BOND'SBACK RO HIS BEST; SKYFALL (12A, 143 MINS) Starring: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Berenice Marlohe, Rory Kinnear, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory.
In the 50 years since Ian Fleming's debonair secret agent introduced himself to Sylvia Trench at a card table in Dr No, global politics have changed beyond recognition. The Iron Curtain has fallen, the Cold War has thawed, the People's Republic Of China has emerged as a superpower and terrorism has shifted into the digital realm, forcing James Bond and his colleagues at MI6 to evolve. Actors, who have been licenced to kill during these five turbulent decades, have brought something new to the party. Sean Connery married flirtatiousness with rugged machismo and bare-chested sex appeal, providing a template that successors have struggled to match. George Lazenby invested his short-lived 007 with tender romance while Roger Moore arched an eyebrow with impish glee, doling out innuendo-laden one-liners with aplomb. Timothy Dalton added darkness and grit to his emotionally tortured agent, then Pierce Brosnan restored parity between athleticism and charm, coming closest to the glory days of the 1960s. The latest Bond, Daniel Craig, has rugged physicality in abundance but his one-note interpretation of the spy who is shaken but never stirred remains devoid of personality.
It's telling that the abiding memory of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is a pair of tight, blue swimming shorts. Skyfall will do nothing to dispel those concerns but is undoubtedly the best instalment of Craig's tenure. Director Sam Mendes sensibly surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of award-winning actors, who bring gravitas and humour to their iconic roles. This tour-de-force supporting cast encourages Craig to raise his game but also exposes his weaknesses as an actor, most noticeably in a pivotal scene of heartbreak, which relies on a drenching from a previous fist fight to send droplets of water down his inexpressive face, suggesting the tears of a momentarily broken man. In the brilliantly orchestrated action sequences, Craig is in his element and Mendes opens with a breathtaking 12-minute pre-credits sequence, which draws heavily from the Bourne franchise to propel Bond and field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) through the winding streets of Istanbul.
The mission ends in apparent tragedy, heralding the sombre chords of Adele's soaring theme song that harks back to the belting ballads of Shirley Bassey.
With Bond reportedly killed in action, section chief M (Dame Judi Dench) pens an obituary as a political storm rages.
A database of MI6 assets has fallen into the wrong hands, compromising undercover agents around the world.
This dereliction of duty puts M and the department's Chief Of Staff, Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear), in the firing line and they are summoned to Westminster before a committee including the new Chairman of the Intelligence And Security Committee, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and ambitious rival Clair Dowar (Helen McCrory).
While M fends off sustained attacks on her reputation, news filters through that Bond has survived and M engages her physically bruised agent to track down menacing cyber terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem - see page 4).
Working alongside Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve, Bond traverses the globe in search of Silva, crossing paths with the mysterious Severine (Berenice Marlohe) in a casino in Macau, which facilitates a steamy shower sex scene.
As the investigation continues, Bond unearths dark secrets from M's past that threaten to bring down MI6.
Skyfall looks stunning courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins and action sequences don't disappoint.
Bravely, the 23rd Bond assignment pares back the slam bang thrills to concentrate on characterisation and plot.
Bardem is deliciously camp and menacing, recalling classic villains of yore as he berates M for her deceptions in one breath ("Mummy was very bad!") then guns down innocent bystanders without mercy.
Dench is wonderful as ever and really excels when she abandons her desk for the field of action. Supporting actress Oscar nominations have been bestowed for far less.
Whishaw asserts himself as a gadget geek with a terrific introductory scene in an art gallery, warning Bond that "age is no guarantee of experience".
A throwaway visual gag with his coffee mug is a hoot.
The closing 20 minutes are the only obvious misstep by screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, who telegraph their intentions early on when Severine asks Bond if he will kill Silva and 007 responds "someone usually dies".
Director Mendes gets high on nostalgia to the delight of Bond purists but he spends slightly too long looking back and not enough looking forward, and consequently stumbles with the lacklustre final showdown.