Since the extraordinary box-office success of the last James Bond film Skyfall, which is also widely regarded as the finest Bond of modern times, it’s been tempting to wonder if its successor Spectre could emulate its heights. The prospect of a letdown felt all too real.
So it’s heartening to report that Spectre is a terrific addition to the Bond catalogue: fast, shrewd, intelligent, witty – and perhaps the most visually striking 007 film ever. Director Sam Mendes and our leading man Daniel Craig are at the peak of their powers. Craig may sometimes strike a note of weariness when talking about his tenure as Bond – but on screen he attacks the role with verve, wit and dedication.
There always needs to be some new twist with each succeeding Bond film, and this time it’s in the underlying theme – the rise of global data surveillance, gradually edging out good old-fashioned intelligence work. If that sounds faintly dry, there’s enough thrilling action on screen to compensate.
Spectre announces itself with a sensational opening scene, involving a single tracking shot, filmed in Mexico City during the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. Bond, in a disguise with a skeleton’s mask and body suit, escorts a woman through the teeming crowds and takes her to a plush hotel room. They strip off their festival costumes, but, ignoring her smouldering come-hither glance, he climbs out of the window, effortlessly scales rooftops and guns down a criminal in a high adjacent building. There then follows a remarkable fight between him and two bad guys in a helicopter, soaring and dipping crazily over the Mexico City crowds. It’s quite an opening.
Back home in London, all is not well. The position of M (Ralph Fiennes) is being undermined by an ambitious office rival, C (Andrew Scott), who haughtily wants to disband the 00 spy programme and sign up to a modern system of data surveillance – snooping on private individuals – across all borders. In this light, Bond is an old-school, often embarrassing anachronism.
The action takes us to snowy Austria, Tangier, Rome, all looking exquisite on film. Bond is on the hunt for Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), head of the evil organisation Spectre. He is first glimpsed round a conference table, and shot in dark shadow.
In Rome, Bond has a brief interlude with the grieving widow of an assassin, played by Monica Bellucci. She’s a striking presence, and it’s agreeable to see 007 getting to grips with a woman his own age. But disappointingly, Bellucci just disappears from the film; the thought occurs that some scenes involving her may have been cut.
Read our interview with Monica Bellucci
In place of a Bond Woman, then, we get a Bond Girl, the fetching Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann – her doubly Proustian name correctly suggesting that she plays a part in Bond’s memory. In fact she’s the daughter of 007’s former adversary Mr. White.
Events inevitably lead us to the villain’s lair, where Waltz re-appears, with evil intent on his mind – and a revelation about his true identity.
All this frenetic action hums along smoothly, propelled by excellent action sequences and some fine action performances, particularly from Bond’s colleagues in London: Fiennes as the beleaguered M, Ben Whishaw the ever-delectable gadget-geek Q, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. (Surprisingly, Fiennes get the film’s best laugh-line at the expense of the irritating C).
If Spectre seems a slightly lesser work than Skyfall, it’s only because the bar for Bond films is now higher than ever. In the scheme of things, Spectre is as fine as any of the other 007 sagas of recent times – and incomparably better than, say, the films of the Pierce Brosnan era. It’s gloriously well-executed, and the sharp-suited Craig ranks alongside Sean Connery as a great Bond. If he should decide Spectre will be his swan song, he’ll be leaving while still at the top of his game.
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