When time came to begin on the 24th James Bond film, the team behind the franchise faced an enormous challenge. Not only was the last instalment ‘Skyfall’ the most successful film so far, it was also the most critically acclaimed, having bagged a number of high-profile Oscar nominations. How on earth do you follow up something like that? The answer, in this case, appears to be to leave the success behind you and not try and capture lightning in the bottle again - and for the latest Bond adventure ‘Spectre’, that’s all for the better.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone AWOL, heading out on his own investigations without permission from the new M (Ralph Fiennes). Using a lead from his boss’ deceased predecessor (Judi Dench) and with the help of Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond follows a series of clues that lead him to a secret organisation linked to not only all his previous missions, but to his own past.
It may have been a surprisingly emotional and impeccably crafted film, but ‘Skyfall’ lacked the fun and cheekiness that makes a trademark Bond film. Rather than repeating the same tone and texture, director Sam Mendes and the screenwriting team has returned the series to the rollicking international caper, filling the film with stunning set-pieces and snappy dialogue. You forgive the many conspicuous plot-holes because ‘Spectre’ ends up being an endlessly entertaining ride, full of twists and turns that help tie all the recent Bond films together. There are clues to be followed, beautiful women to be wooed and nameless assassins to be taken out left, right and centre, and all this with Bond’s knowing smile and charisma. All the delicious bombast comes at a cost - the female characters don’t have the bite or resonance of Vesper Lind or M, and the final act stumbles exactly when it should soar, but ‘Spectre’ gets far too much right along the way to easily dismiss it. After generally ignoring the extended world of Bond since the "reboot", this film finally begins to embrace the mythology and build on the iconic cast of heroes and villains. We spend more time with Q and Moneypenny, and figures and images from the classic films finally step into the light. While so many franchises are obsessing over world-building with dangerous haphazardness, the Bond franchise does it in this film with cool confidence.
Thankfully, while it might be tonally different to ‘Skyfall’, it’s just as impressive a piece of filmmaking. That film wowed by being a genuinely cinematic experience thanks to the world-class artists working on it, and ‘Spectre’ is no different. The star of the film is cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who somehow tops Roger Deakins’ work in ‘Skyfall’ with a visual language that’s as assured and gorgeous as it is bombastic and dangerous. This is a breathtaking film to look at, and if there’s any justice, Van Hoytema will get the recognition for it he deserves. Mendes also excels in his direction, offering moments impeccably crafted and contained. The introduction of the villain Oberhausen (Christoph Waltz) is one of the finest character introductions you’ll ever see, and he keeps this contained specificity throughout the film, balancing it with flourishes of explosive energy. Mendes has done something extraordinary with his Bond films, elevating them from blockbusters to genuine cinematic events.
There’s still no faulting Daniel Craig as Bond, and with ‘Spectre’ he gets the chance to play further with Bond’s outdated but integral sexism, playing it as both a charm and an arrogance. What makes Craig such a superb Bond is that, as well as his physical presence, he understands both the positives and negatives of the character. He’s also clearly having a ball with the larger scope this film offers for comedy and action, and walks through each scene with a delicious twinkle in his eyes. The rest of the cast are all doing fine work, especially Whishaw and Harris, both relishing the opportunity to expand their characters, but our new Bond Girls don’t fare so well. Both Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux are great, but the material they have to work with is a step down from what we've come to expect. Fiennes, Andrew Scott and Rory Kinnear are also very good, but Waltz almost steals the film as Oberhausen. It was a given he would be a Bond Villain one day, but Waltz doesn't take this for granted, crafting a villain as genuinely threatening and intoxicating as Javier Bardem had in ‘Skyfall’.
‘Spectre’ ends up being an endlessly entertaining ride, full of twists and turns that help tie all the recent Bond films together.
If you walk into the 24th Bond film expecting to see something like the 23rd, then you will probably walk out disappointed. Where ‘Skyfall’ was emotional and razor-sharp, ‘Spectre’ is a bombastic rollercoaster - and for me at least, that was all for the better. This is a Bond film with a capital B, a piece of enormous entertainment executed with impeccable craft. It might not nail its final act, but what comes before it is far too much fun to ignore, and it finally begins to step this new Bond we've grown to love so much into the wider universe of Ian Fleming’s creation. When James Bond returns for his 25th mission, whether Craig is in the part or someone else, let’s hope it does so with as much panache as he does here.