Were we ever going to be prepared for SKYFALL? When Sam Mendes was announced as director of the 23rd official James Bond movie, there were notable rumblings on the possibility he might deliver a more character-driven drama than fans of the series had previously encountered. However in the year or so since then, these musings have given way to more familiar fanboy banter such as casting, theme songs, gadgetry and product placement. What I can honestly say, hand on heart, stiff upper lip held high, is that in no way was I expecting the stirring, probing and quintessentially British odyssey that Mendes serves up here.

There is already talk of SKYFALL being the best Bond film of all time, and while such praise could certainly use a little time and perspective to collect itself, there is no denying the film provides everything a hungry adolescent Bond fanatic could ask for, and then so much more on top. But what did we expect from an Oscar-winning filmmaker, who still primarily works in theatre, reinvigorating the revered works of Shakespeare year after year? SKYFALL was never going to be a run-of-the-mill Bond film like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or A VIEW TO A KILL.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s transition to the big screen, and has been treated with appropriate reverence by all concerned. SKYFALL is a holiday special, if you like, a one-shot that goes in a different direction to Bond’s standard missions to quell bids of megalomania. SKYFALL goes deeper, probes Bond’s personal history, darkest secrets and most base yearnings. Beyond that, the film scrutinizes M’s role in today’s world of espionage and national security. How does she stay relevant, educated and free from emotional or sentimental compromise in an age when villains are no longer identified by their national flag and our heroes must be equally murderous?

SKYFALL will certainly have its detractors. The casual viewer, attracted to the franchise for its fast-paced car chases and out-dated innuendo, will have their patience tested more than once. Mendes and screenwriting regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – this time assisted by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan – leave huge pauses between action beats, which still leave you wet-palmed and nerve-shredded when they do occur, in order to pick at the scabs and scars that cover Bond’s world-weary, battle-hardened psyche.

The film’s lengthy pre-title sequence, which also proves to be one of the film’s most exhilarating action scenes, leaves Bond officially dead. Yet, he soon proves himself incapable of doing anything besides serving Queen and Country, and quickly returns home. Bond is a true British bulldog, a patriot to the last, with a vicious bite and unwavering loyalty to his master. No matter how much his surroundings or missions may change with the times, that much about Bond will always remain intact.

In SKYFALL, Bond faces off against an elusive hacker, Silva, who has grappled with the same proposition as Bond, but who lost his faith in the system that reared him and chose to bite it instead. In both cases, the personification of that master – essentially Great Britain or perhaps even The Empire – is M. Unfortunately for her, she already has her back against the wall for losing a list of undercover MI6 agents. She’s being scapegoated by new governmental management and threatened with forced retirement, but she remains determined to deal with the problem while still in office.

There is no denying that the Bond franchise has struggled to stay relevant since the end of the Cold War. They came clean quickly and admitted the problem outright in 1995’s GOLDENEYE, but failed to adequately contain this glaring problem. As a result, Brosnan’s tenure devolved into a series of increasingly ridiculous skirmishes with meddlesome billionaires out to dominate their particular market segments. The series re-boot in CASINO ROYALE was as much an excuse to turn its attentions inward, onto the tortured character of Bond himself, as it was to atone for the embarrassment of DIE ANOTHER DAY.

By wiping the slate clean, Bond put himself forward for spy-like scrutiny, and we were asked to examine the inner mechanics of the government assassin – something audiences had shown a taste for with THE BOURNE IDENTITY. We watched as the bulldog became groomed and muzzled. Craig’s Bond is a scrapper in a tailored tuxedo, a far cry from Roger Moore’s ageing lothario with the cocked eyebrow. He’s at odds with the system that is trying to contain him, which makes his Bond far more relatable than an upper class toff with a generous line in pithy dick jokes. SKYFALL dares to go where no Bond film has probed since ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and the character is all the better for it.

That is not to say that SKYFALL betrays or eschews the Bond legacy. It understands precisely why its audience is still there, larger and more passionate than ever, 50 years on, and ensures the fans have plenty to cheer about. All the vital touch points – guns, glamour, cars, girls, casinos, exotic locations, spectacular stunt sequences, vodka martinis, gadgets, M, Q, strangely accented villains, exotic man-eating animals, remotely located hideouts, overly elaborate plans for world domination – are all in place, but in almost every instance, they are given a twist, reimagined, evolved.

Much of this is due to the involvement of Sam Mendes. For a director who spends much of his time battling the confines of the proscenium, he has an incredibly vivid visual style, which in SKYFALL is magnified immeasurably by celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins. Whether watching Bond pummel an assassin in a glass-walled office building, or sprint across a deserted highland lit only by yellow flames, SKYFALL looks absolutely phenomenal. The film also boasts an incredible cast of impeccable pedigree, who under Mendes’ direction cannot fail to impress. Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw all offer faultless support to Daniel Craig’s delightfully grisled hero, and a vastly expanded role for the stately Judi Dench. Even the Bond girls, in the shapely forms of Naomi Harris and Berenice Marlohe, perform above and beyond their typically undemanding assignments, bringing nuance, sass and vulnerability to roles that often proffer little more than attractive window dressing.

What will be most interesting is observing how SKYFALL measures up to the rest of the Bond canon in the years to come. No doubt the series will gradually return to something closely resembling the high-stakes, high-concept adventures we all know and love the Bond films for. Will SKYFALL be looked upon as something of an oddity within this context, a commemorative coin or first edition stamp, after three or four more instalments have come and gone – like GOLDENEYE? Or will the film continue to be revered as a pivotal episode that galvanises the series for years to come, like ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE or CASINO ROYALE both achieved?

SKYFALL is far from a perfect film. Some will call it overlong, poorly paced, self-indulgent, rife with plot holes, red herrings and dead ends, but never has the Bond series, in any guise during its 50 years, shot for logic or realism. Criticising SKYFALL for not starting now would be a mistake. What the film dares to do, instead, is continue to build and grow a franchise, a character and a mythology that appeared so entrenched and unshakable.

We asked for a great Bond film, and Mendes, Craig et al have most definitely delivered an epic to rank alongside the very best of them in terms of grand spectacle and explosive entertainment. On top of that, SKYFALL presents a richness and depth of character and drama that nobody ever expected could emerge from this material. And yet there it is, and it works, and it captivates us, and it thrills us, all the while remaining unmistakably Bond. James Bond.