SKYFALL ****1/2 (out of five)

Sam Mendes’ new film Skyfall, the twenty-third Bond film and the one that marks the series’ fiftieth anniversary, is spectacular, wonderful, daring, touching, and simultaneously a celebration of the entire series while also, in its careful way, a push forward into new territory. Of the Craig Bonds, it is better than Quantum of Solace and either on par with, or just slightly behind, Casino Royale – which for my mind puts it up there in terms of the entire series. It is a masterful achievement.

Seriously, how stunning is it for any cultural work to stay hip for fifty years? And yet this old war-horse of a series – in this outing, the most “British” it’s ever been – is about the hippest thing on the planet right now, if you go by world-wide box office (the film opened in the UK a couple of weeks ago and this past weekend in the US, and continues to roll out around the world, with the Australian release due for November 22nd). Daniel Craig, resplendent in a suit (man can that guy wear a suit!) is the very definition of cool. There is simply no other comparable cultural phenomenon. No-one was cheering at the end of the sixth Star Wars film in the way audiences are cheering for Skyfall.

The alchemy of this one is very much related to its’ position as the series’ fiftieth-anniversary entry, and a huge amount of loving ingenuity has gone into the script (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) so that the film, in its way, encompasses the whole series. So we’ve got a serious, deadly Bond – but he also makes quips. We’ve got the series’ strange, four-act structure (there was always a bonus half hour for one final big set-piece) in perfect place. There are beautifully thought-out acknowledgements of all sorts of tropes, gags and conventions from across the entire series, such as the one-line character who says something very funny when seeing Bond do something amazing, and is never seen again; an enormous amount of sexual innuendo; and, of course, multiple amazing locations and all out favourite characters, a strong villain, and two really beautiful women. Beyond this, there are all sorts of nods and references to previous films, none of which I’ll spoil here, but if you’re a Bond fanboy of any magnitude, they will fill you to bursting joy. (Okay, I’ll hint at one: in a delightfully loopy sequence, Mendes and Craig both have fun referencing – and Craig actually mimicking – one of Roger Moore’s most fondly remembered, and funny, scenes from Live and Let Die).

I have no compulsion whatsoever in declaring Skyfall, in terms of cinematography, then best looking Bond film ever. Roger Deakins (shooting the first ever Bond on digital) creates stunning image after stunning image, taking the film into the rarefied territory of huge, expensive arthouse films that are famous for looking great: films like Amedeus, The Last Emperor, Brokeback Mountain. A fight sequence in Shanghai is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence I’ve seen all year, but it’s consistent, image after image, sequence after sequence. Action movies simply don’t look like this – but, I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, this is no ordinary action movie.

Deakins will be nominated for an Oscar come January, but he won’t be the only one. Adele is extremely likely to win Best Original Song (finally, a new Bond song classic!), and there are obvious technical categories it will be nominated for and could win – editing, sound, sound effects editing – but its Oscar chances could run deeper than that. Judi Dench is certainly possible for a Best Supporting Actress nod, and Javier Bardem would definitely have an outside shot (the mitigating factor being that he already possesses a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a ruthless villain, in No Country For Old Men.) A screenplay nomination wouldn’t be absurd (which I think would have to fall in the “adapted” category, because, even though Skyfall is not based on a novel, by Ian Fleming or anyone else, it is based on a set of characters and situations by Fleming). But here’s where I’ll stick my neck out: With the Academy now nominating up to ten Best Picture contenders, there is no reason Skyfall shouldn’t be among them. I mean, c’mon: I haven’t seen everything the year still has in store, but there’s no way this isn’t certain to be one of the ten best films of the year. For me, it’s already warmly ensconced in the top five, and perhaps in the upper echelons of that.

Bond movies – the good, the great, and the occasional bad – are full of “Bond moments” which burn on your memory the moment you see them and become like the best songs on an album when you’re watching the film for the fourth time. Think of the disposal of Blofeld down the chimney in For Your Eyes Only, eclipsing the rest of that film. Mr. Big inflating and exploding in Live and Let Die. Bond’s death at the beginning of You Only Live Twice. Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in Dr. No. Daniel Craig emerging from the sea (!) in Casino Royale. RosaKlebb’s evil shoe-spike popping out in From Russia With Love. The aqua-car driving up onto the beach in The Spy Who Loved Me. And, of course, the gold-painted girl and Goldfinger’s “No, Mr. Bond, I want you to die.” There are dozens, scores more.

Skyfall is full of “Bond moments.” They’re deliberate, almost scientific, but they work. The weirdest of them exist purely to be Bond moments, and there’s nothing wrong with that (Javier Bardem has a good one or three of these). Oscar-winning Mendes (for American Beauty) was patently interested in making an über-Bond film to celebrate the entire fifty years. Thus we also get – often cheeky – variants on all the elements we grew up with: Bond introducing himself. Bond going to a casino. Bond getting his martini his way. An incredible pre-credits sequence (along with, of course, a gorgeous credits sequence, which makes Adele’s song especially haunting). But we also get to see Bond in quite a few ways we’ve never seen him before, and they’re all hugely entertaining and intriguing new glimpses into his character, as a man rather than as a secret agent.

Bardem makes a terrific villain – always aware that he was playing a Bond villain, as opposed to any other type, I would suggest – sprinkling his ruthlessness and sadism with plenty of humour (and not a little pathos). Dench is impeccable. Ralph Fiennes shows up and does a great job, as does Ben Whishaw as the new Q. Naomie Harris is a pert, adorable presence and banters well with Craig.

And Craig himself… well, Craig simply steals the role for all time – or at least for these first fifty years. Bringing a gravitas, an intensity, and most importantly, a vast inner life to the character that  is light years ahead of the others, his Bond is the first to feel truly real – not just superman, but man, as well.

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