After 23 films and 50 years, James Bond has never looked more sleek, svelte and lethal.

We already knew, thanks to Casino Royale (which has basically supplanted Goldfinger from the throne as the presumptive “best Bond ever“) and to a lesser extent Quantum of Solace, that Daniel Craig is not your father’s quip-spouting, gadget-slinging, smirk-flashing 007. He’s a smoldering, conflicted, brooding Ketel One man, as likely to be objectified for his sex appeal as his latest curvaceous Bond girl, a tag that has, tellingly, gone out of fashion with the newest string of franchise installments.

Skyfall explicitly acknowledges not only Craig’s mojo-spiking effect on the once terminally campy espionage series, but also toys with the idea that both Craig and the series he saved might both be getting a little creaky. Of course, the suggestion might just be one of the Bond series’ biggest winks to the camera ever, since the answer to both proposals is a resounding no.

Nevertheless, Skyfall is preoccupied with death, right down to the luxuriant opening credits sequence superimposing nude, writhing women against After Effects skulls, streams of gelatinous blood and looming headstones, all underpinning an opening sequence that underlines its hero’s mortality. He may be a super hero, but he’s no superhero.

Skyfall finds James Bond and the MI6 spy agency struggling to do battle with a cyber-terrorist whose methods have the entire British intelligence force with their backs to the wall. Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, insists that it does no good to root out evildoers by sending agents into the shadows when “there are no more shadows.” And Judi Dench’s usually impervious M seems to be reckoning, for the first time, with the possibility that her tactics are strictly Old World.

Only Craig’s Bond, recovering from not only a physical wound sustained in the film’s pre-credits caper but also the psychological wounds opened by his renewed lack of trust in MI6, carries on in pursuit of his targets, symbolically representing a synthesis of both old and new.

Similarly, director Sam Mendes brings a rewardingly clean visual approach to the rather undisciplined material that suggests a neo-Jason Bourne reboot helmed by Michael Mann, no more so than in the film’s vertiginous death battle near the top of a Shanghai skyscraper. Filmed largely in silhouette, Bond and his prey dart from one glass-walled room to the next, all the while backlit by another skyscraper’s hallucinogenic LED jellyfish display. Not only one of the most visionary action sequences of the year, it’s also one of the most hauntingly understated depictions of violence in any Bond film ever.

In a few ways, Skyfall complements its death imagery with a climactic return to the womb, both reactionary and regenerative. In order to successfully lure his newest archenemy into a Straw Dogs standoff, Bond has to return to the Scottish country manor on which he was raised. It’s almost as though the act realigns his compass by putting his mission directly into the same context of his own much-reference mortality that everyone around him has already been pondering. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that returning to that womb also reunites him and Bond fans with that sleek Aston Martin.

Speaking of regressions, the movie’s biggest misstep is the decision to introduce Javier Bardem’s unhinged Raoul Silva with a bunch of gay-vague leering, a totally retrograde depiction that calls to mind Diamonds Are Forever‘s simpering Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint and only barely redeemed by Bond calling Silva’s bluff: “What makes you think this is the first time I’ve done this?”

Otherwise Skyfall, boasting direct, unfussy action sequences and Craig’s fascinatingly somber incarnation of Ian Fleming’s secret agent, is nearly as miraculous a resurrection act as Casino Royale.

Eric Henderson