Dir: Sam Mendes
Star: Daniel Craig
, Judi Dench
, Javier Bardem
, Ralph Fiennes
The past Bond movie and a half - since the poker-playing started in Casino Royale - have been utterly forgettable, and the news that this one was being directed by Sam Mendes hardly filled me with hope. After all, what does the director of The English Patient know about action? Oh, hang on: that was Anthony Minghella. Why do I always get those two mixed up? Still, the only film of Mendes's I've seen was American Beauty, hardly a showreel for 007. And yet: this is the best Craig Bond by a significant margin, establishing him in the role as his own character and, for the 50th anniversary of the franchise, managing to combine forward steps with a deep, abiding respect for the history of the character. Though a final decision won't be certain, until it gets a review to see whether it stands the test of time, this currently ranks only behind Goldfinger, OHMSS and Goldeneye among my favourites.
It starts with the apparent death of 007 (Craig), shot accidentally by a colleague as he struggles to recover a hard-disk containing the true identities of every secret agent NATO has. But, if you've seen You Only Live Twice (or realistically, even if you haven't), you'll be unsurprised to learn Bond comes back, shortly after a cyberattack has blown up MI6 headquarters in London - an incident intended for the viewing of M (Dench), rather than her assassination. Turns out the man responsible is Raoul Silva (Dench). Like 006 in Goldeneye, he's a rogue agent, but is now intent on bringing M down, not just by death, also by destroying her reputation. Even after 007 captures him from a remote island lair, that's only the start of proceedings, which come to a head on the Bond family estate in a remote corner of Scotland, where James, M and the family gamekeeper (while played by Albert Finney, I strongly suspect they wanted Sean Connery) must withstand an assault by Silva and his forces.
The main area of improvement is pacing: the 143-minute running time really does not feel like it, a massive improvement over its predecessors, which swung from wild action to tedium. Mendes delivers some truly kick-ass action sequences - there's three that are among the very best of the series - but doesn't forget time with the characters. The new Q plays down the gadgets, giving Bond a gun only he can use and a radio, and that's about it. However, there's a glorious moment later on, that refers back to a highlight from a different era, and is a marvellous payoff for the previous underselling. Indeed, there's a generally low-key approach to much of the emotional side from all, which works very well. It seems that most of the best Bond film are the ones with the best villains, and Bardem can generate more menace with one of his weird expressions or off-centred laugh, than less talented actors could do with five minutes of ranting and raving. Having someone like him as a foil is a vast improvement over Mathieu Amalric in QoS - that I had to look that up says all you need to know. This is almost a reboot of the reboot, with the last scene setting things up for much more to come. I can't wait.