OK let’s cut to the chase. Spectre (or should that be SPECTRE?) isn’t quite up there with the very best of the James Bond films, and there’s nothing here as surprising as the intense, moody final half hour of its predecessor Skyfall, which was also directed by Sam Mendes, but it’s certainly one of the better efforts of the last thirty years and will undoubtedly keep fans entertained. It feels like it could be a suitable end to the Daniel Craig era – though that would be a shame after just four films – and the multi-authored screenplay nods repeatedly to deceased characters from the actor’s three previous films, giving the impression that a big story arc is drawing to a close (though, in truth, there are elements at play in the screenplay that suggest Spectre can be viewed as the beginning of a longer story). Time will tell if this is Craig’s last appearance in the role, but if it is he ought to be satisfied with his work; the same goes for Mendes, who seems to be indicating in recent press junkets that he has little interest in making a third Bond film.
An opening title card mysteriously suggests that ‘the dead are alive’, and although there isn’t anything as silly as a Bobby Ewing-style return for Judi Dench’s M in Spectre we do feel the presence of figurative ghosts, as the criminal organisation-referencing title suggests: requests are made from beyond the grave and certain faces come back to haunt our hero, while the villain is a throwback to an earlier era. It is quickly revealed that recent enemies of Bond, such as Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre, were part of a wider criminal society – one that will need no introduction to fans of the series – and naturally it’s 007’s job to infiltrate this shadowy cabal while simultaneously fending off accusations of obsoletion (which emanate from a Whitehall that would rather use drones in the field than actual agents); soon enough there’s a nemesis in place (Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser), a henchman who refuses to die (Dave Bautista’s muscular Mr Hinx) and the requisite love interest (Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann), all vying for the secret agent’s time and attention. Throw in some rather smart clothing, a Martini or two and a swish car and there you have it: the series may have moved with the times over the years, and this latest installment pays lip service to modern technology, surveillance and the pursuit of information, but some things will never change.
Mendes begins his film with a bravura sequence that features a long, impressive tracking shot through the skeleton-faced crowds of Mexico City’s Día de Muertos celebrations and ends with a thrilling action set piece which, for my money, tops the celebrated prologue to this year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It is fantastically tense, but as with Rogue Nation you get a feeling while watching the rest of the film that nothing is going to match those opening ten minutes. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that both movies feature slightly similar endings, shot at night about a mile or two apart from one another. As a former Londoner of 15 years I definitely prefer it when my globetrotting spy thrillers stay in locales that are exotic to my eyes and ears, such as Mexico City and Tangiers; when said blockbusters climax in London I’m usually disappointed with the scenes, though on balance I prefer Spectre‘s tense finale to Rogue Nation‘s, despite the fact that the city seems weirdly underpopulated.
The hard edge that was introduced a decade ago to the Bond franchise, as it sought to catch up with the Jason Bourne films, is present once again: Craig continues his portrayal of a tough, cold, statuesque version of the character and as per usual his fight scenes feature brutal, bloody beatings instead of cheesy one-liners. He does have a few cheeky rebuttals for his seniors and there are also the standard moments of dry, flirty wit, but most of the film’s humour arrives courtesy of Ben Whishaw’s Q, a character with a slightly more enhanced role than usual (ditto Ralph Fiennes’ M and Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny). Indeed for a split second, as the four team up on English soil, it almost seems as if Mendes is actively courting comparison with the Mission: Impossible series. Surely not?
There are several nods to older Bond films throughout, and anyone familiar with the Connery/Lazenby/Moore years will enjoy spotting the references, the obvious ones being Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, Thunderball, Dr. No and Live And Let Die (though there are probably even more). The main problem with this is that it’s hard not to think of the Austin Powers films that mercilessly lampooned the very same scenes, especially when we see SPECTRE meetings taking place at long oval tables or Bond being tortured for an unnecessarily long time instead of simply being shot in the head when first taken captive. You half expect Dr Evil to walk in front of the camera and explain that he’s going to leave him alone and not actually witness him dying…he’s just going to assume it all went to plan. But of course such silliness is entertaining enough in itself, and Mendes is a sound judge of tone; there are plenty of camp moments here, and one must suspend disbelief as always, but the director blends the more laughable aspects of the franchise with spectacular action and grit, resulting in a winning, multiplex-pleasing mix. Spectre isn’t the best of the recent James Bond films, it has a forgettable theme song and I wish there was a shorter cut to compare with the 150 minute released version, but overall: good.
Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth. Based on James Bond by Ian Fleming.
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear.
Cinematography: Hoyt van Hoytema.
Editing: Lee Smith.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Running Time: 148 minutes.