NB: While this review is as spoiler-free as we could make it, you may find mention of a few plot points from Skyfall.
The billion-breaking success of Skyfall was such that it’s little surprise that its leading players, from director Sam Mendes to Daniel Craig, were given pause. That 50th anniversary adventure – Bond’s 23rd – left them with a tough act to follow, after all. Fitting, then, that Spectre’s opening sequence takes place in front of a huge crowd; all eyes are on Mendes and his team of filmmakers to see what they can come up with this time.
As openings go, Spectre’s is a slickly assured one, set among the pulsating rhythms of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema sweeps us through the city, the pace eliding smoothly from low-key suspense to white-knuckle action. Technically, it’s impossible to fault, Thomas Newman’s music pounding out a beat for Bond and the camera to follow in an apparently seamless long take.
Bond’s antics in Mexico soon land him in hot water with M (Ralph Fiennes) back in London, but Bond soon shrugs off his suspension and concentrates instead on a breadcrumb trail of clues which lead to Europe and elsewhere. An assassin named Sciarra has connections to a series of attacks across the globe and a shadowy figure named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), and Bond aims to make sense of this tangled web.
Some of Skyfall’s faintly gothic atmosphere lingers in Spectre, particularly in its first hour. The mansion on the blasted heath from Skyfall is nowhere to be seen, of course, but there are nevertheless plenty of secret passages, fleeting, swooning romances and portents of doom. Screenwriting trio John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script is terse and coy with its secrets, and Mendes allows Spectre to unfold at a tempo that is at first graceful and even ominous. Craig, a little older, a little leaner around the face, is as spectacular as he always was as Bond, and he fits right into the night-time world of clandestine meetings, pursuits and other violent encounters that Spectre has in store for him.
Even in a weaker outing like Quantum Of Solace, Craig has carried the Bond mantle so naturally, it’s as though he’d always owned it; in Spectre, the strength of his incarnation is such that the story manages to run the gamut from classic shaken-not-stirred humour of the Roger Moore era to Licence To Kill-like deathly seriousness. As in Skyfall, there is much in Spectre that will raise a smile from the series’ longstanding fans; the staples it again revives – the high-wire stunts, the cars, the brief love affairs and so on – are used in ways that, in the film’s best moments, feel imaginative and fresh.
Bond’s deadly tour takes in a glamorous Italian widow (Monica Bellucci), a resourceful doctor, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and a brutal and borderline terrifying henchman played by a singularly mirthless Dave Bautista. The ride is consistently as handsome-looking and often as thrilling as that opening sequence, yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that Spectre’s meandering through its plot rather than flying, arrow straight, towards its climax. The tension so wonderfully conjured up in the first few minutes is often allowed to dissipate, particularly towards the middle of the story; Spectre‘s plot soon begins to feel somewhat overstuffed and – dare we say it – even predictable in places.
That, at least, is the bad news.
The better news is that although Spectre sags in places, it’s joyfully entertaining in others. Ben Whishaw is given more to do this time as Q, and he’s wonderful in the role; the sparky tension between he and Craig crackles in every scene here, even threatening to rival Craig’s smouldering dalliances with Lea Seydoux. Naomie Harris and Rory Kinnear return as Moneypenny and MI6 chief Bill Tanner, but they’re largely pushed out of the frame by newcomer Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh, whose plans for a new, overarching surveillance system could spell the end for Bond’s style of hands-on, pistol-packing spycraft.
Christoph Waltz, meanwhile, appears to thoroughly enjoy playing Oberhauser. It’s an impish and sinister performance, and while his scenes in Spectre are sparing – more so than Javier Bardem’s villain in Skyfall – he looms large over the story. One particular sequence, which pushes violently at the boundaries of what’s acceptable in a 12A-rated movie, really sticks in the mind.
Often sublimely, sometimes awkwardly, Spectre contrasts harshness and humour, violence and suspense, warmth and stark coldness. The ingredients that go into the Bond formula don’t hang together quite as successfully here as they did in Skyfall, and at 148 minutes, Spectre feels a touch too long. But Spectre more than satisfies as a big-screen spectacle, and among the superb performances from the top-notch cast, it’s Craig who again carries the day. His Bond is reliably flinty and dangerous, yet he also gives us the impression that every exploit the agent’s lived through is bearing down on his soul.
Where some 007 films stand alone, seemingly detachable from their predecessors, Craig brings history and mortality to Bond; in Spectre‘s swerving, sinister plot, he remains its vital, beating heart.
Spectre is out in UK cinemas on the 26th October.