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I prayed expected the latest Bond film would be decent, good even. What I didn't imagine is that Skyfall would not only build on the Bond mythos, but also find a way to pay tribute to the Bonds of before.

Existing in the present, looking both forward and back -- that's something you'd expect from a Time Lord, not an archaic British agent written by an English gentleman half a century ago.

In the decades since Bond first sauntered onto the beach in Dr. No, the formula has been refined to the point where we know the recipe as well as his famous cocktail:

  • The opening tease/chase.
  • Introduction of new villain.
  • Random bedding of eligible ladies.
  • New gadget given by a withering quartermaster.
  • Confrontation, escalation.
  • Bond in terrible peril.
  • Climax (with the naughty post-coital quip if you happen to be in the Roger Moore era.)

With 2006's Casino Royale Bond was re-booted for the new millennium. From the moment Bond's tricked-out Aston Martin tumbled off the road, all bets were off. Casino Royale had its way with us, thanks to a take-no-prisoners approach assisted by homegrown screenwriter Paul Haggis. But then the franchise stumbled with Quantum of Solace, a movie as incomprehensible as its title. From the first frame featuring a re-imagined eye of the golden MGM Lion, Skyfall renews Bond like never before.

The film begins by deconstructing of the classic gun barrel opening. We see agent 007 (as in the photo below) standing in a dim hall, only his eyes highlighted.

Daniel CraigSkyfall marks Daniel Craig's third time as 007. (MGM/Columbia/EON Productions/Sony Pictures)

Then the chase is on, a new "MacGuffin" has been stolen, a hard drive containing the names of all the NATO double agents in the field. With one agent already down, Bond chases the killer through the streets of Istanbul. Car chases escalate to motorcycles on rooftops as Bond one-ups Jason Bourne.

Bond bespoke

This leads to an stunning scene you may have viewed in the trailer: Bond jumps into a battered passenger train, stopping briefly to adjust his shirt sleeves -- the unstoppable force with bespoke tailoring. Managing this without appearing a dandy is a testament to Daniel Craig's natural machismo. Like Sean Connery, there's a storm swirling underneath that placid surface.

But watching Skyfall in the theatre, another moment caught my eye. As Craig is pursuing his quarry, we see his face fixed in a snarl. The same snarl we see moments later on Judi Dench's face as M mercilessly urges her agents forward.

Judi DenchSkyfall sees the return of Judi Dench as M. (MGM/Columbia/EON Productions/Sony Pictures)

In previous films M was just machinery, a commander sending a soldier into battle. Skyfall fleshes out the M role, just as it does Bond. In a way they're similar, holdovers from Cold War days, doing what must be done to keep the shadows at bay. One feels an almost maternal element to Bond's minder, underlined by Bond's clipped "Yes Mum" to her every order.

This new Bond could use some coddling. After Adele entertains us with another iconic opening song, we meet a Bond who is shaken if not stirred. The opening chase ends badly, with Bond written off as a casualty of war and left for dead. Defeated Bond nurses his wounds with brand name beer and a nameless beauty until M16 is attacked and he sullenly reports for duty. The intelligence service retreats from London's high-tech glass and steel fortress to an old Second World War bunker. Another back-to-basics accent, one of many littered around the film like so much shrapnel.

Bardem as villain

Part of the problem with the risible Quantum of Solace was its villain, Dominic Greene, as an evil sort of Al Gore. Bond is only as good as his opponents. This time we're treated to a feast in Javier Bardem as Silva, an ex-agent who takes his licence to kill freelance.

Physically he's Bond's equal, and Bardem plays the part slightly cracked and high camp. Imagine the effortless evil of Live and Let Die's Kananga crossed with Max Zorin's psychopathic flair from A View To A Kill. The air crackles with menace and yes...a hit of sexual tension. Only someone as warm-blooded as Bardem could pull this off.

While the pace of Skyfall is almost exhausting, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) knows when to take his time. Take the introduction of Silva. While he slinks into frame, Silva treats us to a chilling tale about a rat-eat-rat world. Bardem makes a meal of the monologue while Mendes allows Bond a slight smirk.

On sheer looks alone, Skyfall is certainly the most stunning of the Bond series, thanks in part to lensman Roger A. Deakins. The Coen brothers' frequent collaborator brings a polish to 007's international escapades. At a visit to a casino in Macau, dragons posed at the entrance glow like massive night lights.

Later, the craggy hills of Scotland are shrouded in fog like a Turner painting. Occasionally the artfulness overwhelms the film, as with an elaborate fight scene in a glass skyscraper in Shanghai. But, for the most part, Mendes refines the classic Bond elements. Some are included ("Bond, James Bond") others are just implied, as with Bond's drink of choice. At the casino in Macau, all we see is 007 accepting a martini with a simple "That's perfect."

Bond humbled and human

Although Skyfall comes from screenwriters who've been toiling in the EON productions salt mines for some time, the story is surprisingly sophisticated. This is Bond humbled and human, sent into the field by a commander harbouring her own doubts.

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Like the deconstructed barrel sequence, the writers have great fun twisting the Bond formula.The new Q is a whiz kid with a mop of curly hair and disappointing lack of toys. Who needs cars that turn into submarines when you can hack spy satellites with a laptop? And yet at Bond's darkest moments, Skyfall's creators throw a nod to the secret agent's origins. I don't mind revealing that when John Barry's brassy Bond theme exploded into the air there were tears in my eyes.

This is a film that both asks and answers the question 'Why does the world need Bond?' It adds new depth to the character we thought we knew. The final showdown at Bond's childhood manor in Scotland adds to his back story, as the gamekeeper (played by the always wonderful Albert Finney) tells us about a boy marked by tragedy at a young age. Then, we settle in for the siege that doesn't disappoint.

Bond is back. Bond never left. Licensed to thrill.

RATING: 5 out of 5

Daniel Craig and Javier BardemDaniel Craig, left, and Javier Bardem appear in a scene from Skyfall. (MGM/Columbia/EON Productions/Sony Pictures)

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