In Skyfall, James Bond is no longer a spook – he's a vigilante
What would The Week's resident intelligence analyst make of Skyfall? Read before his article self-destructs
"DON'T tell him, Pike." And I won't. It's bad manners when reviewing films or plays to give away the plot. Generations of theatre-goers have gone to see Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap without telling anyone the murder was committed by the ……… . Unlike Wikipedia and a notoriously misanthropic columnist in one national newspaper, I have no intention of betraying any of Skyfall's secrets – so read on.
Skyfall is good, never-even-got-around-to-eating-my-popcorn good. Up there with the best. The stunts are fantastic and real. Daniel Craig said in a television interview that they tried to keep the use of Computer Generated Imagery to a minimum. It shows.
There are some new touches. The CIA agent Felix Leiter does not appear – it's an all-British Bond for once. Ben Whishaw plays Q straight – not as a gadgeteer but a computer whizz, a welcome relief from John Cleese.
The film is in many ways a reassuring trip down memory lane. Judi Dench is back as M – her seventh outing in the role. And the cities of Istanbul (From Russia With Love) and Macau (The Man with the Golden Gun) have returned in all their splendour. Adele's lovely theme tune could have been sung by a young Shirley Bassey.
As ever, Great Britain is portrayed as more important than it really is – one of the enduring appeals of a Bond film. Ian Fleming had a ringside seat in naval intelligence at our depressing loss of status and power during the Second World War and he had no intention of portraying it in his fiction.
At one point Bond is able to summon up a trio of naval helicopters instantaneously somewhere in the South China Sea. That would mean at least three of our 19 remaining destroyers and frigates being on station in support of his latest caper. Whatever the reality, Britannia still rules the waves in a Bond movie.
Fleming was also an aficionado of the golden age of detective fiction and the Bond stories reflect their moral topography. The world is not a rational or nice place but the bad guys get their just desserts. There is no question that the villain Raoul Silva (camp as a row of tents and splendidly played by Javier Bardem) will be able to slither off to northern Cyprus or use some drawn-out legal procedure to escape justice. Before the end of the movie Bond is going to dramatically violate his human rights.
This is where the film works best. Daniel Craig has a quality of suppressed violence that drives both the suspense and the action. He is always about to kick-off, and when he doesn't - it gives his humorous and amorous asides an extra zing. For the first time since Sean Connery we have a convincing man of action on screen, though Craig to my mind is more SAS than MI6.
There is one new evolution that builds on Craig's character and makes Skyfall both different from its predecessors and strongly reassuring for our troubled times.
Craig's Bond is semi-detached from M – she exercises a light touch supervisory role at best. M herself is semi-detached from the British state as is made clear when she appears disdainfully in front of a parliamentary committee stuffed full of grotesques from the professional political classes.
This certainly wasn't the effect designed by Fleming or portrayed in all the previous films. Bond was most definitely always On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
In Skyfall he comes across as an independent actor with a self-setting moral compass. Contemptuous, like most of us, of institutionalised and rule-based inaction, but, unlike us, free from its restraints. He is not just as an icon or a brand but a wish fulfilment exercise for our times. Bond is no longer a spook but a vigilante.
Two itsy-bitsy complaints – both aesthetic. First, could someone please sort out Mr Craig's dinner jacket. It's Russian oligarch/provincial night-club bouncer tight. No Etonian naval officer would wear such a rig. The costume department might look at Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca to see how it should be done.
Second, there are fewer Bond girls than usual – no bevy of bikini-clad lovelies as is customary. Those that do appear are certainly beautiful – as noted even by the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which published five separate articles about Skyfall.
Naomie Harris is 'truly scrumptious' as Eve – appropriately Fleming's own words in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The French actress Berenice Marlohe as Severine is - to use a phrase from Raymond Chandler that the Vatican would understand - a brunette "to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window".
But two is not enough.