Editor's note: This review contains spoilers.
(CNN) -- James Bond just turned 50 -- in movie years, anyhow ("Dr No" came out in 1962) -- and in "Skyfall" Her Majesty's sexiest spy seems to be on the verge of a midlife crisis: He's stuck in a rut, feeling redundant and getting self-conscious about his age.
He even considers early retirement, plunging to his apparent doom after he's shot in the movie's thunderously exciting pre-credit sequence. Spoiler alert: 007 survives to fight another day, but not until he's treated himself to an unofficial sabbatical, an opportunity for recuperation and introspection.
Not that anyone goes to a Bond movie for navel-gazing, but there's definitely a more serious undercurrent this time around, a certain hankering after relevance that must surely be attributed to the presence of Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes. No disrespect to Michael Apted, Lee Tamahori and the rest, but Mendes represents a step up in pedigree for a franchise that's usually been the preserve of action specialists.
Mendes is out to make more than just another Bond film, that much is clear. "Skyfall" features all the usual elements -- the chases, the girls, the arch villain -- but recalibrated with intelligence and a less smug, more searching sensibility. You might even detect a hint of Lester Burnham, the disenchanted, depressed 50-something played by Kevin Spacey in Mendes' "American Beauty," in the disaffected and mildly disabled Bond played by Daniel Craig this time out.
Returning to MI6 in its hour of greatest need, 007 can't shoot straight, fails his physical and his psych test, too. But M (Judi Dench) knows he's still the man for the job even if her latest government overseer (Ralph Fiennes) seems to think they're both relics headed for the scrapyard.
Scripted by Bond specialists Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, this time with a significant assist from John Logan ("Hugo"; "The Aviator"), "Skyfall" cobbles together bits and pieces from many another thriller, sometimes more loosely than we might like, and draws in particular from "The Dark Knight" -- but for my money Mendes gets the balance between light and dark more nearly right than Christopher Nolan managed in this year's most overbearing blockbuster.
This is a movie of gleaming surfaces -- veteran DP Roger Deakins turns a glass skyscraper at night into a funhouse hall of mirrors, and a floating Macau casino is like an oasis in the black sea. After all the globetrotting, "Skyfall" brings the action back home to Britain -- and Deakins finds a different kind of beauty in the crags and lochs of Scotland. Just on a pictorial level, it's enticing in a way few CGI spectaculars can match. (The credit sequence alone is among the most lustrous in the entire 007 canon.)
Mendes gambles big on a last act that cuts out all the gadgets and gizmos, brings everything down to bare bones and ties the action to Bond's own history. He pulls it off, in part because this apparently immortal series desperately needed someone to take a risk, and because Mendes' class really comes through in the performances. Judi Dench is probably incapable of being bad, but M is a real character this time, with emotions, as well as convictions, and she hits every note just so. Ben Whishaw is a breath of fresh air as a youthful Q, and Craig himself remains the first 007 who might conceivably take down Sean Connery in hand-to-hand combat.
Then there's Javier Bardem, one-upping even his flamboyant psychopath from "No Country for Old Men." The only thing banal about his villain Silva is his name. It would be a sin to say too much about this character -- discover him for yourself -- but Bardem's outré performance is simply delicious. He's a warped mama's boy who fancies himself, whisper it, Bond's mirror image.
It's been a long time since I enjoyed a Bond movie so much. By taking a good hard look at itself and going back to first principles, "Skyfall" pulls off something quite special. This is Bond resurrected, redeemed and reinvigorated, ready to face a new half-century.