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Rating: PG-13  Grade: A

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

“Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” now feel like warm-ups for newbie Bond star Daniel Craig, pacing laps before the full-on marathon. If you buy this analogy, then “Skyfall” must be seen as the race of Craig’s life, the one where he, in those final tough miles, breaks free of the pack with cool confidence. There’s a great inside joke in the film comparing Craig to a bulldog, and it is not an unlikely assessment because Craig indeed has that blunted, compact build. In many ways he is quite the opposite of the sleek presence of his predecessor, Pierce Brosnan, but maybe that just proves Craig is the Bond for the long haul.

Director Sam Mendes (“Road to Perdition”), working from a script developed by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (the team behind the first two Craig installments) and John Logan (“The Last Samurai”), jumps into “Skyfall,” seemingly mid-race with Bond and a field agent named Eve (Naomie Harris) on the hunt for a stolen hard drive containing the names and aliases of British shadow agents embedded in terrorist hotspots around the world. Attentive fans will note that “Skyfall” breaks from the continuity-linked narratives of the two previous films. The need for further revenge or action against the Quantum organization is on-hold.

The focus here, which becomes strikingly clearer as “Skyfall” sprints ahead, is on the ties that bind Bond and M (Dame Judi Dench). The pair is defined as part of the old guard in the espionage world, old-school at a time when public and political opinion is pushing for next generation tactics and innovation. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the film’s trailers, Bond gets taken out by a shot from Eve and it would appear that certain segments in MI6, represented by the bureaucratic Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), would rather he go quietly into the night and rest in peace. When Bond returns, doubts loom, possibly even in Bond’s own mind, about his abilities. He must pass a battery of tests to prove his fitness to re-enter fieldwork, and M’s steadfast support of him opens her up to scrutiny as well. Is she playing favorites? Silva (Javier Bardem), cyber-terrorist baddie who engineered the theft of the missing hard drive, knows a thing or two about being one of M’s pets – and about what happens when she decides to burn an agent to save the agency – and he’s intent on destroying M at all costs.

The stakes, such as they are, set up “Skyfall” to be a very different Bond film. For all the globe-traveling hijinks, there’s a degree of intimacy we’re not as familiar with in our action thrillers, even with the advent of the paradigm shift led by Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” trilogy) and Doug Liman & Paul Greengrass (The “Bourne” franchise). Craig’s Bond has been saddled with the burden of comparisons to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and “Skyfall” will sadly be reviewed through the prism of “The Dark Knight,” but such arguments may end up missing the larger point of reference.

“Skyfall” is first and foremost a Bond movie and debuting as it does, during the 50th anniversary of the series, the closest competitors in the race are the 22 other Bond films and I have to say, this celebratory installment is easily the best Bond film I’ve had the pleasure of catching in theaters. The action is rooted in character, character, character, even the newer supporting players. More importantly, “Skyfall” aims to reboot the series by cleverly folding in key elements from Bond’s past, creating an all-true Bond to lead us into a wide-open future.