Unbreakable Bond: 007 still shakes and stirs 50 year on

After five decades, the world's longest running film franchise shows no signs of rust, with 'Skyfall', featuring an all-star cast, a director better known for less explosive fare and early reviews saying that the film has all the makings of a series classic

He may not look it, but James Bond is getting on a bit in years. He's been in the spy game for a while now - it's been 50 years to be exact since Sean Connery ordered the first of countless martinis in Dr No, the character's film debut. The makers of Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the longest-running film franchise in history, which opens locally on Tuesday, were well aware of the Bond legacy and that this year marks five decades on Her Majesty's Secret Service for 007. They were determined that the film would deliver everything that has made Bond, Bond: heart-stopping action, scene-stealing villains, beautiful Bond women, exotic locations, a killer theme, the Aston Martin DB5 and, of course, 007 himself, played by Daniel Craig. But a Bond film is not a collection of puzzle pieces; these elements combine - like gin and vermouth, shaken, not stirred - to serve the story. For Skyfall, bringing it all together is Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes. "I knew that Sam would put everything behind it," says Craig, who marks his third film as Bond in Skyfall. "He would put all of his knowledge of movie-making behind it, but also his knowledge and love of Fleming and Bond."

Mendes seems an unlikely choice to helm a Bond movie. He's better known for character studies, such as 1999's American Beauty, for which he won a best director Oscar, and 2008's Revolutionary Road, another critical success featuring his then-wife Kate Winslett. But he says that high entertainment and artistic integrity are not mutually exclusive. "I have my own, personal relationship with Bond, which began when I was nine or 10 years old - when Live and Let Die came out," he says. "We happen to be living in a time when it's possible to make a big, entertaining, glamorous, escapist movie that also says something about the world we live in. With Daniel's performances in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, James Bond feels like a real man in a real situation again. It reminded me of the way I felt when I watched the Sean Connery movies."

Mendes says he felt the freedom to put his own stamp on the legendary franchise. "I have been given an enormous amount of freedom - and I've never felt constrained or hidebound by the genre or the franchise," he says. "Part of that is Daniel and Judi Dench, both of whom I already knew well. Frankly, I'd love the two of them to be in any movie I directed. But part of it is also the enthusiasm with which the producers greeted new ideas about Bond and M and the franchise as a whole."

In Skyfall, Bond's loyalty to M (Dench) is tested as her past returns to haunt her. Bond must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost. When Bond's latest assignment goes gravely wrong and several undercover agents around the world are exposed, MI6 is attacked, forcing M to relocate the agency. These events cause her authority and position to be challenged by Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the new chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. With MI6 now compromised from both inside and out, M is left with one ally she can trust: Bond. The secret agent takes to the shadows - aided only by field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) - following a trail to the mysterious Silva (Javier Bardem), whose lethal and hidden motives have yet to reveal themselves.

BOND’S BEAUTIES: Berenice Marlohe, above and Naomie Harris, below.

Dench, returning for her seventh film as M, says that her relationship off-screen with Daniel Craig has mirrored the on-screen relationship between M and Bond that was developed in the two most recent films.

''Bond and M are two people who work well together. She's obviously very fond of him, and she's often accused of being preferential towards him - but she can also be ruthless about him,'' she says. ''Daniel and I struck up a good relationship the first time we worked together, and the relationship has developed as each script requires something a little bit more from us. That is especially true with Skyfall.''

The relationship between Bond and M forms the focal point of Skyfall. ''It is based on mutual respect,'' says Craig. ''They both know that every time the chips are down, one of them will have to make a sacrifice - it's difficult to have a touchy-feely relationship with someone under those circumstances. But at the same time - and Sam was very keen on this - Bond's always had in the back of his mind that there's a bit more. It's something he never shows, but the connection is there - and I get a kick out of that as an actor, to play a life you can't show.''

Early reviews for Skyfall have been overwhelmingly positive, and Mendes gives credit for much of that reception to the work of Craig in the lead role. ''Bond is actually a remarkably difficult part to play, because he says very little, and the moment you make him say too much, it's not Bond any more,'' says Mendes.

''He operates on instinct a lot of the time. He has his own inner demons and he doesn't reveal them to other characters, and yet the audience needs to be aware of them, especially in this particular movie. In Skyfall the audience has got to see him, in a sense, fall apart and put himself back together again, but none of the other characters see what's really going on behind the curtain. Daniel's done that, I think, brilliantly.''

For Craig, the most important element he looks for in his fellow actors is commitment to the project. ''You have to take the time and the effort to find the right people, enthusiastic people,'' says Craig. ''We've just been blessed with every character whether it's Ben [Whishaw, as Q], or Fiennes, or Bardem, or [Albert] Finney, or of course Judi Dench. And then the casting of the girls: Naomie and Berenice [Marlohe] - finding two exceptionally beautiful women who are very serious actresses and who are intelligent and work hard. For me, it has been a joy.''

Of course, no actor had more stunts than Craig, who contributed a great deal to designing the fights because he wanted to do as many of those scenes himself as he possibly could.

Bardem describes watching Craig take on the role: ''There is some physicality to the role that you have to be prepared to do, but of course mine compared to Daniel's was nothing. And he does the action scenes so easily - From the outside, watching him, I was thinking, 'If I were you, I wouldn't be doing that!''' Bardem says, laughing. ''I mean, I did a little bit, but nothing in comparison to with what Daniel did.''

Another key element to the 007 franchise is Bond's car. The signature Aston Martin DB5 has become synonymous with Bond over the years. And there's no Aston Martin more closely tied to Bond than the DB5, the '60s-era production model that Bond first drove in Goldfinger. For this story, this film, this nod to Bond's history not only would appeal to the fans, but make sense for the story. Craig fell under the spell of Bond's classic car, ''I love them, and this story was the perfect platform to re-introduce the DB5. The film is about Bond returning to his roots and confronting old demons, so it felt right. We get some good use out of it, too.''

Harris plays Eve, an MI6 field agent. ''In recent years, the Bond films have featured two girls - one an exotic type and the other a home-grown type. Naomie manages to be both,'' says Mendes.

''Eve is a brilliant field agent who's very independent, intelligent, witty, fun and courageous,'' says Harris. ''She's not afraid to stand her ground with Bond, and I think that makes her so much more interesting. Playing Eve really allowed me to highlight the more adventurous side of my personality, which was a lot of fun.''

The film-makers were pleasantly surprised by the extra layers that Harris brought to the role of Eve. Producer Albert Broccoli explains, ''The character written was basically a field agent with a lot of sass, but it wasn't until Naomie came in, that we really saw the potential that this character could be something entirely new in terms of a Bond film. She's very resourceful, she gives Bond a really hard time, but you still manage to have a tremendous affection for her and there is a wonderful flirtatiousness between them. She can hold her own with Bond. We think that audiences are really going to relate to her. She's an extraordinary actress.''

Another key role in Skyfall is that of Severine, played by Berenice Marlohe. ''If I could have invented a Bond girl, it would be Berenice,'' says Mendes, laughing. ''I wanted to find somebody with all of the classic components of a Bond girl: voluptuous, sexy, a woman and not a girl, mystery. Berenice is half-Cambodian, half-French. She gives us that mystery. On top of all that, she happens to be a fantastic actress.''

Marlohe explains that she was encouraged to make Severine unique, ''I felt I could use my own personality and imagination to create my character's style - I had the freedom, knowing that this kind of movie allowed me that space.''

Early reviews for Skyfall have been overwhelmingly positive. Online entertainment website TotalFilm gave it five stars, calling it ''a flawlessly assembled thrill ride with a cast to die for and a nakedly emotional undertow''.

''Happy birthday, Mr Bond.''