Skyfall is a James Bond movie, which means that it has its requisite number of exotic locations, heart-pounding chase scenes, balletic fight choreography, and gadgetry. Director Sam Mendes mostly eschews the high-tech toys this time, but he fills that void with moral complexity.

Thanks to the reboot of the James Bond matter in Casino Royale, we can no longer count on our protagonist (Daniel Craig) to save the day with a Walther PPK and a witty quip. In the first scene, this Bond loses track of stolen information and is shot by for his efforts, then spends months in obscurity overindulging in alcohol and wordlessly feeling sorry for himself. Bond only emerges after an attack on MI6 and an attempt on M (Judi Dench)’s life. However, the months of sloth have taken a toll on his deadly skill set; his hands shake like a bartender making a vodka martini.

He gets his chance to prove his worth quickly enough. It seems that former MI6 spy Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is out for revenge against M for an incident that took place many years ago. It’s up to 007 to find Silva and stop him. As the film progresses, Bond is aided by Eve, the inexperienced field-agent (Naomie Harris) who had shot him in the intro; the sultry yet scared femme fatale Severine (Berenice Marlohe); and unexpected allies in MI6.

The doubts about whether Bond is up to the task lends credence to the uncertainty about his character will do. We learn more about Bond’s childhood—as well as the meaning of the word Skyfall—but it doesn’t make this new 007 any less enigmatic. Craig’s Bond is as unpredictable as his antagonist, Silva, is relentless. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Meeting Silva is one of the best on-screen moments of 2012 and will surely earn its place in film lore along with Clarice’s first encounter with Hannibal Lecter. If you think I’m overhyping that statement, see it for yourselves. From the instant Silva emerges, we know he means killing business: With absolute control, he monologues a blood-curdling tale in one long take, and he toys with Bond in a way that’s almost shocking. The result is dazzling.

Some critics have pronounced Silva as Bond’s best villain in the series’ fifty-year history, but for me, he ties with my personal favorite Sophie Marceau, who played Electra in The World Is Not Enough. Electra was aptly named because of her daddy issues. Silva, however, has more mommy issues than Parenting magazine.

Silva’s relationship with M (and before you ask, no, M is not his mother) is the heart of the moral complexity of this movie, and after a few scenes with M, you may wonder if Silva is the only villain here.

Skyfall continually asks the question, “Is James Bond relevant in a post-Cold War era?” I’m not just saying that out of some critic’s need to speculate: Characters, from the painfully young, painfully arrogant Q (Ben Whishaw) to Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a gray-suited government official who is trying to force M into an early retirement, wonder aloud if Bond is still up to the spy game. (Like many of the audience, some of these characters weren’t alive when the Cold War was fought.)

Without giving too much away it’ll come as no surprise that Bond will… oh right. Nothing is certain.

With exotic locations and heart-pounding fight scenes (particularly one that takes place in Hong Kong) Skyfall is an exemplary James Bond movie. But excellent writing and stand-out performances make this one of the best movies of the year. Skyfall will stay with you long after the credits roll.

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