to the world beyond Bond and his colleagues. On a related point, Javier Bardem's performance as a particularly psycho Bond villain has a peculiarly reptilian campness to it – it's by no means unnuanced, but at the same time it's much bigger than anything else on display in the movie and occasionally seems to be going for laughs when they're not completely appropriate.
Nevertheless, this is winning, blockbuster entertainment. And, strangely, my overriding impression of Skyfall is of a movie completing the process of reinventing Bond which began in Casino Royale. Every Bond film of the last two decades has had to try to find a way of living up to the legend established in the previous three, and while I'm not sure Skyfall is obviously more successful than any of the others, by its conclusion all the pieces – the tone, the wit, the regular characters – all of these are in place, as fresh and exciting as one could hope for. This looks like a series near the top of its game, getting ready to conquer the world (as if that would be enough).
(Now, if they'd only move the gun-barrel sequence back to the start of the film where it belongs...)