Celebrating 50 years in the business, 007 is looking 00K in Skyfall, still lean and mean, quick on his feet, contemporary but not afraid to look back.
It gets off to a flyer with a long and elaborate chase, then keeps the pedal floored in a series of dynamic set pieces that show off director Sam Mendes's technical expertise and his understanding of what's required in a James Bond picture. It looks spiffy, largely thanks to Roger Deakins's crisp photography, and gets the franchise back on track after the cheerless Quantum of Solace threatened to derail the show. It also has a top villain, one of the great Bond baddies, in Javier Bardem.
And yet something about it prevents me from joining the loud "wahoos" already raised in acclaim. Enjoyable as it is, there are creaks and judders in the machinery that suggest the film-makers' nervousness about Bond and about his long-term appeal. Most notable is an uncertainty as to how far they should humanise a spy who has operated, necessarily, "in the shadows". Take away those shadows and, like a vampire at dawn, his substance may shrivel in the light. Skyfall belatedly clues us into a backstory explaining 007's emotional reticence and his professional psychopathology, but I think that is to mistake what the audience seeks in Bond – they don't want to know about his mother and father, they want to know if he can still deliver a great one-liner while dodging an oncoming train.
Did I say vampire? Our hero, if not undead, does appear to have given up the ghost at the end of that opening chase. Who could have survived a sniper's bullet and a 1,000ft plunge into the deep? Bond, that's who. When he reappears in London months later, even M (Judi Dench) appears mildly surprised. If he looks shaken and stirred, M's case is a lot worse. Not only is MI6 about to retire her, she's also under attack from a fiendish cyber- terrorist with a grudge: "Think on your sins," is his signature warning. Before she can even collect her P45 her office is firebombed in broad daylight. The villain has also stolen a hard drive containing a list of Nato agents, which he intends to leak online in weekly installments. "I'll go home and change," says Bond, snapping into action. "Oh, we've sold your flat," replies M – standard procedure for an operative Missing Presumed Dead. Charming!
Bond is put through rigorous tests by his employers before returning to the field, and his marks aren't good. Doubts are voiced about his nerve, his sharpshooting, even his age. "This is a young man's game," warns new MI6 taskmaster (Ralph Fiennes), which is harsh on Daniel Craig. At 43, he appears in excellent fettle, his silhouette slim and his movement graceful. He looks terrific in a tux. The one thing missing from his armoury, alas, is a sense of humour. The scriptwriters have supplied some good gags here, but Craig is too clenched an actor to make the most of them. Say what you like about Roger Moore, he knew how to time a quip. I liked the assignation with new quartermaster, Q – Ben Whishaw looks like the nerdy one on the wing of a University Challenge team – and the austere back-to-basics package he presents to Bond: a gun, and a radio. "Not exactly Christmas, is it?" says James. "What were you expecting – an exploding pen?" (Actually, yes, we were.) There's another flash of retro-gadget comedy later on when Bond recovers his old motor – a moment too good to spoil.
Mendes keeps the thing rocketing along, switching from the rooftops of Istanbul to the glittering scrapers and gambling dens of Shanghai, where Bond makes contact with a mysterious woman (Bérénice Marlohe). The sex? Blink and you miss it; this Bond has his mind on The Job, not the job. In any case, the real erotic encounter involves not a woman but a man. Behold Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent sold down the river by M ("Mommy was very bad"), returning to eat revenge's cold dish after surviving his own cyanide capsule. Bardem thoroughly enjoys himself, inserting camp little moues between his words and treating Bond to the sort of feel-up he probably hasn't experienced since public school. "What's your regulation training for this?" Again, Craig hasn't the lightness of touch to make it a comic duet, but it's OK because Bardem has enough mischief for two. He also does that sinister thing of smiling through his own captivity – you just know he's got a fabulous escape plan.
It's all set up for a big finale, with Bond playing Galahad to his old boss and reuniting with an aged retainer somewhere on a moor in Scotland. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the least successful part of the movie, not merely because it's overlong but because it tries to situate Bond as a man in touch with his feelings, as son and heir, almost "one of us". Next thing you know he'll be stopping his glottals and claiming he's a straight kinda guy. The film-makers should beware of this. I don't want Bond with a back story, I want him to be a man alone, dark, self-possessed, egregious – literally, "outside the flock". Craig may not be able to offer much in the way of charm or humour, but he knows how to hang tough. Banish his darkness and Bond becomes your standard action man, another rooftop-leaper and street- runner à la Jason Bourne. His name's Bond – James Bond – and that's all the information we need from him.