The third film in the Daniel Craig-era reboot of the conspicuous spy franchise had some expectation riding on it. After the nightmarish editing and direction of Quantum of Solace, Bond fans were hoping for a film that would have a camera stay still for more than five seconds, and more importantly were expecting a re-introduction of the traits that give the franchise its identity. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were still missing a few key ingredients in the form of gadgets and a few missing characters. Skyfall provides the final missing pieces while also admirably preventing the franchise from sinking into the cheesy antics of the past. Or as the new Q (Ben Whishaw) puts it, “what were you expecting? An exploding pen?”

Continuing the previous two films’ analysis of Bond’s place in the modern world, Skyfall concerns itself with the shelf-life of agents and their necessity in a world of ever-shrinking shadows. The post 9/11 world is not about subtlety and shady doings in dark alleys, but more about violence as a form of dialogue and statement. In Skyfall’s case, the McGuffin is a list containing the identities of active undercover agents that is stolen in the first set-piece of the film and ultimately leaked on Youtube, though this theft is of course nothing but a small step in a larger plan driven by vengeance.

Javier Bardem brings a malevolent villain to the screen with utter relish. His body language and mannerisms are awash with mad facial tics and vocal exercises that make previous Bond villains almost pale in comparison. You truly feel for Bardem, it’s hard to remember the last time he had a decent haircut on screen. He will be studied for years to come by actors wanting to learn how to act crazy yet oddly sympathetic.

The ‘Bond girls’ have come a long way since the pun-heavy earlier decades, and are not here for scenery anymore, I wish the phrase would disappear now. Though Skyfall seems to have less crazy action than previous entries, whenever it does appear it’s driven by the characters, and not the other way around.

The Bond franchise has a unique balancing act to keep up. On the one hand, its beloved because of certain aspects, the opening titles, the over the top action, Bond’s drink, his car, M, Q, and many other aspects are what all come together to separate the franchise from other series like the Bourne films or Mission Impossible. While at the same time, viewers don’t want the Bond franchise to devolve into nothing but a committee of writers ticking off checkboxes, because it just leads to Pierce Brosnan’s garish CGI-ridden latter films.

Skyfall is an impressive entry in the franchise because it manages to tick off these checkboxes while still providing a compelling and entertaining film that doesn’t seem like it’s adhering to a formula. In fact it’s the opposite; it’s attempting to raise the franchise to another level. This is due to a team of masters at their prime.

First and foremost, mention must to go cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose visual palette is stunning and makes one think they’re observing a painting in motion at times. This is the best looking Bond film ever, and Deakins deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least. Sam Mendes brings his stylistic choices to the proceedings, making ample use of the exotic locales on display. Thomas Newman, a composer not exactly famous for action scores, also brings his A-game with an exciting soundtrack that blends modern electronica infused with orchestral cues of the past. Craig and Judi Dench command the screen throughout, given that Skyfall is at its core about the relationship between Bond and M, this is to be expected.

There is much more to be written and said about this film, such as how the climax completely avoids the typical ‘villain’s lair explodes around the fleeing hero’ route much to my satisfaction. Suffice to say Skyfall is both what you expected, hoped for, and is also pleasantly surprising and will be a tough act to follow.