You expect an armrest-grabbing opening action sequence from a Bond movie, but Spectre goes all out to thrill from the get-go. Director Sam Mendes and his team filmed on the ground at a recreation of the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, and the result is a wild chase through the teeming streets, climaxing with some of the most heart-in-throat helicopter stunts we’ve ever seen. Relying on solid, crunchy in-camera tricks rather than CGI slickness, it’s a stunning opening.
Sadly, that punishing pace can’t be maintained throughout. Not that we’re expecting wall-to-wall action—we love the talky bits, the scenic bits and of course the more risque bits in any Bond flick. But with an epic two-and-a-half-hour running time (this is the longest Bond movie ever) and a lot of rather-too-convoluted plot twists, the film struggles to hold your attention all the way to the end—which, when it comes, is a bit of a fizzer.
We’ve always adored Daniel Craig as Bond—he has a bruised, leathery, almost-vulnerable machismo that no previous actor has managed to capture. And he’s on pristine form here, shaking off the broody edge that haunted his previous outings in favor of a wry, knowing self-awareness. There’s real potential for Bond to be an empty suit—a faceless, quipping assassin, invincible and uninteresting. But Craig offers so much more—here’s a guy you might want to have a conversation with. The actor has suggested he’s ready to move on from Bond—but after this, we’re hoping he has a rethink.
One of the hallmarks of Craig’s tenure as Bond has been a desire to make things deeper, more emotional. The death of M in Skyfall wasn’t just a sad moment, it was a heartbreaking loss for Bond himself. A similar effort is made here to connect Bond on a personal level with the villainous Franz Oberhauser, played with fiendish, old-school smarm by Christoph Waltz. Sadly, it’s a ridiculous, unconvincing and totally unnecessary misstep, adding precisely nothing to the story except a sense of faint desperation on the part of the screenwriters.
Much has been made of the fact that 51-year-old Monica Bellucci has been cast as one of this season’s Bond girls—a term that gets more idiotic and offensive with each passing year. And she’s flawless in the role of a woman haunted by the past, and hunted by dark forces, looking to Bond for protection, information and maybe a little more. Finally, Craig meets a woman who actually looks like a match for him.
Sadly, Bellucci’s role in Spectre lasts all of five minutes before Bond is out the door and on the prowl. The central female role, psychiatrist Dr Madeleine Swann, is taken by French actress Léa Seydoux—who, before you ask, is 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. We love Seydoux—her performance in Blue is the Warmest Color is one for the ages—and she can hold her own in a fight. But, despite a strong start, her character is badly underwritten. When will it end?
One of the neat things about Skyfall was the way it reset the three key supporting roles in the Bond franchise. Q is now a young, foppish nerd played with effortless charm by Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes’s M is out of his depth but trying hard, and Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny is the only woman that appears capable of rebuffing Bond’s advances. The scenes they share in Spectre are a hoot—a wonderfully mismatched trio all working towards the same goal.
We got a rough idea of the central plot of Spectre—it has something to do with surveillance, with who controls the power to spy on others (there’s a lot of overlap with Marvel’s decidedly Bond-ish Captain America: The Winter Soldier). But so little is made of this intriguing concept—and there’s so much random messing around with laptops and ticking clocks—that we lost the thread of who was working with whom, and what anyone was trying to achieve.
That Mexico City opening is just the first in a string of action scenes: a car chase ripping through the streets of Rome, a vertiginous plunge down an Alpine mountainside and, best of all, a meaty dust-up on a train speeding through the North African night. Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema was a great choice here: the locations look awesomely grand and epic, and his snaking long-shots are riveting.