James Bond celebrates his 50th big screen anniversary in style with Skyfall, a significant improvement on its ramshackle predecessor Quantum of Solace. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have pulled out all the stops for 007's landmark birthday - Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes is in the hot seat, Daniel Craig returns for his third mission, Adele sings a belter of a theme song, and there's some serious new acting clout onboard in Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes.
All this pays off, because in Skyfall 007 fans have a film that respects Bond's lengthy screen history while pushing its hero into new territory. This tension of old vs new, tradition vs innovation, has kept Bond on his toes over the years, occasionally resulting in offerings that fail to strike a chord with mass cinemagoers (eg the violent Licence to Kill) or give the series a shot in the arm (GoldenEye's clever winks to series tropes).
Skyfall isn't strictly a "Bond formula" movie, there are no hollowed-out volcanoes, killer satellites or plans for world domination, instead it's more in the vein of the personal, character-driven outings like On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Casino Royale.
Bardem, who created such a memorable screen villain in No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh, repeats the trick with Silva. He's camp, creepy and reptilian, and his first encounter with Bond is enough to make you laugh one moment then squirm the next.
Also ticked off the Bond checklist is Q, reinvented by Ben Whishaw as a cardigan-wearing computer whizzkid whose gadgets are stripped down to the bare essentials: a Walther PPK with hand-print recognition and a radio signalling device. "This isn't exactly Christmas," Bond quips. "Were you expecting an exploding pen?" Q fires back. There's a glamorous woman, too, in Bérénice Marlohe's underused Severine, but the most significant relationship Bond has in Skyfall is with M and his own past.
Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan play with Ian Fleming's original ideas of the character, circling back to 007's Scottish heritage (itself Fleming's hat-tip to Sean Connery) for a sensational finale at Skyfall lodge. Where Fleming mourned the loss of the British Empire in his novels, here there are questions about MI6's political value and if it's possible for them to "fight in the shadows" anymore. In M, though, Craig's Bond has someone to fight for.
Craig is perfectly at ease in the role third time around, an outstanding charmer and a ruthless killer. Though he can't quite dispatch a quip with the panache of Connery, he brings a depth and emotional weight to the character that keeps you firmly invested in him. Whereas the likes of Connery, Moore and Brosnan played 007 as a man in stasis, Craig's version is constantly being shaped and moulded. That is what makes his Bond interesting and relatable.
Skyfall's clean, direct narrative, blistering action sequences (a neon-lit Shanghai showdown deserves to be singled out) and strong performances across the board elevate it to the upper end of the Bond movie spectrum. There may be an awful lot of Heineken and a few minutes too many, but you won't walk out of this disappointed. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.