Fifty years ago, 'Dr. No' was released - Sean Connery oozing class as British spy James Bond, and Ursula Andress wowing audiences with an iconic entrance. Twenty two films later and we have 'Skyfall', solidifying Daniel Craig's position as one of the greatest on-screen spies of all time and Judi Dench as one the franchise's strongest female characters.
'Skyfall' opens with Bond and fellow agent Naomie Harris in pursuit of an assassin who has procured a hard drive containing the identity of undercover agents embedded in terrorist organisations. Their attempts at stopping the assassin prove unsuccessful, and indeed, particularly perilous for Bond. Soon, MI6 finds itself under attack and the stage is set for Bond's return.
Much of the pre-release discussion of the film actually focussed upon its theme, Adele and Paul Epworth's 'Skyfall' but its preceding opening action sequence and corresponding titles move the theme into the background. Much of the post-release discussion has been related to its status as one of the best Bond films of all time - a claim I'm not fully in agreement with.
'Skyfall' does succeed in many respects, acting as an origin story of sorts for future editions of the series - with new characters Eve (Naomie Harris), Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw) all settling in suitably well. Bond's backstory is also extended, giving more depth to Craig's (admittedly excellent) portrayal of a character who has been given relatively little to do except look moody, kill, look moody, make love, then look moody again.
There are some pulsating set-pieces - namely the pre-titles Istanbul sequence, despite its echoes of 'The Bourne Ultimatum' and 'Mission: Impossible', as well as the incredibly tense race across London between Bond and the film's main villain Silva. The film unfortunately takes a nosedive following the latter point, setting up for the grand finale which is fairly unsatisfying and lacks the suspense of its set-up.
Javier Bardem's role as the film's villain, Silva, is of particular interest. His character is wildly inconsistent - at times, evil mastermind, at others, unhinged madman. This duality is a common trope for villains - their madness often used as an excuse for their foolhardy behaviour. Bardem's Silva embodies this idea, thoroughly frustrating as he turns his back on the most effective methods of killing his foes. (Indeed, turning his back literally proves erroneous in the end.)
There's a distinct whiff of 'GoldenEye' with the Silva plotline, as well as Craig's first Bond film 'Casino Royale'. But it is M's higher profile role in 'Skyfall' that is the main difference. Dench's resolute ruthlessness unfortunately makes me care little for her character, despite attempts at adding sentimentality between her and Bond. Yet her role is clearly pivotal, and she does not seem out of place amid Bond and Silva, testament to her increasing prominence over the last few films.
The film's finale seeks to drive home an emotional end but falls rather flat in that regard. But this is a rare failure in director Sam Mendes' offering. He particularly and perhaps surprisingly excels in the action set-pieces but is let down somewhat by the script's inability to find a suitable conclusion to match its preceding excitement.
With 2008's 'Quantum Of Solace' setting the bar so low last time around, 'Skyfall' has been somewhat overpraised. Nonetheless, it remains one of the finer instalments in the Bond franchise. Perhaps it will even gain awards traction and finally see cinematographer Roger Deakins (who offers a selection of wonderful shots, particularly of a bleak, desolate Scottish setting) win his first Oscar after nine previous nominations.
'Skyfall' is out now in UK cinemas, through Sony Pictures.