How do you follow the most successful Bond movie ever made? If the finished product is any indication, director Sam Mendes simply dusted himself off, stayed in gear and kept his foot down.
There is a sort of Zen perfection to “Spectre,” with its steady pace and smooth, confident execution, the virtuosity of its action sequences and a beauty to Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography that fully justifies the seven months of principal photography. It also features Daniel Craig’s most relaxed and witty performance to date as 007, as if character and actor both are coming to terms with the angst-ridden cycle of the previous three films.
The agent is rogue once again, this time following a posthumous lead left by Judi Dench’s M, which draws him toward the shadowy organization that has been lurking in the shadows ever since “Casino Royale.”
While Bond gallivants from Mexico City to Rome, the Austrian Alps to Tangiers in pursuit of Spectre’s diminutive but diabolical Franz Oberhauser (a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz), back home the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is powerless as MI6 is merged with the other British security services, under the smarmy control of C (Andrew Scott). It can be no coincidence that Spectre’s terrorism coincides with C’s ambition to bring the world’s surveillance operations under one roof in a swanky new London HQ funded by a “private donor.”
A busy but tightly controlled script offers a “best of” nostalgic feast for Bond fans – with nods to “Live and Let Die,” “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger,” among others. Craig and Waltz get to riff on the classic one-two from “Goldfinger,” as an outnumbered Bond declares that “I came here to kill you,” to which Oberhauser
wryly replies, “And I thought you came here to die.” In an expanded role, Ben Whishaw’s delightful Q teases Bond something rotten over his gadgets, or lack of them, while bemoaning the wrecked Aston Martin from the previous film. “When I said bring it back in one piece, I didn’t mean bring back one piece!”
But the plot also moves the Craig-era mythology forward in smart fashion. Much has been made of whether or not Oberhauser is the infamous Ernst Stavro Blofeld; all I’ll say is that the film has some better revelations up its sleeve.
Some of the action is jaw-dropping, including a tussle inside a careering helicopter over Mexico City, a car chase through Rome that isn’t so much exciting as exquisite, and a hand-to-hand fight scene between Bond and heavy Dave Bautista on board a train that is as brutal and impressive as that between Connery and Robert Shaw in “From Russia With Love.” Also playing a key role in that fight is Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, daughter of Bond’s old enemy Mr. White, now the agent’s reluctant companion, and a terrific Bond girl—beautiful, feisty yet vulnerable, funny, mysterious. Just as Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd declared herself a match for Bond on board a train in “Casino Royale,” so Seydoux turns up in the dining car trumping his white tux with a million-dollar silver dress and ordering “a vodka martini—dirty.”
There are some bum notes. Monica Belluci is ludicrously under-used as an assassin’s widow, while Sam Smith’s whiny, hideous theme threatens to undo the good work of the opening credit sequence. And it lacks a single moment to match the pathos of “Skyfall”—you can’t possibly top the death of Judi Dench. Nevertheless, there’s so much to drool over in “Spectre” that I would class it in the same league.
“Spectre” opens in the U.S. on Nov. 6.