The old saw “This time, it’s personal” applies to the twenty-third James Bond movie, and this time it’s a good sign. “Skyfall,” the third in the long-running series to star Daniel Craig, is one of the best Bond pictures ever, and perhaps belongs at the very top of a long list.

The movie begins with a typical action prologue, a chase with cars and motorcycles that leads to a spectacular fight atop a speeding train—and Bond’s apparent demise trying to recover a list of MI6 agents from his quarry. Not to worry: 007 has appeared to die before, and it’s never taken. He comes back to life after obituaries have been penned and MI6 and the redoubtable M (Judi Densch) have been directly targeted by a bomb-wielding mystery villain and he feels his presence is necessary.

After completing a torturous retraining regimen to prove his fitness to return to duty and meeting the new Q (Ben Whishaw), a frazzle-haired young man who’s more computer wizard than gadget-creator, Bond’s off to track down that list, which is being used to publicly kill off the agency’s undercover assets. It’s a task that takes him to a Shanghai casino and other eastern locales before a typical Bond beauty, Severine (Berenice Marlohe) leads him to the ultimate manipulator of the anti-MI6 (and anti-M) crusade. It turns out to be an arrogant dandy named Silva (Javier Bardem), whose motives won’t be revealed here.

It won’t spoil things, however, to say that even after his capture Silva isn’t through. Another chase is soon on, which leads Bond and Q to the titular place, to revelations about both their pasts, to an appearance by a sly elderly gentleman named Kincade (Albert Finney), and to a final explosive confrontation.

Under Sam Mendes’ skilled, stylish direction, “Skyfall”—which brings unexpected depths to Bond and Q that Craig and Densch, doing an expert odd couple routine, take full advantage of, as well as a cheekily malevolent part for the preening Bardem—is a smoothly satisfying blend of the old and the new. Fans of the series will certainly rejoice is seeing an old vehicular friend on the road again, for instance. But the back stories provided by the well-constructed script add layers of character earlier installments lacked, and Bond himself is a far more human figure than he’s previously been.

And new figures, destined to continue with the series, are added to the mix: not just Whishaw’s Q, but attractive female field agent (Naomie Harris), whose family name isn’t revealed until the last act, and government bigwig Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), whose true character doesn’t become clear until the last reel. Their presence bodes well for future installments, which like this one promise to be less jokey and fantasy-oriented than those of the past. In that “Skyfall” continues the trajectory set by “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace,” but takes it to new heights. And Finney proves a lovable codger you wouldn’t mind seeing again, too.

It goes without saying that the film is technically high-quality goods, with cinematography by Roger Deakins that takes full advantage of the predictably gorgeous locations—including the grim but beautiful vistas of the finale—with impeccable taste, while treating the interiors provided by production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Chris Lowe and set decorator Anna Pinnock with equal care. Costume designer Jany Temine also deserves mention, especially where Ms. Marlohe is concerned. And although at 143 minutes this is one of the longest Bond films ever, the editing of Stuart Baird is crisp, allowing no slow spots along the way.

“Skyfall” sets a new standard for the Bond series that it will be difficult for future installments to match. But it whets one’s appetite to watch them try.