A gritty action epic that will leave you shaken and stirred
In recent weeks Daniel Craig and the Bond brand have been inescapable, showing up on billboards, the sides of buses, and in ads for everything from flash cars to razor blades. But the only trouble with that kind of fanfare is that your film needs to justify the fuss.
Though some purists still insist that 'Goldfinger' or 'From Russia with Love' are the best Bond films, Daniel Craig's 2006 debut 'Casino Royale' would have to be right up there with them, and it's generally agreed that the Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes reboots have brilliantly revived a tired franchise and made it relevant, and fun.
The Craig films' secret weapon, though, was Judi Dench's M, a frosty matriarch whose loving, scolding relationship with Bond created emotional depth, and heart. She's gone, having expired beautifully at the end of 'Skyfall', so has 'Spectre' managed to fill that yawning gap? It has indeed, overall, because Sam Mendes's action epic is terrific.
One had the sense, watching 'Casino Royale', 'Quantum of Solace' and 'Skyfall', that Daniel Craig's James Bond was a talented but remedial apprentice, a super spy who hadn't quite hit his stride. But in 'Spectre' we find that the death of M, the only person he really cared about, has liberated him: he's on the loose, out for blood, and doesn't really care about the consequences.
Bond and the entire 00 programme face extinction when a sinister Whitehall pen-pusher called Denbigh (played with fastidious relish by Irish actor Andrew Scott) unveils a plan to replace MI6's elite spy team with a global surveillance programme. And 007 makes Denbigh's job a whole lot easier when, during a brilliant opening sequence, he chases a terrorist through Mexico City and ends up almost crashing a helicopter into a crowded square.
Suspended by his exasperated boss Gareth Mallory (an impeccably British Ralph Fiennes), Bond enlists the help of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to slip out of London and head for Rome, where a secret organisation is planning to meet. This is SPECTRE, a sophisticated criminal conglomerate run by a sinister Austrian called Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who speaks softly but carries a very big stick.
The emergence of SPECTRE neatly ties in the plots of all four Craig films, and also signals a determination to respect the traditions of earlier Bond films while pushing the gritty action quotient to new and dizzy heights. Because 'Spectre' is above all an action film, which starts at a ferocious pelt and never really slows its pace.
Mendes controls all of this deftly, and throws in lots of teasing references to other films. Orson Welles's 'Touch of Evil' is given an affectionate nod in that Mexican sequence, but so too is the voodoo silliness of 'Live and Let Die'. One of the villains has echoes of Oddjob from 'Goldfinger,' and attacks Bond in a magnificently staged fight on a speeding train that is surely inspired by 'From Russia with Love'.
One or two English critics have bemoaned the fact that Daniel Craig is not a smooth ladies' man, but are missing the point, I think. He's not a creepy lounge lizard Bond like Roger Moore's 1970s version, because Sam Mendes and his writers have carefully dispensed with all that tiresome misogyny. He woos two women in 'Spectre', Monica Bellucci's glamorous Italian widow and Lea Seydoux's mysterious psychologist, and their love scenes seem earthy, not silly.
One takes Craig's performances in these films for granted, but he's a wonderful Bond, tough and remorseless and ever so slightly unhinged. In recent weeks he's been making ominous noises about giving up the role. Let's hope he changes his mind.