Skyfall (Columbia Pictures)

James Bond is back, and he’s back right. What else is there to talk about?

Four years after the mostly just okay Quantum of Solace, which seemed intent on turning the grittier, rougher Bond Daniel Craig introduced in Casino Royale back into the globetrotting superhero of the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton eras, here’s Skyfall to set everything right, completing the system reboot promised in 2006. This one gets it exactly right, collapsing fifty years of 007 into a singular adventure that puts the past away and points Bond towards an intriguing future.

I’m as surprised as anyone that we have Sam Mendes to thank for this. Nothing in the American Beauty Oscar-winner’s career suggested he’d be able to deliver on the breathless requirements of a Bond movie; when Mendes has flirted with action in the past, it’s been heavily stylized, like the showdowns of Road to Perdition (where he first worked with Craig) or the brief skirmishes of Jarhead. But he does a stellar job with the running and jumping, orchestrating a terrific opening chase sequence, a gorgeous neon-lit struggle in a Shanghai office tower, a multilevel chase through the London Underground and much more.

It’s all balanced by fine character work from the best cast ever assembled for a 007 outing, as Craig and series veteran Judi Dench are joined by Oscar-winners Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem as well as Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw and Albert Finney.

Mendes’ greatest move, though, was hiring Roger Deakins as his director of photography. Deakins is one of the best in the business – he’s shot all of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films since Barton Fink – and he brings a rich, textured sensibility to Skyfall that redefines the series after decades of glossy, slick production. Mendes has always been a visual fetishist, and Deakins gave him great stuff on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, but with Skyfall they’ve topped themselves; every frame of this movie is a stunner, and the Blu-ray disc is guaranteed to be spinning in electronics stores for months to come.

But the prestigious cast and the spectacular visuals wouldn’t matter worth a damn if we didn’t care about the story, and Skyfall has a great one, revolving around the prickly relationship between Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M and introducing surprising amounts of backstory for both characters. They’ve also come up with a villain somewhat more worthy of the mantle in Bardem’s Silva – a cross between Hannibal Lecter and the Joker who’s devoted himself to exacting a very personal revenge on M. (I found Bardem’s performance a little cartoonish the first time around, but after another look at Mathieu Amalric’s pop-eyed Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace, I’ve come around on the guy.)

What’s more, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan subtly strip-mine the entire history of the franchise, reorienting the series’ continuity around Craig so that his 007 is the only one that seems relevant any longer. And I know that’s blasphemy to those who came up with Sean Connery as the definitive Bond … but watch Skyfall and see if you don’t wind up agreeing with me. Or rather, watch it again. It holds up.

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