Brooding and thoroughly British, Daniel Craig has brought a troubled yet utterly dependable side to the role of the world's favourite secret agent. Whether dropping in with her majesty the Queen to launch the 2012 London Olympics, or avenging the untimely demise of his dearly beloved onscreen (in 2008's Quantum of Solace), Craig's 21st-century Bond epitomises everything its original author Ian Fleming created in his own shadow. Dedicated to the job and coolly dispensing with anything that stands in the way of it - including a multitude of women - Craig's Bond is a ''Bourne-again'' version, perfectly suited to our modern times.
Half a century on from Dr. No, though, Sean Connery's 007 in many ways remains the quintessential blueprint: a slick, tough, no-nonsense type who can fire off one-liners quicker than you could coo Pussy Galore. His successor, Australia's George Lazenby, was less fortunate, denied the time to perfect his persona past a single film (1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Sir Roger Moore - to many, the clown prince, resplendent in 1970s safari suits, with a raised eyebrow to match - reimagined the franchise as farce. The gloomy thespian Timothy Dalton tried in vain to refocus its serious undertones, while TV's Remington Steele Pierce Brosnan brought a sense of 1990s bling, making Bond sexy all over again.
Who, then, can lay claim to be the very best at the job? And which film emerges as the finest from the 23 outings so far seen on screen? Connery has certainly aged the best: a timeless man of action, who famously got lured back - twice - to revisit the series (for a then unprecedented $1-million pay cheque, for 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, then with 1983's Never Say Never Again). Although, when interviewed on the subject, he remained typically dry and distant. ''I have no dissatisfaction with the character as such,'' he offered the BBC in 1971, when quizzed on the role, its lasting impact, and why he chose to try his hand at it again. As for his favourite leading lady? ''Jill St John and Lana Wood certainly fill … er, the bill,'' he added.
If Connery, now aged 82, remained tight-lipped, Moore was the reverse. A witty raconteur oozing charm and affection for the series, Moore famously could never take the franchise too seriously, pointing out how absurd it was that barmen the world over knew Bond's preferred tipple.
Equally, Moore didn't see himself as a force to be reckoned with. ''Sean, physically, is a much tougher individual than I am,'' he once said. ''It's easier to accept him as a killer than me. I cannot say, 'I'm going to kill you' and mean it - I don't mean it at all, when I know damn well we'll both go to the bar and have a drink afterwards.''
Still, Moore's Bond had arguably a far more colourful set of villains to battle than Connery. Where the Scot had to contend with underground bunkers (1962's Dr. No, 1967's You Only Live Twice), Moore's Bond fought off Caribbean magic (1973's Live and Let Die), went into outer space with arch villain Jaws (1979's Moonraker) and even scaled Paris's Eiffel Tower with a suitably deranged Christopher Walken (1985's A View to a Kill).
The ladies weren't unattractive, either (although Britt Ekland, co-star of 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun, was said to be less enthused with Moore's love-scene routine). Moore's Bond comes out on top for sheer flamboyance, and for making the series, well, fun for the whole family. With more quips up his sleeve than a Marx brothers routine, and with 12 years' service to his name, Moore , now 85, remains the longest-serving Bond - a feat unlikely to be topped.
Craig, though, has already, arguably, eclipsed Moore's run, at least in terms of style and box-office clout (Skyfall has already sailed past the $US500 million mark, and should easily become the most profitable Bond ever).
Having signed up for two more instalments as Bond, Skyfall appears to be Craig's midway point, in a sense. In this latest outing, we have a villain to rival anything in Moore's canon (Javier Bardem, complete with blond wig), with a very un-Bond-like trick up his sleeve. Fittingly, in this Olympic year, much of the film is grounded in London, with nods to the rising superpower via Shanghai, where the gorgeous Berenice Marlohe steps in, as the delectable Severine. A field agent simply labelled as Eve (Naomie Harris) also adds to Craig keeping the British end up.
When we sat down with these two new Bond girls, to gauge their views on who comes out on, ahem, top, the responses were markedly different. Both inevitably will favour Craig. But what of the films themselves?
''I have a special tenderness for A View to a Kill, because of Christopher Walken and Grace Jones - I really love [her] as the villainess,'' Marlohe says. She maintains, of course, that Craig is her favourite Bond. ''I thought he was a brilliant actor, really subtle. You get to see all the inner life, what he thinks, in the moment, through his eyes, without any dialogue,'' the 33-year-old adds. ''This is a great quality, as an actor. When I get to meet and work with him, he's such a wonderful human being … with a marvellous sense of humour.''
Similarly, Harris remains blown away by Craig's reimagining of the role, pointing to Casino Royale being top of her pile, as far the films themselves go. ''I loved this introduction of this new kind of Bond,'' the 36-year-old character actor says. ''Less cartoon-like, more human. I love the whole romance story, which I felt had been neglected in the previous years. It felt like, as a woman, there was more to watch and get excited about. I just loved this reinterpretation of the role that Daniel Craig did. I thought it was amazing.''
As for what makes the new film stand apart from its predecessors, Harris says it's quite simple. It can stand on its own, far away from the franchise that's been enjoying its historic jubilee year. ''The other Bond movies are very entrenched in the genre, but I really feel that Skyfall stands outside of that, as well as within it.''
If that is the case, why do we still care about Bond, a figure Judi Dench's M famously dismissed as ''a dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War''? Again, Harris - who is likely to return in the next Bond outing - has the last word.
''They always manage to keep the classic elements we love: the Aston Martin, the gags, this incredible character that we all want to be with or like,'' she says. ''And they manage to modernise it … [to make it] reflective of where we are today. That's an amazing skill, to be able to do that, to constantly update this brand and make it seem relevant.''
Skyfall is in cinemas from Thursday.