Daniel Craig's third outing sees 007 left for dead... only to rise again in pursuit of global cyber terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Bond's travels to take him from Shanghai to Macau but it's back in Britain where the rather-too-well connected Silva is wreaking havoc. It's emerging that M (Judi Dench) is his prime target and an audacious bomb attack on London's MI6 HQ shows that Silva means business. Director Sam Mendes makes a daring departure from the well-worn Bond template to fashion a first-rate thriller carefully balancing quips with carnage. Craig is now totally at home in a role that recognises its age limitations and the taut story lets fly with a couple of genuine shocks for Bond's 50th birthday. Adele also won an Oscar for Best Song.
Twenty-three films and fifty years into the 007 franchise and you really do wonder what the filmmakers are going to do to keep the heady Bond brew shaken and stirred.
Fortunately, they've granted director Sam Mendes - an Oscar-winner for American Beauty - licence to thrill while building on the sound foundations of Daniel Craig's previous two outings Casino Royale and the unfairly maligned Quantum of Solace.
This isn't a "back to basics" Bond but a more considered approach which - apart from the pre-requisite girls, guns and glamour - asks pertinent questions about the nature of contemporary threats to peace and concedes that 007 is no longer a loose cannon with a ready jibe but a reluctant player whose best days are behind him. "We're both played out," M tells him.
That's not to say the action isn't up to snuff - a heart-thumping pre-credit sequence featuring a chase through Istanbul by car, motorbike and digger (aboard a speeding train) is a breathtakingly executed opener. Pure Turkish delight.
We're left half-considering the prospect that he may be dead after a taking a shot and falling into a gorge...but no, minutes after the credits have rolled, he's in bed with a beach babe swigging a beer that reaches that parts other beers cannot reach (which is probably just as well considering his near fatal exertions).
However, the island life doesn't last long when he clocks that the MI6 building in London has come under terrorist attack. Heading home he's re-acquainted with M (Dench) who warns him the department is under review and there's some new faces - Ralph Fiennes' pin-striped policy wonk and a new Q (Ben Whishaw), a computer geek who warns him: "Exploding pens? We don't really go in for those anymore."
More importantly, shady internet villain Raoul Silva, a former agent gone rogue, is - via the wonders of the web - second-guessing MI6's every move, has his cyber sights on M and, to keep things interesting, is releasing the names Wikileaks-style of five agents embedded in terrorist groups every week on YouTube. He's impossible to trace...even if they tried to Google him.
Despite lacking match fitness, Bond is put on a trail which leads to Shanghai and Macau, where he encounters the enigmatic Séverine (Marlohe) who leads him to the deserted island city base of Silva, a genuinely original villain deliciously delivering a character trait that shall not speak its name and a ruthless streak that's a little more familiar.
By keeping the plot relatively simple, Mendes has given himself room to expand the characters, lend them a certain depth and just have a bit of fun. There's some wry references to the past, including a particularly cheeky joke involving M's picky passenger and the old ejector seat of the original Aston Martin DB5 (whose appearance gets the biggest cheer of the night).
Craig - who worked with Mendes on Road To Perdition - looks comfortable both with the more nuanced role and the director. Three films into the franchise and he, like early Connery, improves with every outing - less youthful vigour and more muscular maturity - so it's difficult to conceive of him being satisfactorily replaced.
And it doesn't look like that's going to happen...because Mendes has prepared the ground for a whole new chapter of Bondage. Which is the best 50th birthday present 007 fans could wish for.