Ah yes, that old “hard drive with the names of every secret agent on it has just been stolen” chestnut.

Rock-chiselled star Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie Casino Royale (2006) whipped up a great deal of speculation about how “edgy” and “gritty” and “different” 007 had apparently become, largely due to a scene involving a partially dismantled chair and a pair of battered testicles. There was undoubtably a tonal shift away from the cartoony cranked-to-11 codswallop that came to define the Pierce Brosnan Bond era, but it’s taken Craig’s tenure three films and an Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) to pin down the message that the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be and times have very much changed.

Skyfall isn’t so much about how the world has evolved since the days Sean Connery emerged from water wearing a fake duck on his head but how Ian Fleming’s martini-sipping serial killer has been forced to evolve with it. The beauty of this film is its ability to pull off cake-and-eat-it-too storytelling both forwards thinking and atavistic, self-awareness masking the retrograde silliness of plot contrivances such as, say, a stolen hard drive with the names of every secret agent on it.

Declared MIA and presumed dead, Bond (Craig) resurfaces with a new hobby to add to his RSVP profile — “resurrection” — and returns to the fold just in time to pursue a slickly dressed Joker-esque terrorist (Javier Bardem) who hacks the computer of M (Judi Dench) with images of laughing skulls, then rather extravagantly ups the ante. Predictably, 007 globe trots to a number of exotic locations including a train line in Turkey and a picturesque Shanghai casino with a pit where komodo dragons patiently wait for pissed punters to fall into.

There are women, of course, and gadgets, cars, a mesmerisingly trippy opening musical number matched to Adele’s soaring vocals and a smattering of one-liners, foremost a fabulously dry explanation of what Bond considers a waste of fine scotch. Mendes drives his episodic plotline forward with an end-of-era gravitational pull, throwbacks subtle enough not to spoil the broth and modern flourishes tantalisingly out of (franchise) character. M must endure a mojo-draining parliamentary inquiry where her techniques are scrutinised in a similar vein to way The Dark Knight (2008) riffed on vigilante justice; Bond finds himself sitting through a homoerotic interrogation scene.

If the plotline is a little shambolic, Skyfall‘s hefty running time (143 minutes) nevertheless cruises along just fine. In one scene the new Q — who is now, in a superb touch, a smug young hacker — offers 007 a rare moment of self-reflection. Q can do more damage in front of a computer in his PJs, he explains, than Bond can do in a year, prompting the seen-it-all patriot to ask: what am I good for? And by extension: how long do I have left?

This is 007 at an existential crossroad, a stop-off in an epic character arc up there with the tragic death of Bond’s wife at the end of From Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), one of several justifications why getting hitched and buying a home in the burbs isn’t a particularly strong desire for Jimmy B. In this scene even the cliffs and crevices of Craig’s cobblestone countenance can’t hide a sense of pathos. Perhaps Craig considered his own shelf life, the knowledge that in a revolving door franchise where the character lives on far longer than the actor, his days as a secret agent are also numbered.

Skyfall’s Australian theatrical release date: November 21, 2o12.