James Bond is finally back in a film that, in the best way, leaves us shaken, not stirred. SPECTRE should rightfully win praise from action and espionage aficionados, but especially from the Bond faithful; the film ties nearly all of the past missions and characters from Daniel Craig's Bond films– the deceased ones, especially – while also contributing its own narrative surrounding a secret criminal organization.
As the 24th Bond film and the 4th to star Craig as the secret agent, it's publicly clear that his tenure could be near the end, or perhaps he's reached it already. Indeed, Craig remarked how he’d rather “slash [his] wrists” than play Bond again, although he has since clarified his choice of words.
Whether or not Craig returns, director Sam Mendes – who orchestrated a masterpiece in Skyfall – has given Bond the appropriate dark-and-realistic treatment while also acknowledging the franchise's campier roots: fancy gadgets, weaponized cars, mustache-twirling bad guys, and seducing women. It’s peculiar to see SPECTRE as slightly deviating from the darkness standard set by Casino Royale, but the result is refreshingly fun, even if it does compromise some of the more serious tonnage that the movie shoots for.
This unique outing kicks off with a masterful opening sequence set in Mexico City, in the midst of a bustling Day of the Dead parade. A skeletally-disguised Bond (Craig) weaves through crowds with a lovely Latin lady (Stephanie Sigman) to his hotel room, where Bond quickly changes into a fine-pressed suit before hopping out the window to blow up a terrorist plot in the next building. The sequence is captured in one gorgeous tracking shot that pulses festive energy while emulating Bond’s suave movement in both escorting his date and crossing the rooftops. From there, a sky-high fistfight in a spinning helicopter closes out the opening sequence, just before Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” plays us through a patented Bond opening credits scene, featuring dancing dames and twisting tentacles of black octopi.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect Bond opening, especially one that sets up Bond’s next target. In the helicopter, Bond retrieves a silver ring engraved with a black octopus insignia. Returning to HQ in Britain, he is lectured and then grounded by M (Ralph Fiennes), who fills the shoes of Judi Dench’s M. Only after outright disobeying M by flying out to Rome and seducing the widow (Monica Bellucci) of the terrorist he apprehended in Mexico. While there, he sneaks in to a secret board meeting of a criminal organization headed by a silhouetted, but silently lethal Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).
For what should be a showcase of Waltz’s immense acting talents, he’s criminally underused in a screenplay that relies more on telling of his threats and dubious capabilities, rather than outright demonstrating them. The second half of the film makes up for Waltz’s lack of presence in the first half, although we wish we could have seen more than just a silhouette and a couple of lines of dialogue before.
As one might deduce from the casting choice, Blofeld is one of Bond’s more conniving and sadistic foes – one that rivals Skyfall’s exceedingly creepy antagonist Silva (Javier Bardem). Yet for a Bond villain that effortlessly induces chills, Blofeld finds himself severely underused until the film’s third act, which feels like a crime against the cinematic arts to hold back Waltz’s acting prowess as much as the film did.
To sort of make up for the travesty, there’s a solid supporting cast of characters both new and old: Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) both return to assist Bond in his briefings, while White (Jesper Christensen) – one of Bond’s previous foes – briefly returns to point Bond in his next direction. That leads him to the Austrian mountains, where he meets the young and strikingly beautiful Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), who identifies the Blofeld-led SPECTRE: a secret criminal organization that has had more of a hand in Bond’s past encounters than he realizes.
Obviously, romance and passion blossoms between the secret agent and the doctor, the latter of whom is strong-willed and skilled enough to protect and defend herself. It goes to show that Madeleine is not just a pretty face, but a fully fleshed-out character that knows her way around a gun, even if she doesn’t prefer them. While the on-screen chemistry of Craig and Seydoux doesn’t quite measure up to past Bond girls (Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is a big one), it’s exciting enough to supplement Bond’s intense actions sequences all throughout, varying from a car chase through Rome to a destructive plane chase down a snow-covered mountain that sees Bond piloting a wingless plane.
There’s no doubting just how much narrative development there is in SPECTRE, as a team of four writers tie all the loose ends from the previous three films while also giving Bond a new mission. There’s a healthy subplot as well, with M lobbying to prevent the British government from shutting down the 00 program. It’s quite the juggling act when so many players are involved, even the dead ones. A posthumous video message from the former M (Judi Dench), who met her end in Skyfall, sends off Bond on his next task, leading 007 to remark: “not even death can stop her from doing her job.” With other similar examples – many of which that would spoil SPECTRE’s appeasing plot points – truly, the dead are living in this film; a sentiment telegraphed by the opening sequence amongst Day of the Dead.
Due to the encompassing nature of SPECTRE, the film simultaneously feels like an open invitation for Craig to return, and also a farewell at once. The film doesn’t quite compare to the grandeur of Casino Royale and Skyfall, but as its own specimen, SPECTRE should satisfy the majority. While we can say we’d love to have Craig don the suits and tuxes of 007 once more, we can also acknowledge that he couldn’t have had a better ending than this.
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth (screenplay) and Ian Fleming (characters). Directed by Sam Mendes.
Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux,