Dir. Sam Mendes
(2012, PG-13, 143 minutes)

I’m far from a James Bond aficionado. Skyfall is only the fourth film in the franchise I’ve seen, following two Pierce Brosnan entries (The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day) and Daniel Craig‘s first, Casino Royale, so I approach it less as part of a long-running tradition and more as a spy thriller on its own terms. By that standard it’s very good: kinetic but not overly choppy, driven by a simple, straight-ahead story and interesting characters.

Many films, particularly action films, hinge on the quality of the villain, and Skyfall benefits from Raoul Silva, a homicidal former field agent looking for revenge. He’s a fey, slithery man, with neatly coiffed blond hair and a flair for the dramatic. He’s played by Javier Bardem with demented relish – this is the flamboyant flip side of his No Country for Old Men killer – but the actor has enough restraint to find the right balance between the sinister and the absurd.

Judi Dench, as M

The plot involves the theft of a hard drive containing an encrypted database of deep-cover agents, but it’s more about the personal and professional history of M (Judi Dench), who runs MI6 and must deal with a changing society; no longer left to operate in the shadows, she is called before Parliament this time when an operation goes wrong.

Meanwhile, 007 (Craig) goes about his usual routine of womanizing, drinking, and death-defying heroism. He beds three different women in this film – unless I counted wrong – and even after just four movies that song-and-dance seems rote. Bond’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it, though I suppose it never really has been, but I imagine his other body parts must be bored by now as well.

The most meaningful relationship in the film is between Bond and M, whose dynamic is more interesting probably in large part because it doesn’t involve any sexual tension. The actors and screenplay flesh out a mutual grudging respect between them, as well as reluctant affection that comes from years of shared experiences. They may or may not like each other, but they trust each other, and in their business that is harder to come by.

Skyfall is directed by Sam Mendes, whose films – including American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go – are usually concerned with some kind of existential ennui. Also an accomplished theater director, he’s not a filmmaker one would expect for a big-budget action film, but those kinds of unlikely combinations often yield the most interesting results. In this case, he proves to be an effective action stylist.

Not content to point and shoot, he invests his scenes with visual interest, like a hand-to-hand battle shot in silhouette against a flashing neon backdrop, and the introduction of Silva, a deep shot in which the villain creeps his way towards the foreground with an eerie, stalking pace while delivering a memorable speech.

The film’s cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, and Albert Finney, making this a bit like the Bourne movies in its ability to attract top-shelf talent and give them more to do than just dodge bullets – though they do plenty of that too. The behind-the-scenes crew is also full of impressive artists, including composer Thomas Newman, production designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

The film has the pedigree of an Oscar film without really being an Oscar film – though there is some speculation about whether it might actually be one – which just goes to show that the most important factor in making a good action film is bringing together people who know how to make a good film, period.