Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott, Jesper Christensen, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Rory Kinnear, Stephanie Sigman. 148 minutes. 

The previous James Bond film, 2012's SKYFALL, grossed over a billion dollars, and even adjusted for inflation, stands as the most commercially successful film of the series. It also won two Oscars (one of them for Adele's title song), and is the most critically acclaimed of all the films. The producers, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, waited for the film's director, Sam Mendes, to finish his theatre commitments so that he could return for the next film. The expectations are high for Bond 24 aka SPECTRE.

In the precredits sequence, which includes a masterful, thrilling tracking shot akin to TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), we see Bond tracking down and attempting to kill a man in Mexico City, during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Bond almost demolishes the city on his mission but comes into possession of a ring that will set him on a course to Rome, Austria and Morocco and bring him back to London. It will also complete the circle that started in CASINO ROYALE (2006) and force him to deal with his past and his future. At the same time, his superior M battles a merging of MI6 and MI5 and the creation of a global intelligence sharing network that will also see the end of the 00 section. 
The film marks Daniel Craig's first 'traditional' Bond film. After the traumatic events of SKYFALL, Bond is now the 007 we previously knew and loved. He's at ease with himself, and the clothes, the witty lines, the womanising, and the gadgets are all present and correct. Those that complained the Bond of the previous Craig films was no kind of hero at all will not feel that way here. He's also noticeably more human after the events of the previous films. The heroine even describes him as 'a good man'. Craig gives one of the most iconic Bond performances of the series, and dominates the part with a force not seen since Connery in GOLDFINGER (1964) or THUNDERBALL (1965). One of the most pleasing elements of the film are the little humorous character moments Craig affords us – the smile he gives a bad guy before throwing him over a balcony to his death, for example; his happiness at being behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB10, and his playful tone whilst being interviewed by Lea Seydoux. The tone of the film recalls that controlled tone of the first four Bond films and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969).

SPECTRE is still very much a Sam Mendes Bond film, though, and very much the sequel to SKYFALL. Mendes imbues the film with the eerie sense of dread from the final act of that film, and the relationships between Bond and his new team – Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, are pleasingly and entertainingly developed from the last film. Mendes sets the end of the film once again in the UK, the story once again involves Bond facing his past, and Bond is once again having to fight his own obsolescence. Mendes continues to explore the need for the human touch (field agents) in surveillance and intelligence gathering, and here he is also interested in the repercussions of the government surveilling its own public and the open sharing of intelligence between nations. CASINO ROYALE was a post-911 thriller, SPECTRE is a post-Snowden thriller.

Mendes also brings a refreshing romantic feel to the film. SPECTRE sees a slowly burgeoning romance between Bond and the psychologist Dr. Madeleine Swann, played by Lea Seydoux. Their relationship has echoes of a previous one Bond has had. Seydoux is captivating in the film. She has a kind of beauty that never hits home and manages to never look the same in each scene. The actress manages to create a three dimensional character. Madeleine is a woman tough but vulnerable and scarred but not beaten by the past. She offers Bond another chance for redemption.

SKYFALL, following the death of Judi Dench's M, saw the appointment of Ralph Fiennes as her replacement. Fiennes has some great moments in the film, crossing swords with C (Andrew Scott). His new dynamic with Bond is compelling and fun. The relationship between Bond and Moneypenny, played the fine actress Naomie Harris, is now more flirtatious but also deeper. Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner has unfortunately not yet been  allowed to shine in the role. Andrew Scott as 'C', a bureaucrat looking to end the days of the 00 section and merge MI6 with MI5, is very good at projecting the arrogant, unknowable nature of his character. 

Ben Whishaw as 'Q' is simply wonderful. He's as lovable as Desmond Llewelyn but in unique ways, and audiences will look forward to his future appearances as much as they did Llewelyn's. 'Q' actually has the funniest line in the movie – and at Bond's expense. Whishaw and Craig (in their fifth film together) have great chemistry together, and have a much closer 'bond' than they did in the previous film. 

Stephanie Sigman and Monica Bellucci make an impression with their beauty and charisma, but unfortunately do not have much screen time. Bellucci, though, does appear in one of the most stunningly realised scenes of the picture. Jesper Christensen returns as Mr. White from CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, and is important in moving the plot forward. His reunion with Bond is memorable, and contains some unexpected elements.

Christoph Waltz as the villain, Oberhauser, is the most fascinating and effective of the Craig era. Waltz is an actor who is always amazingly precise and he curiously chooses to underplay the role. The result is disturbing and scary, and all the more so because Oberhauser's psychosis could go so easily unnoticed in plain sight. His method of torturing Bond is the film is the first acknowledged use of material from a Bond continuation novel, and is truly unsettling.

The film, actually the longest of the series at 148 minutes, is pacier than SKYFALL. It is also more epic in its locations, and its travelogue quality is extremely aesthetically pleasing. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema capture the character and atmosphere of the locations in careful detail. Mexico is grandiose and alive. Morocco has a romantic, old world feel. One shot in the desert recalls Omar Sharif's entrance in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). A master shot of the train making its way through the desert is hugely memorable for its desolate, romantic beauty. Rome is appropriately stately and historical, and fits well with the ghostly connections of the story. It's a city of deadly secrets, and it's reflected in the architecture. When Bond first sees Oberhauser up close, there is a nod to Kubrick and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). The scene itself is a modern updating of an iconic scene from THUNDERBALL (1965). Austria is beautifully white and mountainous, with Madeleine's clinic remote and open glass. But death and danger can easily find its way there. There are many reminders of previous Bond films, some intentional, some probably not, although LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) have already been acknowledged as being homaged by Mendes and Craig. Certainly the echoes to previous Craig films are intentional and deepen the drive and emotional power of the story, and complete the arc in an emotionally satisfying fashion. 

Mendes allows the film to breathe, and actually, the most satisfying section of the movie is actually set in a Tangier hotel room where Bond and Madeleine start to understand each other and face their similar pasts before facing Oberhauser. The sadness on Seydoux's face in one scene and Thomas Newman's empathetic scoring are quite touching. It feels like an interlude but it's actually the soul of the movie. The film takes the time to allow Madeleine to go through a grieving process, rare in a Bond film or an action film.

The action scenes flow naturally out of the story, and involve Bond using resources at hand to outwit his enemies. As in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, for example, Bond may have a gadget, but he has to outwit his enemy in order to use it. The action scenes are traditionally edited and easy to follow. The helicopter fight in the precredits sequence is thrillingly constructed and is exciting. A car chase in Rome (akin to an idea used in the script to the unmade third Dalton film) is a duel of speed between two high performance cars in which Bond cannot rely on the car's gadgets to work. A chase between Bond's snowplane and the enemies' cars is inventively put together and full of adrenaline. It's interesting to see Bond thinking his way through beating his enemies in the scene.

The highlight action scene of the film is a brutal, brilliantly choreographed and filmed fight scene aboard a train, between Bond and Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx. The scene is quite simply a classic. Hinx also has a memorable entrance in the film, and is a welcome return to the seemingly indestructible, mute henchmen of the series like Jaws or Oddjob. 
Dennis Gassner's third work for the series is once again excellent, typically echoing the psychology of his characters. Note Bond's sparsely furnished apartment. This is a man who exists to be moving forward and not staying still, and it's reflected in the production design. Jany Temime's costume work is elegantly and romantically old school at times, and super modern and classy at others. Lee Smith, Christopher Nolan's favoured editor, is adept at maintaining pace without sacrificing visual and narrative clarity. He's also talented at balancing concurrent action involving different characters. Thomas Newman's score emphasises the film's links to SKYFALL by reprising some of its cues, and his choices emphasise the mystery, dread and immediacy of the story, and the atmosphere, history and feel of the locations. The soundtrack lacks memorable melodies but is perfectly in sync with the film. Sam Smith's theme song Writing's on the Wall is a mid-tempo Basseyesque love song that improves with time after one becomes more attuned to its unconventional structure. It oddly fits Daniel Kleinman's surreal, nightmarish main titles very well.

Mendes and his writers John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and Jez Butterworth, have fashioned an ambitious Bond screenplay that follows logically on from SKYFALL, completes the arc begun with CASINO ROYALE, achieves a more epic, traditional, and fun quality, and explores new themes. It's a considerable achievement.

The film is not perfect. As with SKYFALL, sometimes the logic is arguably lacking. The revelations in the film are hard to swallow upon reflection but they ring emotionally true. The film could perhaps have been tighter. A side effect of the film keeping a balanced tone throughout is that the action is never as propulsively exciting as CASINO ROYALE or QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The last act of the film is good, but does not live up to the rest of the film because it relies on familiar action tropes. That said, it's a satisfying ending emotionally, and Bond's final line is unexpectedly moving and upbeat, reminding one of the increased emotional connection the Craig era has brought to the series. 

Subsequent viewings bring up niggling questions like 'Why do we never see people actually falling to their deaths? Where did the other passengers on the train suddenly disappear to in the Bond and Madeleine dinner scene? How exactly did the villain achieve his power base?' Bond never really seems to be in peril, and escapes very easily throughout the picture. A shootout at the villain's compound is a wasted opportunity to see a physically and mentally impaired Bond in danger of not achieving his escape. But such a critical eye could be applied to even the most classic of Bond movies. And this is one of the best.

SPECTRE is an artistically successful, hugely enjoyable thrill ride of a movie, and the most satisfying Bond film since CASINO ROYALE. Craig delivers one of the most iconic, relaxed performances of the series. The filmmaking is thrilling, beautiful and atmospheric. The relationships between Bond and M, Q and Moneypenny are each unique, entertaining and compelling to watch. Lea Seydoux is one of the most three-dimensional and beautifiul women of the series. Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are brilliant, memorable villains. The storyline is topical and thought-provoking, and Bond's journey from CASINO ROYALE feels complete. It leaves the series in an exciting place, and what is even more exciting is that we have never really been able to predict the nature of each succesive Craig installment. We have the most fully rounded, multi-faceted Bond actor yet, and the opportunities for films as fun as they are deep is heartening. Roll on Bond 25.

Oh, and if the final scene doesn't leave you with a smile on your face? You're not a Bond fan!

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2015. All rights reserved. 

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