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“You know the rules of the game,” M tells Bond near the start of Skyfall , “You’ve been playing it long enough!” Fifty years to be exact, an anniversary that makes the 23rd entry in the world’s most durable franchise both a cue for nostalgia and a chance to reassess.
It would have been easy for director Sam Mendes to wallow in the former, tick all the right boxes and play to the gallery. Instead he poses questions. Who is Bond? What is his role? Is he a man with a future, or an irrelevant relic trapped in the past?
It’s a daring move to reintroduce Bond after a four-year hiatus as a man whose best days may be all behind him. But then Skyfall is nothing if not audacious, deconstructing 007 and the iconography he comes with in a way that is constantly, consistently surprising.
A blistering pre-credits sequence, in which Daniel Craig destroys half of Istanbul in a quest to recover sensitive information from an enemy operative, initially suggests Bond is back on track after the stuttering blip that was Quantum Of Solace .
No sooner are we settled, though, than James is shot in error by one of his own (Naomie Harris), plunging from the roof of a moving train into Daniel Kleinman-designed titles filled with skulls, tombstones and other totems of death.
Bond survives, of course – he always does. But when he comes back to life he is far from his best, Craig’s unshaven chops and bloodshot eyes betraying a man whose heart isn’t in it (if it ever was).
It doesn’t help that Judi Dench’s M also looks set for the scrap heap, or that the new Q (Ben Whishaw) is a techno-nerd barely half his age. (“You still have spots!” sneers Bond contemptuously during their first encounter in the National Gallery.)
Put through his paces after some Mediterranean down-time involving scorpion-baiting drinking games and post-shag Heineken, 007 can hardly manage a chin-up before collapsing in a heap. He can’t even dangle from the undercarriage of an ascending elevator without wincing in discomfort.
If Casino Royale was Bond finding his footing, Skyfall is him remembering where he left it - a clever turnaround made all the more effective by giving 007 an adversary who, for much of the film, is crossing the finish line while Jimmy’s putting on his trainers.
With his shock of blond hair, dodgy dentistry and vengeful M fixation, Javier Bardem’s Silva is that rarest of creations: a cyber-terrorist who genuinely terrifies. But he also has a playful side; witness the literally thigh-rubbing glee he brings to one stand-out interrogation scene.
It's far from the only sexually charged moment; cue a steamy shower clinch with Bérénice Marlohe’s femme fatale Sévérine, plus some saucy banter with Harris’ Eve that positively fizzes with winking innuendo.
But in line with Craig’s summer assignment at Buckingham Palace, the real Bond girl is of a more seasoned vintage: Dame Judi herself, here evolving from 007’s testy taskmistress into a surrogate mother he will kill to protect.
At one point – possibly Skyfall ’s gutsiest – Mendes has the two decamp to rural Scotland, there to ruminate on Bond’s past and how M took advantage of it.
The casting of Dench was always a master-stroke, but it has taken seven outings, and one Oscar-winning filmmaker, for her to be exploited properly.
Mendes’ ambitions, though commendable, don’t always fit the material.
The Bond series has lasted half a century without referencing Shakespeare, Tennyson and JMW Turner, so why shoehorn them in now?
Thankfully, they don’t interfere with the standard Bondian trappings, Skyfall boasting all the glamour, excitement and exoticism we have come to expect and then some.
A floating Macau casino, complete with firework display and komodo dragons, supplies a perfect setting for cocktails, fisticuffs and Live And Let Die in-jokes, while Bardem’s hide-out - a deserted island full of crumbling masonry and broken statues - has all the grandeur of Blofeld’s volcano with none of the impracticality.
Thanks to lensman Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, a Shanghai skyscraper rippled by neon advertising provides a brilliantly atmospheric backdrop for a nocturnal assassination.
A splendid mid-section in London, meanwhile, spurns the city’s overexposed architecture for a chase beneath its surface, Bond pursuing Silva via sewer, tunnel and Tube while still finding time to crack the odd funny.
Indeed, for all its intimations of mortality and harping on obsolescence, Skyfall is more often than not a hoot, Craig having the confidence at last to lace his Bond’s killer instinct with a bone-dry wit and wry nonchalance.
The scene where he contemplates utilising one of the series' oldest and most famous gizmos is a perfectly judged grace note, while an appearance from Albert Finney near the end of the picture exudes warmth and good humour.
It all adds up to the 007 adventure we’ve been waiting for: a flawlessly assembled thrill ride with a cast to die for and a nakedly emotional undertow. Happy birthday, Mr Bond.
The Daniel Craig era comes of age with a ballsy Bond that takes brave chances and bold risks. Guess what? Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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