Following the huge critical and greater commercial success of 2012’s Skyfall, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond’s cinematic adventures, director Sam Mendes had a hard act to follow with Spectre but, in this reviewer’s opinion he has both succeeded in his aim and exceeded his work in the earlier film. For all its positive aspects, Skyfall was hampered by flaws in its technical execution largely due to Sam Mendes’ inexperience in the demanding thriller genre. This time round, he brings a more seasoned and experienced eye and Spectre is a more balanced, consistent and technically mature work as a result.
The film opens with Bond in the heart of the most lavish spectacle, the Day of the Dead in Mexico City. It’s hard to think of any other film franchise with sufficient global clout to allow filming during such a large-scale live event but Bond opens a lot of doors. From the off, Mendes asserts his new mastery of the strange creature that is a Bond film by seamlessly assembling a mostly-mute bravura continuous tracking sequence enhanced by Daniel Craig’s physicality.
In the way he walks and even how he stands, he has a relaxed but alert confidence, even arrogance, evident in the way he ambles along the cornice of a building at height as if he’s taking a relaxing stroll to the shops whilst the festival crowds mill around the streets below him, a celebration of life and death mingled together, the very essence of Bond. This intense screen presence is also noteworthy in the later reveal of the Aston DB10 in Q’s workshop, the way in which each of the three men present are standing speaking volumes about their characters. Craig has now pared down his Bond to a minimum of acting effort, relying mostly on his craggy charisma to carry the character, which is perhaps as it should be.
Unlike Skyfall, in which Thomas Newman’s first outing as a Bond composer fell short of the mark, Spectre sees him taking a more successfully adventurous approach to scoring, even allowing the first action set-piece to unfold with no accompaniment at all until the climactic moments of the opening scene, a very public botched mission, following which Sam Smith’s contentious warblings fit far better over the title sequence than many imagined they would.
Unusually, said title sequence also explicitly references Craig’s three earlier films in the montage signalling, amongst other things, Mendes’ intention to incorporate a grab-bag of in-jokes and shameless homages to even earlier Bond films such the mountaintop clinic from OHMSS, the train fights of From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me, Dr No’s Nehru jacket.
It may occasionally feel that Mendes is ticking these off a list as the film progresses, particularly in the somewhat overblown stunt sequences and one of Q’s more dubious gadgets, able to sequence DNA and extrapolate identities on the go, but dedicated Bond fans should not find this distracting and instead enjoy them as intended.
No matter what, Bond films by their very nature have to be formulaic and Mendes responds to that skilfully and imaginatively and with great respect for the earlier iterations in the franchise he is paying homage to, but he also thoroughly understands the need for the franchise to incorporate both cruelty and playfulness, and Craig plays these exquisitely as both tormentor and victim. Anyone who complains about Bond’s perceived misogyny must remember that it is hard-wired into the character and that Ian Fleming’s very first description of him includes the word cruel.
Overall, Spectre was well-structured, evenly-paced and well-served by a magnificent cast, Ralph Fiennes first facing off against a typically unrepentant Bond whom he feels may have lost perspective and objectivity then later relishing his turn as an action-M and Ben Whishaw allowed to further exploit his great odd-couple chemistry with Craig, Q’s trip out in the field showing just what an effective pairing they make and it is hoped to see much more of that if the allegedly reticent Craig does return to the role for a fifth assignment.
Christoph Waltz was a stylishly charismatic villain with a suitably delayed reveal and who, in the nature of major Bond characters, can be anticipated to return. Even the product placement was unusually subtle and well-embedded into the fabric of the film without drawing undue attention to itself. The reveal of the secondary villain comes as little surprise, though that offers a sense of satisfaction to those who called it at the start.
The only significant criticisms of Spectre were that it was a tad overlong and an actress of the stature of Monica Bellucci was very ill-served by her limited appearance as Lucia Sciarra, a more interesting character than Léa Seydoux’s somewhat obvious Madeleine Swann, though again, perhaps, the intention is that she is to be revisited; where the classic Bond films were principally self-contained, the Craig era plays the game differently.
Thematically there was a sense in this film of Daniel Craig wrapping up his time as Bond although he could, theoretically, return to the part one more time. The explicit references to all his villains and the attempt to tie them altogether under the single multi-tentacled umbrella of the S.P.E.C.T.R.E organisation along with the final shot in the film suggest this may be a farewell to Craig as Bond.
Whether it is or not only time, and Daniel Craig, will tell. Regardless, James Bond will return.
Spectre is now on general release and also screening in IMAX