The following review contains spoilers...
The Bond franchise's last big milestone, its fortieth anniversary, was tarnished with the painfully disappointing Die Another Day. The combination of face-morphing technology, an invisible car, dire one-liners and a Madonna cameo signified an all-time low for Britain's most iconic spy.
Thankfully, MGM have taken no chances with Bond's fiftieth anniversary.
On paper, Skyfall is the most promising Bond film to date: an Oscar-winning director (Sam Mendes), an Oscar-winning villain (Javier Bardem), the return of two of Casino Royale's scriptwriters (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade) and the best Bond song since Goldeneye (thank you Adele).
So does Skyfall live up to the expectation?
Well, as the critics, the box office and your Facebook news feed will have confirmed by now: yes, Skyfall is a superior Bond outing. It deserves to be placed alongside the usual Bond favourites, which typically list as Casino Royale, Goldeneye, Goldfinger and Dr No.
Mendes' influence as an Academy-friendly director is abundant throughout, evoking powerful performances from his leads and capturing some stunning shots courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakin (another Oscar-winner). Hands-down, this is the best-looking Bond film of the series. Mendes also proves he can handle elaborate action scenes, with an adrenaline-pumping pre-credits scene across rooftops and trains (although, nothing comes close to Casino Royale's parkour). It is refreshing to see the franchise finally attracting such a high calibre of film-makers and this looks set to continue, with Mendes already voicing his interest to return for Bond 24.
Plot-wise, Skyfall offers something new. Ultimately, this is a story of revenge. M betrayed her former top spy, Bardem's Raoul Silva, and now he is looking to destroy her reputation and shoot her dead. Bond, ever the loyalist, decides to protect her. The simplicity is refreshing. Instead of saving the world, Bond is saving his boss. Instead of ending the film by infiltrating an exotic secret lair, the climatic battle occurs on the moors of Scotland. This comparatively low-key approach allows us to focus on the characters and so the personal stakes are higher than ever. It makes for compelling viewing.
Daniel Craig is well into his stride as Bond and wears the role confidently, handling the action, the flirting and the inner torment with apparent ease. It is testament to Craig's screen presence that he is not overshadowed by Bardem's villain, who is given the best dialogue and lots of great material to sink his (removable) teeth into. Like all good villains, Silva can make the audience laugh, jeer and cringe in discomfort, whilst often winning us over to his cause. Arguably, Bardem's Silva is the most Joker-like performance since The Dark Knight.
Sadly, the Bond girls are less captivating. Naomie Harris' Eve is surplus to requirements, whilst Berenice Marlohe's haunted Severine is woefully short-lived. None of that matters though because Judi Dench's M is the real Bond girl here. Finally, after six previous film appearances, Dench's M is upgraded to a leading role and not wasted in fleeting cameos and exposition. As with The Dark Knight Rises which happily sidelined its hero, Skyfall is equally happy to put Bond aside for numerous scenes. In many ways, this is M's story. She is literally on trial here. The vendetta is against her. All of this is good news for audiences because it means we get to see more of Dench, surpassing Bernard Lee as the definitive M.
But aside from strong performances and competent execution, there are times when Skyfall seriously drops the ball. Sadly, Bond appears to be edging back towards the fantastical elements of the franchise that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace tried so desperately to eradicate. We therefore get the return of Q and his gadgets. Admittedly, these are not too flamboyant (and the dialogue highlights this beautifully) but it is a regressive step. There is a very real danger that one or two films down the line might see Bond once again driving underwater cars or wielding a laser-firing Rolex. Another example of suspended realism is the climatic assault on Bond's booby-trapped childhood home. The final reel plays out like the Bond equivalent of Home Alone.
There are a handful of other problems: there are plot-holes (why did Bond let them kill Severine when he had three helicopters on standby?) and naff lines ("Welcome to Scotland!") and a muddled credit sequence (stags, targets, Chinese dragons... pick a theme and stick to it!). Also, the Aston Martin reveal may have earned a cheer from the crowd but ultimately it was a moment of laugh-out-loud daftness in a supposedly gritty, re-imagined Bond universe.
And as for those CGI komodo dragons... this isn't Lake Placid.
But whatever, this is a birthday celebration and much can be forgiven. The most important thing is that Bond is still looking good at 50. The studio have done plenty of legacy-building in Skyfall, reintroducing Q and Moneypenny and another M and so there is a rich palette on offer for future film-makers when making the next few Bond films.
Because, have no doubt, Bond will be going for another 50 years. Skyfall is not the limit.