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Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.

Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures/AP

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Skyfall
Written by
Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan
Directed by
Sam Mendes
Starring
Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes
Genre
Thriller
Classification
PG

You know you're watching a James Bond film when the appearance of a car scores a big round of applause from the audience. Of course, it's not just any car, it's an Aston Martin DB5, the preferred Bondmobile since it made its debut a staggering 48 years ago in the third Bond picture, Goldfinger.

I wasn't among the applauders at a media preview of the new (and 23rd) Bond, Skyfall, but I did allow myself a chuckle when the shapely silver behemoth heaved into view, because its appearance, at a crucial juncture in the film, was so smartly played.

There are, in fact, a lot of smarts in Skyfall, most of which I'll refrain from revealing here so as not to spoil the fun or the dropping of jaws or (perhaps) even the shedding of tears. Suffice to say, Skyfall is one of the best Bonds in the 50-year history of moviedom's most successful franchise.

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Ably directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), it has all the babes, bullets, blasts, high-energy fisticuffs and exotic locales (Istanbul, Macau, Shanghai, Scotland – Scotland?!? Yes, Scotland) you expect.

But what it really has going for it is the unexpected. A past-haunted story, for one, that owes a lot to, of all things, the Harry Potter movies. A genius of a villain for another, played by a blond (!) Javier Bardem with a blend of camp, menace and pathos that's equal parts Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger's Joker and No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh.

And a final 30 minutes – often the weakest stretch in the Bond narrative arc – so crammed with great twists and turns that they, in effect, recast the foundation of the franchise and all but guarantee its health for at least another 10, 20, hell maybe even another 50 years. Skyfall, in fact, may be the single most important Bond since the mania began with Dr. No in 1962.

Of course, Mendes, his trio of screenwriters and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson didn't have to do this. Fifty years on, people aren't going to Bond flicks for the shock of the new; they got that when a cantilevered Ursula Andress rose from the sea in her white bikini and affirmed the heterosexuality of millions of adolescent males the word over. No, they're going for the comfort of familiarity, for the tropes and traditions – tweaked from time to time, of course, but never overturned.

Skyfall, in short, could have satisfied by hewing tightly to formula. What it represents instead is the fulfilment of the wisdom shown six years ago in casting Daniel Craig as the sixth James Bond (or perhaps, more accurately, as the first anti-Bond Bond in a lineage held for 11 films by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan). Skyfall's his finest 007 outing.

Yes, even when he's scarred and bruised, he looks ridiculously buff (indeed, his pectorals are bared more often here than those of his female co-stars). Yet there's a compelling woundedness and soulfulness to him. In contrast to, say, Roger Moore, he gives the viewer the sense that there is a toll to be paid when you kill 14 or 15 persons per movie – a psychic toll as opposed to what the drycleaner charges you for removing the bloodstains from your tuxedo.

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