Superlatives for director Sam Mendes's first Bond outing line up on the tip of the tongue. I wouldn't say it's the best ever; I'm a huge fan of Daniel Craig's first Bond, Casino Royale, and a Connery purist. But at times you watch Skyfall with mouth agape, it is so good.
It opens with an image that is a reminder that its hero is ageless and enduring. A figure steps slowly from the aqueous shadows into the light, and Craig eye-balls the camera. It's me, he says. I'm Bond. Don't mess.
Mendes then launches into an outstanding pre-credits action sequence, in Turkey, featuring a stunningly shot motorbike chase across the rooftops and the sort of outcome we're really not used to. It's followed by the famous credits (to the accompaniment of a terrific, sultry theme tune by Adele), also a little different this time around, adding to the early impression that Bond may be facing early retirement.
The same goes for M (Judy Dench), as a cyber-terrorist with a grudge against her is leaking the names of Nato agents. In the past, 007 has been labelled a dinosaur for his sexism; now both his and M's style of espionage is in the dock.
Mendes and his writers are slyly bringing the agent up to date. His introductory joust with Ben Whishaw's new Q not the doddery boffin of old but an anorak-wearing boy genius is a joy. "You've still got spots," cries the agent, before grumbling: "A gun and a radio it's not exactly Christmas."
Craig is letting some humour into his portrayal and it works a treat. He has an equally good time with Javier Bardem's foppish villain, Silva, a glorious mix of Julian Assange, Hannibal Lecter and Kenneth Williams. "Are you trying to remember your training now?" coos the baddie as he fondles the captive agent's thighs. "Who says it's my first time?" is the Old Etonian riposte.
Mendes is surely responsible for the cast's exceptional calibre, which includes Ralph Fiennes as the bureaucrat breathing down M's neck and Naomie Harris as a rookie agent.
Bérénice Malohe's presence as the more traditional Bond girl is the only bum note; but then the beleaguered M is the Bond girl of this instalment albeit more surrogate mother than sex object and the formidable Dench fires on all cylinders. The best thing about the return of the Aston Martin DB5 is that it allows Bond to threaten M with the ejector seat.
The action scenes and location work are made sumptuous by cinematographer Roger Deakins, like Mendes a classier act than is usual in his role. His shooting of a cat-and-mouse sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, a magic lantern-lit Macau casino, and the ruined island city that is Silva's HQ, is ravishing.
The final third doesn't sustain the quality; the plotting goes horribly awry once Silva takes his dodgy business to the UK, and the showdown at Bond's family pile in Scotland is a misstep, a strive too far to be different. But overall Skyfall is breathtakingly assured, and ends with a raft of surprises that propel Bond and surely Craig towards the next anniversary.