An exhilarating Bond spectacle that didn't need to add depth
This is as good as Bond gets, but it struggles in its later stages as it tries to have things both ways
What always haunts new James Bond movies is the memories of their predecessors. Spectre follows on three years after Skyfall, the most successful 007 film ever at the box office. It is obvious that director Sam Mendes and his collaborators are desperate to push Bond to new heights. They are pushing for better stunts, more complex plot twists and greater emotional intensity than the Bond films have ever managed before.
Early on, they succeed brilliantly. An astonishing pre-credits overture sees Bond, on a rogue mission to Mexico, among the revellers in skull and skeleton costumes during The Day Of The Dead. There are echoes here of Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil in a roving sequence which runs for minutes without cutting before culminating in explosive fashion. This sequence is shot in bravura style by Hoyte Van Hoytema (also the cinematographer on Interstellar and Her.)
Other stop-offs include Rome, the Sahara, Tangier (for the Bogart flavour) and, good for the snow scenes, Austria.
There is an old-fashioned feel to the filmmaking. One reason that the budget is so vast (reportedly close to $300 million) is Mendes prefers to film the stunts for "real" wherever possible rather than to rely on digital trickery. When Bond is struggling for the controls of a helicopter that is whirling furiously out of control over Mexico City or racing through the alleyways of Rome while making small talk with Moneypenny, the sequences look "real". Thomas Newsman's stirring music adds both to the excitement and to the grandeur of the storytelling.
There is plenty of humour here but, as in all the best Bond films, it is understated and never allowed to drift too far toward camp. Even the minor characters are very vividly drawn. Q (Ben Whishaw) is more prominent than in Skyfall and shows a Paddington-like stoicism when he is forced out into the field. Naomie Harris's Moneypenny manages to suggest there is more to her life than just Bond.
Death is very much the theme in what is one of the more morbid entries in the Bond series. "Look around you, James. Everything you believe in - a ruin!" he is taunted. It is made clear that Bond is a killer but also, in his more reflective moments, that he feels remorse and regret for some of his actions.
There is an unusual darkness in the romantic scenes too. Bond is involved in the death of people very close to both the Italian widow Lucia Sciarra (a striking cameo from 51-year-old Italian diva Monica Bellucci ) and the beautiful young doctor Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux.)
It is intriguing how Mendes switches filmmaking styles as he changes locations. The scenes in the villa in Rome with Bellucci are shot as if something out of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, with mirrors to the fore and the use of dark gilt furnishings. When it looks as if Bond has a building about to fall on top of him, Mendes moves into the realm of Buster Keaton-style slapstick. In the scene on a train in which Bond and Swan have dinner, Seydoux looks as glamorous as Marlene Dietrich in an old Von Sernberg movie.
As ever, there are those in Whitehall who feel that Bond is an embarrassing anachronism and should be consigned to the scrapheap forthwith. Andrew Scott (Moriarty from Sherlock) plays Max Denbigh ("C"), the new boss of the Centre for National Security who believes in mass surveillance and wants to get rid of the "double 0" section altogether and takes a very dim view of Bond's gallivanting and Errol Flynn-like approach to spycraft.
You can detect the note of defiance in the approach followed by Mendes and his screenwriters. They are going back to Bond's roots, making explicit references to characters and themes in earlier 007 films, rather than trying to re-invent the character for a new digital age.
Where the film risks coming unstuck is in its probing into Bond's own past. We see inside his (very minimally furnished) London apartment. There are several references to his childhood and an accident on the slopes involving his parents which left him "a poor little blue-eyed orphan". Uber-villain Oberhauser (a purring and malevolent Christoph Waltz) uses Bond's memories to torment him. Bond responds with playground-style insults about Oberhausen being nothing more than a lonely, jealous voyeur.
In the final parts of the film, Mendes struggles to overcome the essentially formulaic nature of any Bond film. Spectre might be the ultimate criminal organisation but the scenes of Bond being tortured aren't that different from similar sequences in countless other Bond films.
Characters stubbornly resist the filmmakers' attempts to give them depth. Seydoux's Madeleine is a doctor who, in one surprising scene, attempts a little psycho-analysis of Bond. She has had a tormented childhood herself; knows how to use guns and is self-reliant and highly intelligent. Nonetheless, by the final reel, she has been transformed into yet another damsel in distress, just as one-dimensional as the comic book heavy played by former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista (who behaves as if he were the offspring on an unholy liaison between Oddjob in Goldfinger and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me.)
At times, as Spectre lurches between adrenalin-filled stunts and introspective invocations of Bond's past, it is as if we are watching a Wagnerian version of a Milk Tray ad. Try as he might, Mendes simply can't make Bond into a convincing tragic hero. It doesn't help that this is a 12A movie, aimed at a family audience. This means that even in the most brutal scenes, for example when one character has his eyes poked out, the violence will always be shown only discreetly.
What he has delivered, though, is a very vivid and well-crafted action thriller, seeped in 007 history and tradition. Bond may throw away his gun at one stage but we are left in no doubt that he will soon be back.
RATING: 4 stars
What the other critics said...
Stephen Dalton, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, said: "Spectre contains enough dazzle and derring-do to keep the Bond brand afloat, but not enough to make it a game-changing reboot in the manner of Skyfall. Two steps forward, one step back."
Ed Dyson, writing for the Sun, said "Bond is back to his best", while the Mirror's David Edwards gave the film five stars, calling it a "movie guaranteed to leave you shaken, stirred and shattered".
The Times also awarded Spectre full marks, with critic Kate Muir saying Craig's latest outing is "achingly cool, as sleek and powerful as the silver Aston Martin DB10 that races through the movie".
Spectre is "a swaggering show of confidence", according to Robbie Collin in the Telegraph and Brian Viner, in the Daily Mail, said: "Does it warrant all the hype, the secrecy, the breathless anticipation? Indubitably, yes."
Not all reviews were good. The Press Association's Damon Smith said: "From Skyfall to crestfallen. It was one anticlimax to another although it was beautifully shot."