In 2006, the producers of the James Bond series, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, realized that their world famous secret agent was getting a bit stale and long in the tooth. Pierce Brosnan was getting old and despite being huge box office hits, his previous two films, DIE ANOTHER DAY and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, were too far-fetched even for a Bond film. In an era of Jason Bourne movies, James Bond needed a reboot. In a controversial casting decision, Daniel Craig was chosen to be the sixth actor to portray 007. CASINO ROYALE, the first Craig film, was a sensational success and it was a sort of back to basics for James Bond. Truer to Ian Fleming’s conception of the character, Bond was grittier, colder, as well as being more human. This was a significant departure from the interpretations portrayed by Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore, but arguably closer to how Timothy Dalton played the character.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the follow-up to CASINO ROYALE, was a misstep in the Daniel Craig series. Made during the writer’s strike, the film went into production with only a bare-bones script and so Marc Forster, the director (who had never directed an action film before) and Daniel Craig were forced to flesh out the script during production. Another writer was brought on after the strike was done, but you can see what an incoherent mess the screenplay must have been from just watching the film.

And now we have SKYFALL, a triumphant comeback (qualitatively and box office-wise) from the last misstep. I was not expecting the producers to develop James Bond more than they already did in spades with CASINO ROYALE. However, they do just that. By hiring Sam Mendes to helm, James Bond has gone beyond being a superhero-like, adventure escapade and it has entered the realm of being a smart, sophisticated, and complex series. SKYFALL is unlike any of the previous James Bond films and for some, that may be a disappointment. However, in my opinion, director Sam Mendes (the first Oscar winner to direct a Bond film by the way) has taken SKYFALL and elevated James Bond in the same way that Christopher Nolan did in THE DARK KNIGHT and we have been given arguably the best James Bond film in the entire series and played by the best actor to portray 007. And don’t think that SKYFALL doesn’t retain the signature Bond elements (exotic locales, beautiful woman, fast cars, fancy gadgets, the Aston Martin, Bond in a tuxedo, martinis, and a smoky, smoldering theme song by Adele) because it does that as well.

In this installment of the James Bond series you first get to see a new MGM logo, which film nerds like me probably only notice and appreciate. So SKYFALL begins with the theft of a secret list of all the MI6 agents (MI6 is the agency Bond works for). Bond and another agent go after it, but they fail to retrieve the list and Bond is shot in the process and presumed dead. During Bond’s absence, M goes through major scrutiny from both the media and Parliament, who considers her past her prime as evidenced by her failure to stop the leak of the agents list. Alarmed by what is going on, Bond decides to come back and help M get the list back and find the person(s) who took it. His hunt eventually leads him to Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who worked under M. Ralph Fiennes also stars as Gareth Mallory, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

A huge criticism of SKYFALL is the basic premise underlying the plot. The idea of stealing a list of secret agents was used as recently as last year’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL as well as the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film. Considering Silva is a cyberterrorist, the number of narrative possibilities surrounding this type of character are endless. We could (should) have had him unleash a cyberattack on the governments and banks of the world, creating chaos. The recent Occupy movement and Wikileaks matter provide so many cooler ideas to play with that there wasn’t any need to resort to an idea that has already been played out. Fortunately, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who penned both CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE as well as some of the Pierce Brosnan films) were joined by the recently Academy Award-nominated (for HUGO) screenwriter, John Logan, to execute a smartly polished, sexy, stylish story. This they have done remarkably well.

The filmmakers have wisely realized that essential to a good Bond film is not really a good plot, but a great villain. Prior to SKYFALL, my ideal Bond villain was Max Zorin, who was played by Christopher Walken in A VIEW TO A KILL. He was simultaneously charming, ruthless, and he was played by Christopher Walken, who can turn shit into gold for any character he plays. Alas, Zorin has now been replaced by Raoul Silva, a Bond villain who is also charming, ruthless, and funny. And to top it off, he’s played by another exemplary actor, Javier Bardem. Silva doesn’t appear in the movie until about an hour and 20 minutes into the film, but when he does, he is awesome to watch. Speaking of acting, SKYFALL marks one of Dame Judi Dench’s finest hours, especially in the climax. From her to Fiennes to Craig himself to Albert Finney, who turns up late in a role that could be his own “fuck you” to Michael Caine, this is the best acted Bond film ever.

As the cherry on top, Mendes has also brought with him his other collaborator, film composer Thomas Newman, who gives us a first-rate score that I regard as the best Bond music since John Barry’s tenure. Mendes also relies once again on one of Hollywood’s best cinematographers, Roger Deakins, to give us one of the most visually beautiful Bond films yet. The globe-trotting settings are all rendered with equal attention to detail. You see this from Shanghai at night to the deep Scottish countryside in the mist, which at that point in the film SKYFALL moves beyond its familiar confines of a spy thriller and turns into a Western. The MI6 headquarters, which gets moved to an underground location after a terrorist attack destroys the old one, has a stylish industrial look to it. Some people were worried that Mendes would not be able to direct an action film, but with the help of editor Stuart Baird, who has edited some of the best action films ever, Mendes’ action is beautifully timed and choreographed. He understands when to allow the hand-to-hand combat sequences to unfold without resorting to needless edits (i.e. see the skyscraper scene that takes place in Shanghai).

As for Bond himself, he is much more vulnerable in this film than he was even in CASINO ROYALE. I welcomed this change in CASINO ROYALE and I liked that it was explored even more in SKYFALL. Bond’s vulnerability makes for a far more complicated and captivating figure. He’s not always smooth and slick like he has been in the past. Older in age, his work takes a more physical and psychological toll on him and in much of this film, Bond looks worn out and beat up. This adds a lot more depth to the Bond character and it finally makes him feel three dimensional, which is a first for this series.

Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL has brought a touch of Christopher Nolan to the series and its perhaps why I enjoyed it so much. Mendes has bridged the gap between the sort of realism you see in a Nolan movie and the joking playfulness that is one of the signature elements of James Bond. By the end of the film, we see Bond standing on the edge of a roof, overlooking the London skyline as the Union Jack billows in the wind. His unflagging loyalty to Queen and country is surprising considering all the shit he’s endured, but he soldiers on to the next mission, which I cannot wait to see.