"Skyfall" is the first James Bond film that feels like it's actually about something - something other than cars, guns, girls and bombs.
Director Sam Mendes' cerebral resume - "Road to Perdition," "American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road" - suggests he was an unlikely candidate for a film about the world's most famous spy.
But never fear: "Skyfall" is loaded with nail-biting action, plus plenty of the sardonic humor that was all but absent in recent Bond outings.
This film image released by Sony Pictures shows Daniel Craig as James Bond, left, and Judi Dench as MI6 head M, in a scene from the film “Skyfall.”
Yet it's also a film of ideas; and to top it off, "Skyfall" is the most beautifully photographed Bond movie ever.
Credit cameraman Roger Deakins, whose 37-year career includes most of the Coen brothers' movies ("True Grit," "No Country for Old Men," "Fargo," among many others).
His work here is stunning, particularly on location in Shanghai, Macau and Scotland; even in the action scenes, there are shots you want to freeze and frame.
The camera's use of mirrors, glass and smoke evokes an atmosphere of shifting surfaces and uncertainties - the world of shadows so often cited in the dialog.
The movie also examines loyalty, as well as the struggle with trauma from the past; at one point, this takes the story to a place this series has never gone - Bond's childhood backstory.
Related to this theme is the oft-questioned relevance of beat-up old dinosaurs like Bond and his boss, M.
"Skyfall" settles that issue in a particularly stirring way, giving Bond only two simple gadgets and then, in the galvanizing climax, stripping him back to a few basic weapons and strategies.
This theme is stirringly played out when M quotes a Tennyson poem about fortitude in the face of waning strength; and it shows up in a number of visual touchstones (an aging warship, Bond's classic car, a seemingly indestructible knick-knack).
Meanwhile, the concurrent theme of resurrection is nicely played out by repeated images of falling and rising - not to mention the movie's title.
"Skyfall's" villain - a former agent who's going after M -- is played with fiendish brilliance by a blond-haired Javier Bardem.
While plenty powerful, Bardem's baddie isn't so much menacing as he is fascinating, particularly in his sexual attraction to Bond; again, it's the first time the series has flirted with a notion like this.
Other support is provided by Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and the dazzling Berenice Marlohe, whose raw and tender interchange with Bond is one of many moments that set this well above most films in the franchise.
Daniel Craig, in his third Bond movie, is gutsy and heartfelt, doing plenty of his own stuntwork; and Judi Dench - in her seventh appearance as M - brings to the role a depth that's surprising in a big-budget action film.
In fact, this movie makes more use of M than any other in the series; she even gets to shoot at the bad guys!
"Skyfall" feels at once old-fashioned and brand-new; it's a fitting entry in this endlessly resurrected franchise that is now in its 50th year.
Here's to 50 more.