Disguised behind the rictus grin of a skull mask, Daniel Craig's James Bond begins his fourth screen adventure, Spectre, by tracking an adversary through the streets of Mexico City amid the macabre splendour of the Day of the Dead.
It's a bravura opening; shot in a dazzlingly intricate single take to rival the start of Orson Welles's A Touch of Evil and also climaxing with an explosion. And the fearless cinematic confidence on display immediately dispels any worries that the pressure of following the stellar triumph of Skyfall might have inhibited returning director Sam Mendes and his team.
Far from it. This is a movie that positively revels in its heritage, with references to the series' iconic characters and moments dropped into the narrative with a mix of playfulness and reverence. The ghosts of Bonds past don’t haunt Spectre, despite its title. There are nods, nudges and witty allusions everywhere you look.
In places, Mendes and his screenwriters are clearly having fun. At one stage, Craig’s Bond fetches up in an Alpine clinic that recalls a similar mountaintop retreat in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but when he tries to order his trademark martini he finds himself fobbed off with a nauseating health drink instead.
Later on, Christoph Waltz's suavely sinister villain, Franz Oberhauser, turns out to own a 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith - an echo, surely, of Goldfinger’s vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Oberhauser’s deadliest henchman, Mr Hinx, played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista, has more than his fair share of Oddjob's monstrous strength and is nearly as mute.
And when Bond finally slugs it out with him face to face, following skirmishes in Rome and Austria, their fight aboard a speeding train recalls Sean Connery's bruising railway encounter with Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love.
Elsewhere, however, the effort of bringing age-old 007 conceits up to date proves more of a strain. The plot revolves around yet another of Bond’s quests to run to earth a shadowy criminal organisation – the one that has dogged his previous missions from Casino Royale onwards now coming more clearly into view – but Mendes and co try to give the story’s perils a contemporary edge by adding the risks posed by global surveillance.
Bond also faces a bureaucratic threat. MI6, now led by Ralph Fiennes’ M, is being challenged by C, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty in Sherlock), the new head of the Centre for National Security, who wants to disband the double-O programme. Back at the time of Goldeneye, Judi Dench’s M dismissed Pierce Brosnan’s Bond as ‘a sexist, misogynist dinosaur’. Now it’s the whole of MI6 that is ‘prehistoric’. It’s up to Bond, of course, to prove that ‘one man in the field’ is worth more than a fleet of drones.
Convincing the viewer of this ought to be a good deal easier than convincing C, yet Spectre’s writers oblige us to take on trust the way in which Bond unravels the story’s sinister conspiracy. Most of the time, Spectre is so extravagantly entertaining we’re content to go with the flow as Craig’s 007 hops from Mexico City to Rome to Austria to Tangier, but on occasion the movie stumbles.
Bond’s encounter with Monica Bellucci’s Italian Mafioso widow is frankly underwhelming after all the pre-release fuss over her casting as an age-appropriate Bond ‘woman’. And when Waltz’s evil mastermind has Bond at his mercy, it’s disappointing that the writers don’t make more of an effort to persuade us why he should launch into the bad guy’s obligatory megalomaniac soliloquy rather than disposing of his foe immediately.
For a change, it’s the goodies that make more of an impression. Ben Whishaw’s fey, geeky Q is terrific, refreshingly down-to-earth, even when he ventures out into the field. “I’ve got a mortgage and two cats to feed,” he says before a bout of reluctant derring-do.
Best of all is Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, her name deliciously Proustian. A psychologist who happens to be the daughter of an assassin, she is smart, sexy and adept with a gun.
She proves less proficient, however, at probing Bond’s reasons for choosing his profession (“Well, it was that or the priesthood,” is his rejoinder.) Then again, given Craig’s propensity for dourness, it’s probably best that we don’t see his Bond exchange the hurly burly of the chaise longue for the psychiatrist's couch.
Certificate 12 A. Runtime 148 mins. Director Sam Mendes.
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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