Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Judi Dench, Albert Finney
Director: Sam Mendes
As this year marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond's debut on the silver screen, Skyfall has to be special. Thankfully, it is. Indeed, Skyfall - the movie franchise's 23rd film about Ian Fleming's suave secret service agent, and Daniel Craig's third star turn in the role - oozes with confidence.
The inspired selection of Sam Mendes, the auteur of American Beauty, as the film's director more than makes up for 2008's lacklustre Quantum of Solace, as Skyfall both celebrates the Bond franchise and departs from it.
The cleverly written story begins with 007 and his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) in pursuit of a motorbike-riding baddie through the streets of Istanbul in an attempt to retrieve a stolen hard drive. It contains the names of undercover agents embedded in terrorist groups - making this the biggest security leak in MI6's history.
The search leads Bond to the blond-haired Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an unhinged cyber-terrorist with a connection to Bond's boss, M (Judi Dench), and vengeance on his mind. Bardem is quite thrilling in his role - a camp, chilling and marvellous match for Craig's battered, bruised and bleary-eyed agent. In the film's stand-out scene, Silva interrogates Bond, running his fingers delicately over his prisoner's chest and thighs, with a seductive glint in his eye.
As for references to Bond's past - from a reappearance of the Aston Martin DB5 to a unique 'stepping stone' escape route that Bond finds (a deliberate nod to Live and Let Die) - they're there if you look. But Mendes is wise not to pay slavish homage to nostalgia. Take the moment when Bond meets Q (Ben Whishaw in his first outing as the gadget master) - 007 gets a gun that can only be activated by his palm print and a micro radio transmitter. "What were you expecting - an exploding pen?" Q asks Bond. "We don't go in for that any more."
What impresses about Skyfall is that so many aspects of it are first rate - from a support cast that includes esteemed actors such as Ralph Fiennes and Helen McCrory to singer Adele's Shirley Bassey-like rendition of the title song. With Roger Deakins, Mendes' favourite cinematographer, behind the camera, from the glittering skyscrapers of Shanghai to the foggy wilds of the Scottish Highlands, this is the best-looking Bond film ever made.
It's not all first class though. Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Sévérine, the obligatory seductress who leads Bond to Silva, is woefully out of her depth. It hardly helps that she's overshadowed by Dench's M - the film's real Bond girl, who is given more to do here than in any of her previous six outings. The final act also feels rather ill-conceived - part Call of Duty, part Home Alone - as Bond is joined by Albert Finney in a Santa Claus-like beard.
Still, it's churlish to complain, particularly when the finale offers the most emotional Bond moment since the conclusion to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Mendes has done a superb job - a Bond film that ticks all the right boxes and breaks some of the rules. Now that feels like a mission even the super spy might baulk at.
Skyfall opens today