James Bond may be 50, but he’s never felt fresher than in Skyfall, the 23rd (official) film in the franchise.

Sony Pictures

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and starring Daniel Craig in his third go-round as 007, it’s at once both a stand-alone film and a nostalgic look back at the pedigree of the most famous spy in popular culture.

From the opening car chase to the final shoot-out, Skyfall feels more like the recent Jason Bourne movies than those about the gentleman who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but the typical Bond tongue-in-cheekiness is in full effect, along with grin-inducing nods to the Bond we’ve known and loved since 1962’s Dr. No.

Here we begin with the news that a hard drive listing the identities of every single NATO agent imbedded in terrorist cells around the world has been stolen and is being gradually leaked. Before long the as-yet-unseen villain is playing all kinds of mind games with MI6, detonating bombs back at headquarters, and, oh, did we mention that Bond is presumed dead after being shot and then falling a thousand feet into a river?

Eventually we learn who’s behind all the madness, why he’s doing it, and, yes, Bond makes it back to the land of the living to hunt him down. There’s even the vintage Aston Martin first seen in Thunderball, a Walther PPK, and yes, several nubile women– just to make us really feel at home.

Mendes may well be the best man who’s ever sat behind the lens in Bond’s history. Without relying on Hollywood clich├ęs like spastic camera sequences and pat shots, he instead channels his creativity (with the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins by his side) into making a visually stunning movie that’s among the most fun experiences to hit theaters this year.

The script by five-time Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan (Hugo), is simple at its core but with so many winks to the Bond legacy it becomes a multi-layered joyride. It’s hard not to smile when you see a bartender giving that martini shaker a good jerk or two. And that’s only the beginning.

Craig has really found his footing in his Tom Ford suit and shiny loafers. The general malaise that we all felt watching him slog through A Quantum of Solace is gone; he’s even outdone his Casino Royale performance with a solid, well-grounded turn highlighted by a spring in his step and a genteel tug on his cuffs.

Oscar winner Javier Bardem gets the coveted role of Bond baddie in Skyfall, playing Silva, a Hannibal Lecter-like psychopath (without the fava beans). He’s not even half as terrifying here as he was in No Country for Old Men, though, and probably won’t make it onto anyone’s list of favorite Bond villains anytime soon. It’s merely great performance of an under-written role.

Still, there’s nothing quite like going home, and Skyfall‘s dutiful attention to Bond lore, coupled with Mendes’ exquisite direction, has provided a breath of gunsmoke-scented air to a franchise that looked like it was headed toward becoming a punchline.

4.5/5 stars