If there was any guaranteed way to get me, a fan of the ‘60s James Bond films far above the rest of the cycle, into a movie theatre to see another instalment of the venerable franchise, it was the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his evil organisation SPECTRE. Finally released from a legal straitjacket, the Eon team restores them to their rightful place at the centre of Bond’s universe in the much-hyped follow-up to Skyfall (2012). Skyfall was a mammoth success that pointed to the surprising remnant vigour of Bond and particularly Daniel Craig’s incarnation, but I didn’t like the entry half as much as many – the derivative story teased far more than it delivered and dithered awfully in its midsection, and Sam Mendes’ direction was as uneven as usual, alternating stirring moments with flat and fatuous ones. The opening sequence of Spectre is a terrific proof of life as Mendes, joining in the recent spate of competition between directors with one-shot sequences, opens on a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Bond and a senorita (Stephanie Sigman) track a man through the festival crowds, all dressed in appropriate costume complete with masks. Mendes’ camera matches Craig’s panther-like prowl as they both move through thronging hotel guests, an elevator ride, and finally a rooftop. The celebration’s iconography meshes with Bond’s traditional dichotomous mystique as a bringer of death and chaos and as champion lover – a pause in the elevator as his elegant companion brandishes a red rose and gives it to Bond, whose face is hidden by a skull mask – in a manner reminiscent of Live and Let Die (1972) and charged with hints of morbid eroticism.
Bond’s rifle telescope vision then becomes the viewpoint for a brief little shoot-out that’s perhaps an even more precise and beautiful bit of camera virtuosity. Collapsing buildings and a punch-up in a helicopter result, in a sequence that stands as probably the best Bond pre-title sequence since at least Goldeneye (1995), and maybe even since The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). The work Skyfall did in bringing Bond back to his old, familiar state, complete with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and a new M (Ralph Fiennes) in a panelled office, now goes a step further in offering both new horizons and a sort of closure to the running threads of story. Bond battles and kills Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), an Italian terrorist, in Mexico City, at the behest of a video message left behind by the former M (Judi Dench). Grilled by her replacement but remaining tight-lipped, Bond is suspended. He also finds the independence of the 00 section being threatened by a restructured security service overseen by a Whitehall grey eminence (Andrew Scott), who Bond quickly nicknames ‘C’ with disdain. Bond talks Q into helping him continue his hunt, the boffin covering for him whilst he heads to Rome to attend the assassin’s funeral, encountering his widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci).
Following the tip she gives him, Bond infiltrates a clandestine meeting of what proves to be SPECTRE, a shadowy criminal umbrella organisation chaired by a man Bond recognises from his youth, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who supposedly died along with his father in an avalanche. Bond finds his presence not only rumbled but expected by Oberhauser, and the spy has to make a dashing escape, which is, fortunately, the thing he's best at, far better than actually doing clandestine information gathering. Bond races against time and SPECTRE assassin Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) to catch up with Mr White (Jesper Christensen), an operative glimpsed in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008), who proves now to be a SPECTRE duke, albeit one who’s turned against his master. Bond then takes up the cause of defending White’s daughter, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), who’s tried to keep as far away from her father’s world as possible, but still represents a security lapse for the secret society, which of course cannot be allowed.
Spectre aligns with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), still the best Bond film overall, in trying to balance globetrotting and swashbuckling with an overtone of soulful romanticism and degree of emotional seriousness, whilst moving beyond the relatively earthbound approach of the previous Craig Bonds to finally start offering some of the old swagger and glitz. This time around Mendes is more confident in mating those hallmarks with the new attitude of moody contemplation that hovers around Bond and his adventures. Both the qualities and persistent problems of the Craig-era Bond series congest to a near-equal degree in Spectre however, mostly thanks to a problematic script credited to a small commando force of writers. Spectre essentially repeats the same basic plot as Skyfall: a figure from the murky past emerges to terrorise Bond, and by the end in spite of controlling a secret army still feels the need to indulge revenge in person. Mendes achieves a quality of dusky elegance in sequences like Bond and Swann having dinner on a luxury train, with Seydoux a vision swathed in silk and Craig’s former “blunt instrument” Bond capturing something resembling savoir faire, and also moments of brute intensity, as Bond is subjected to a memorably precise session of torture by his nemesis with a machine that drills tiny holes in his head. And yet Mendes is still troublingly square in a lot of ways, unable to sustain the tone of pop-art sign play he signals at the outset. He lacks the gift for casually blending high style and pile-driver force that the best series directors like Peter Hunt and Martin Campbell had. His action scenes feel curtailed and, after the opening, lack invention: when Bond finally rips along in a sports car fitted out by Q, he’s making a cell phone call at the same time (not a good way to build suspense, guys) and finishes up quite literally crashing to a halt. The use of the ejector seat in Goldfinger (1964) is an evergreen moment of nasty comedy; here Bond uses it to escape a situation in way that leaves it feeling like a cheat.
This is one example of a problem that recurs throughout Spectre: the film sets up what could be great sequences but doesn't always follow through. When Bond locates Swann working in an Alpine mountaintop clinic, the setting seems a place ripe for an action set-piece that can cleverly exploit this stage. Mendes instead segues into a plane-and-car chase, one that strains credibility by the standards the Craig era has set for itself, but is still a quality piece of heroic legerdemain. An escape from SPECTRE’s super-secret headquarters out in the Sahara proves a tad easy and anticlimactic. The Craig-era Bond has tried to trend, mostly for the better, closer to the fists-and-wits punch of the books and the early Connery films than to the comic books they later became, mostly for the better, but I got the feeling with such moments that the filmmakers were hesitating right on the edge of the old, happy ridiculousness, and I admit I wanted them to take the leap. The best fight here is, consequently, a more intimate affair, as Bond and Swann battle Hinx on a train, in a sequence that nods to predecessors in From Russia With Love (1963) and Live and Let Die, full of impressively concussive sound effects and body slams. Q comes out into the field and has a few moments eluding SPECTRE agents that again feels like a set-up for something really cool but turns out to be a mere supernal flourish; indeed, by the last act M, Q, and Moneypenny become something like a crew for Bond, and yet they’re left chasing him around London without really strutting their stuff. Similarly, the filmmakers do a great job setting up Swann as a high-grade Bond girl, one with gifts taught to her by an assassin father who maintains a pacifist attitude but doesn’t shy away from a fight when forced upon her. And yet, once more, Mendes and company don’t seem to know what to do with her, reducing her to mere damsel in distress. Seydoux and Craig are enjoyable presences at any time, though, and one of the best scenes in the film is also its most dispensable, when the pair sit drinking in a hotel room, a study in attraction frustrated by their hardened, obliquely grazing souls.
Bellucci's appearance is sadly brief, and begs the question why she was never called on to be a Bond girl ages ago, but her scene with Craig is a lusciously sexy moment that calls out to one storied facet of Bond's appeal, as a walking fantasy bringing satisfaction to the sex-starved. Waltz is always an entertaining actor, but oddly he proves the most disappointing element of Spectre. The actor’s established brand of sly, twinkle-eyed evil doesn’t mesh well with the astringent, utterly cool brand of villainy Blofeld should represent, and he lacks physical menace too. The eventual twist Spectre offers, that Oberhauser reinvented himself as Blofeld and founded SPECTRE after being displaced in his father’s affections by the young, orphaned Bond, is arguably a step too far in the series’ recent habit of personalising Bond’s conflicts. But it does have a certain logic, considering the way Ian Fleming suggested their cracked-mirror qualities, their common Swiss heritage and tastes, except that where Bond is hardy and well-formed, Blofeld is warped and gnomic, bound together in duality like an overfed ego and its rebellious id. The film is aggravatingly unspecific about the titular organisation and its mystique: early films in the series were casual in grounding it in specifics, like its cover and recruiting apparatus – as an organisation helping displaced persons and recruiting the rootless and disaffected this way – and even what its name stood for, which is never mentioned here. But Mendes does stage Bond’s sally into the organisation’s midst and the first appearances of Blofeld and Hinx well, bathed in an almost suffocating tone of hushed menace, taking the overtone of satire that always hovered about SPECTRE as a corporate entity of crime to the Nth degree, like Tony Montana’s business methods being purveyed by the board of the Vatican Bank.
Mendes has long displayed a gift for vivid images (the rose shower fantasy of American Beauty, 1999, the waves in the window at the end of Road to Perdition, 2002) that tend to drift amongst the mere classiness of the rest of his work, and that fragmentary quality is still present here – sometimes it comes across as carefully stylised, at other times like a mood lighting fetish reel. But I appreciated the fleeting moments of arresting, almost Gothic menace some of Mendes’ pictures achieve, the faintly surreal quality of Bond’s encounter with the Widow Sciarra at a church with bodies arranged amidst pillars, the black crows and sepulchral menace in White’s Alpine house. Mendes manages here to weave such flourishes into a film that maintains a sense of compulsive movement even when nothing’s moving. The audience I saw it with clapped and cheered at the credits, testimony to the way Spectre manages to arrest the attention in spite of mediating so many competing elements and tonal shifts, and although it’s riddled with problems, you still want to see what else it has up its sleeve. Spectre wields a quality that’s almost indefinable, a sense of solidity that shows up the glib and hollow aping of the Bond model by recent pretenders like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation or Kingsman: The Secret Service (both 2015).
Most interestingly, as the series has fought to justify the continued existence of its roguish hero in the contemporary world (as it has since the Moore films), Spectre here presents Bond and M as men standing for not just old-school institutions, the notion Skyfall belaboured, but for intelligence work as a job requiring human and moral discrimination. Bond keeps being irked by being described as an assassin as he evolves to see his role more as watchdog, an idea visualised as Bond settles down for a night of keeping guard over Swann, and M notes that a licence to kill means also a licence not to kill, the mediation of sense and judgement over and above mere mass data reaping. Meanwhile C facilitates SPECTRE’s plot of creating a worldwide security organisation that will actually bring on global totalitarianism. The race to stop a countdown to some kind of wicked supercomputer or system going on line in quickly becoming the current cliché of thriller cinema, but here it facilitates a theme that has some power. Bond stands now for the critical eye as well as the sharp edge, the eternal guardian keeping the modern world from degenerating into a mere system within a system, capable of recognising the difference between threats and friends and exploiting the grey between. Spectre offers an interesting irony. Originally the Bond makers adopted SPECTRE as an antagonist in the age of the Cold War precisely because it was fantastical. Now, after more than fifty years of trying not to be, James Bond almost becomes politically relevant.