Craig’s third Bond movie has a licensed to thrill

With an assignment botched and a cyberterrorist unapprehended, 007 and longtime boss M must save the world and their own standing as modern and efficient agents in the new James Bond thriller, “Skyfall.” They demonstrate that the James Bond franchise, however hoary an institution, remains relevant and vital.

What a difference a director makes. Combining the Bond essence, character-focused dynamics, old-fashioned storytelling and a dash of soul, Sam Mendes, of “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road” fame, has created one of the most satisfying Bond movies yet and a solid standalone thriller.

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Transpiring long after 007 earned his wings in the form of a license to kill, Daniel Craig’s third Bond film presents the superspy as a weary wreck. The action centers on a stolen hard drive that contains the names of undercover NATO agents. Presumed dead after plunging off a bridge during a failed attempt to nab the perpetrator in the dazzling opening chase sequence, Bond reports for duty. MI6’s headquarters have been attacked, M (Judi Dench) is under investigation for incompetence and Bond must stop the villain.

His mission involves (get out your 007 checklist) action, more action, exotic locations, a martini, a certain vehicle dating back to “Goldfinger” and (some things won’t ever change) two Bond girls (Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe). The latter leads 007 to the island where the evil Silva (Javier Bardem) lives. A cyberterrorist with ridiculous blond hair and a gargantuan grudge, Silva sends the story into its final act — a pursuit, dotted with personal revelations, that culminates in a showdown at Bond’s childhood home.

Don’t expect knockout thrills. The film doesn’t achieve the dramatic depth or emotional richness that its awards-season release suggests.

The abundant action, while impressive, begins feeling excessive over the movie’s 143-minute course.

But working from a screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes delivers a bang-up mix of Bond and beyond — a visually gorgeous, beautifully acted and (unlike the Hollywood-hijacked current Sherlock Holmes series) refreshingly British adventure.

Crucially, Mendes doesn’t let action usurp character. Nor does Mendes, whose past films have featured death, demons and people far less content than they seem, shy away from the dark stuff. Craig, a terrific Bond, takes the shades seriously. You can’t help but feel more satisfyingly involved.

Dench, meanwhile, adds a richness to M.

Bardem’s theatrical Silva ranks with the actor’s Anton Chigurh (“No Country for Old Men”) as formidable and immensely entertaining baddies go.

The cast also includes Ralph Fiennes as MI6’s Mallory, Ben Whishaw as a geeky young Q and, best of all, Albert Finney as a crusty old caretaker.

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