“You know the rules of the game,” Judi Dench’s spymistress M tells Daniel Craig’s James Bond with an exasperated glare, “You’ve been playing it long enough.” The 23rd Bond film in a franchise that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, director Sam Mendes Skyfall manages the neat trick of striding ever forward while repeatedly looking over its shoulder, into its own past.

The story opens in media res with Craig’s taciturn Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) racing around the crowded streets of Istanbul in pursuit of a swarthy villain, who has stolen a computer hard drive containing the names of all the double agents the British Intelligence service has placed in terrorist organisation. The chase comes to nothing, and worse, it seems Bond has been fatally wounded by Eve’s friendly fire, falling feet first over a waterfall in mournful slow-motion. No body is found.

Just in case anyone thinks I’ve given the game away, all of this happens in the first ten minutes, before the trademark credits sequence, scored by Adele’s immediately forgettable theme song. Bond has survived the cascade, of course, and escaped to somewhere remote and tropical to recover. Back in grey, damp London, Dench’s exhausted-looking M also appears to be on the way out. Newly promoted Whitehall mandarin Mallory (a delicately priggish Ralph Fiennes) is gently pushing her towards the exit door. At the same time, a mysterious enemy agent with a shadowy connection to M’s past has somehow infiltrated the MI6 fortress beside the Thames, hacked the computer system and exploded a bomb. From an idyllic shoreline, where he has been medicating himself with whiskey and women, Bond hears of the attack on his mentor and returns to the nest. 

Soon, videos of the compromised agents being executed by a variety of masked terrorists start appearing on the internet, making MI6 look incompetent and Bond and M seem like throwbacks to a bygone age, whose guns and guile are no match for a new breed of techno-anarchists. Having waited in the wings for more than an hour, the villain finally takes centre stage in the form of Javier Bardem’s Silva, a bleached-blonde, majestically camp former agent with enough charisma to cover the emerging plot holes, Silva doesn’t just want to destroy MI6, he's out for vengeance.

Mendes’ decision to emphasise plot and character over non-stop action is commendable, with the director allowing his ensemble cast the time and space to flesh out characters that previously were truncated to allow for another chase or thunderous explosion. Dench’s M is effectively given a co-starring role with the veteran actor delivering a sterling performance, alternating between steely authority and tender frailty. Craig, who has settled into the role admirably, finds new character notes to add to Bond, playing him as an aging, inscrutable presence who allows the characters around him to fill in the story while he concentrates on the messy business at hand. The supporting cast is of a higher calibre than we’ve seen in the franchise previously.  Bardem’s Silva is a particularly juicy creation, the most memorable villain in the franchise since the days of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, a creepy, eerily unruffled sociopath with seemingly unlimited powers.

Skyfall gathers together all the familiar Ian Fleming elements of the series; the guns, the gadgets, the exotic locations, the beautiful women and the unsubtle product placement, but places them in a changed world – one whose origins lie more in the glossy pages of a modern superhero comic than a cheap paperback. Mendes’ film has less in common with the traditional all-action 007 fantasy than with Christopher Nolan’s moody Batman trilogy, which reconfigured the template for the modern blockbuster by framing a heroic story through the lens of geopolitics and psychology. Bardem’s clownish Silva is the Joker without his make-up while Bond is revealed as a self-sufficient orphan whose lack of emotional connections to the world outside MI6 allowed M to remould him into a deadly, disposable asset. Like Batman, he is a man without a past but its in exploring this vacuum that Skyfall finds it’s most interesting and progressive material. He might race around the world to face fearsome enemies but is at his most vulnerable when he finally returns to his childhood home.

“We don’t go in for exploding pens any more,” quips the bespectacled young boffin Q (Ben Whishaw). Neither do audiences, but Mendes’ tinkering can only go so far. In the end, the traditional requirements of the Bond formula take precedence over any post-modern reinvention. Skyfall achieves its aim of returning the 007 franchise to the gritty high of Casino Royale after the addled low of Quantum of Solace, but the chance to find a new direction for the fifty year old series is tantalisingly spurned. Maybe next time.

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