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Film Review: Dial M for the best Bond ever?

The arrival in our multiplexes of Bond No. 23 ought to be a cause for celebration, I suppose, because it nearly never got here at all.

In 2010, production of Skyfall was suddenly halted because of MGM's seemingly terminal financial troubles: the studio was bust, the Bond franchise was one of their assets, and for a time it looked as though the long-running action series might be about to disappear for good.

Which would have devastated some moviegoers, but not me. Because when you look back at the history of Bond films, one is mainly faced by a cavalcade of banality and daftness.

By my count, at least half the 007 movies are so silly they're unwatchable at this remove, and even the supposedly great ones from the 1960s, like From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger, are spoilt by moments of staggering crassness.

In fairness, the series was rebooted in some style in the 2006 film Casino Royale, which turned Bond from a macho cypher into a relatively believable flesh-and-blood character, and instantly established Daniel Craig as at least the best 007 since Connery.

But its 2008 successor Quantum of Solace took itself and its story far too seriously, and was a handsome but meandering bore.

No pressure, then, for Skyfall, which cost $150m to make and arrives at the end of a year littered with big-budget failures.

Craig and co are directed this time by Sam Mendes, whose credits include American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, and who seems slightly over-qualified for the job. And perhaps that's why Skyfall is the best Bond in many a moon, and maybe even the best of them all.

Also in its favour is a half-credible plot. No cat-cuddling maniacs out to destroy the world in this instalment -- just a man with bad hair and a very personal grudge.

In a brilliant opening sequence, 007 pops up in Istanbul chasing a suspect who's just stolen a computer file containing the identities of every MI6 agent in the world.

He's just about to catch him when Bond is shot by a sniper and plunges hundreds of feet into a fast-flowing river.

He's not dead, of course, but he pretends to be, and contemplates starting a new life.

But when a bomb goes off in M's office in London, it becomes clear that she's being personally targeted. So Bond returns to duty, and travels to the South China Sea in search of a former MI6 agent called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

One of the most refreshing things about Craig's Bond is that he's not constantly chasing after badly dressed bimbos.

The only real love interest in Skyfall is statuesque French actress Berenice Marlohe, and her character doesn't last very long.

And from Casino Royale onwards, it's been very clear that the most important woman in 007's life is his crabby mentor, M.

Judi Dench's character comes centre stage in this adventure, which means more salty exchanges between her and Bond -- and nothing wrong with that.

Bond traditionalists might moan about Skyfall being a bit light on chase and fight scenes, but when the action comes it's beautifully handled, and the film is a lot less po-faced than either of its immediate predecessors.

Its script balances humour and suspense skillfully, there are some affectionate references to Bonds past, and Bardem is wonderful as the camp but engaging villain.

Craig seems more relaxed and at ease in the role, and all in all, Skyfall is a hugely enjoyable rollercoaster ride and easily the best action film this year.

Director: Sam Mendes Stars: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes. Berenice Marlohe, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris

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