This is Daniel Craig's third outing as Bond and drops the storyline which held his previous two films together, that of the Quantum organisation and its nefarious dealings around the globe. This time we have direct threats to M (Judi Dench, returning for the seventh time) and MI-6's very existence. These come variously from Silva (Javier Bardem), a person from M's past, and from the British Government, wearing the friendly face of Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes. Silva has managed to steal a hard drive containing information on undercover agents and bad times ensue for all of our heroes until Bond goes to China, finally has a shave, mans up (by shagging Bérénice Marlohe's Severine) and heads for the final showdown in Glencoe.
Ah yes, the shaving. This is a different Bond, different even from Craig's previous portrayals. Now physically as well as psychologically damaged, Bond has to rebuild himself from scratch after the opening disasters. It's hard to imagine any of the previous actors who have played Bond pulling this off as well as Craig does. Brosnan tried it in the woeful Die Another Day but it wasn't a patch on what is portrayed in Skyfall. Here is a Bond who is lacking in confidence, drinking too much - even for him - in some beachfront bar, not able to shoot straight or do loads of manly pull-ups. Craig is definitely the best actor to have ever played Bond, watch his reactions and expressions as he chats to Sévérine in the bar.
The supporting performances are also top notch. Although the aforementioned Sévérine might not get a lot of screen time, Bérénice Marlohe does a good job, as do her various slinky outfits. Fiennes and Bardem are always good value but the latter's performance as the unhinged, damaged Silva is one of subtle lunacy. Who is he, really? What does he believe? Does he love M, or despise her? Which gender does he prefer to have in his bed? You are never sure what is genuine and what is an act and although he perhaps doesn't perform any actions worthy of it, you do sense that Sévérine's massive, almost pathological fear of him has reasons lurking under the surface of his melty face.
Most kudos though must go to Judi Dench. Older, jaded and tired, her sense of duty keeps M ploughing on with the job, while her sense of reason argues against her gut instinct to trust that Bond will get the job done. As with the previous two films - and Dench's performances alongside Brosnan for that matter - it is the interplay between commander and errant but brilliant footsoldier that is one of the highlights. Dench and Craig also clearly respect each other's talent and this is nowhere more in eveidence than in the final scenes in Scotland. M is the only one left who really knows Bond's whole past and there is obvious mutual respect; although she might still believe her description of Bond from GoldenEye ("a sexist, misogynist dinosaur... a relic of the Cold War"), it is obvious that they both feel like endangered species and must work together to survive. For, according to her own government, M herself is now an out of touch relic of another time.
The director coordinating all this is Sam Mendes, who really doesn't have much left to prove, least of all by directing a Bond movie. Here he is though and his directorial touches are everywhere. This is the most beautifully shot Bond film by a country mile, all massive Shanghai cityscapes, luminous Macau nightspots and misty Glencoe. The final act shots of Bond silhouetted against a burning building will probably become the picture postcards of Craig's tenure as 007. It's also clear that Mendes and everyone else behind the scenes wanted to return some of the fun that was missing from Casino Royal and especially from Quantum of Solace. A Bond for the twenty-first century is all well and good but it's nice to see Q, the Aston Martin DB5 and so many other Bond staples return. Q, played by Ben Wishaw, is the standout of these returnees, a cynical tech head who's afraid of flying. His and Bond's scene in the National Gallery is a standout.
There are of course a few let downs. The previously mentioned product placement is off putting, we don't need to see seconds long shots of Bond's hand pushing a lever just to show off his Omega. Albert Finney's gamekeeper character feels tacked on and the action scenes never really top the opening ones in Istanbul. Most of the old school Bond features work but one or two feel a bit silly in the cold light of the Third Millenium; giant, man-eating lizards spring to mind. Wishaw's Q, supposedly a computer genius, also utters that catchall Hollywood line for computer skullduggery: 'he's hacked us'.
At the end of the day though, this is Bond and it feels like Bond. The character and feel of the older films is back in a way that it wasn't during Craig's previous two outings, as good as they were. The film is directed with aplomb by an accomplished, serious director who elicits great performances with a decent script and plot. Even without the last three, Skyfall would still be a beautiful film just to look at. It's less ludicrous than Brosnan, less po-faced than Dalton, much less campy than Moore and as good as Connery at his Goldfinger best. When you've got Judi Dench quoting Tennyson over shots of Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem marching like Terminators through London, what more could you ask for?