Spectre review: “a prestige picture on a huge scale, but one that overreaches itself”

Sam Mendes tries to put all the pieces of the James Bond jigsaw together, but will Daniel Craig return?

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★★★

The box-office-busting juggernaut that was Skyfall gave director Sam Mendes a licence to do pretty much anything he liked with the franchise. And with Spectre, he aims to go even bigger.

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The concept is a bold one: a story arc that ties up all the loose ends left dangling after Daniel Craig’s previous three missions. Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, Quantum’s Mr White from Quantum of Solace and Silva from Skyfall are all name-checked as being part of a wider criminal conspiracy. And then there’s the question of Bond’s past, specifically his lost orphan years.    

A cracking pre-credits sequence gets things under way, with Mendes introducing a skull-masked 007 with a showboating tracking shot through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festivities. He’s following a terrorist suspect, and a mid-air tussle in a helicopter over a packed crowd of revellers (an action highlight) leads to the discovery of a ring etched with an octopus insignia. The symbol is used by an organisation known as Spectre, whose meeting Bond gate-crashes as the trail takes him to Rome. But there, his cover is blown, and the realisation dawns that he has his own personal ties to the leader of this shadowy group.  

As Bond puts his life on the line in the field, a more thoughtful spy game unfolds in London, as Andrew Scott’s reforming bureaucrat tries to pull the plug on the whole 00 operation and push through a resolution to create a global surveillance network. While the actions of a rogue 007 may point to MI6’s demise, he might also be its only hope for survival.

The two stories criss-cross and eventually converge, which allows Ben Whishaw’s genial Q to leave his laptop occasionally and join 007 in the danger zone. The new M, grumpily played by Ralph Fiennes, also enjoys more of the action than his predecessors. It’s a shame that Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny is relegated to menial tasks, but at least she’s given a boyfriend – a series first. The easy banter between Bond and the MI6 home team is one of the great pleasures of the film, with Fiennes’s spymaster adding a touch of Spooks-style gravitas to proceedings. 

Daniel Craig also gamely throws himself into the action, doing everything that’s expected of him, and with his usual conviction. If this indeed is his last time out – as recent comments suggested – he will be greatly missed.

Léa Seydoux showed us her kick-ass skills in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and here makes for one of Craig’s more memorable leading women. As the daughter of the mysterious Mr White, she’s sultry, unpredictable and complex – and the fact that she doesn’t immediately fall into Bond’s arms makes us fall for her, too. Christoph Waltz smirks a little too much to be taken wholly seriously as the villainous Franz Oberhauser, but he is afforded a wonderfully sinister introduction, a man literally in the shadows.

The story may join the dots between the previous three films, but there’s no escaping its wholesale pilfering from much earlier films. Sam Smith’s wishy-washy theme song The Writing’s on the Wall is Thunderball suffering from a bad case of the bends. Dave Bautista’s silent, bear-like assassin is pure Jaws, right down to the Spy Who Loved Me punch-up on a train. And Bond’s watch (an Omega, product-placement fans) is a dead ringer for Roger Moore’s from Live and Let Die. And what about that vintage Rolls Royce? Goldfinger, of course. Christoph Waltz’s Nehru jacket? Dr No. There’s a curious pleasure to be had in playing this game of Bond Bingo, but the sheer volume of these in-jokes begins to seriously distract from the story.

And despite the rebooted franchise’s attempts to subvert audience expectation, Spectre does seem content to trot out the clichés. Bond’s capable female foil is reduced to damsel in distress status, the villain of the piece has a secret lair that is impeccably decorated yet improbably combustible, complete with an army of henchman wearing matching black uniforms, just so you know they’re the baddies. You do wonder if Sam Mendes has actually seen an Austin Powers movie.

But for all its flaws, overreaching ambition and excessive running time, this is a prestige picture on a huge scale. You get literally more bang for your buck than any other movie. You can feel the quality in the supercar chase through Rome, in the high-speed pursuit by boat down the Thames, and as Bond indulges in an alpine game of chicken, played out with a plane and a convoy of 4x4s.  

It’s almost casual how the film tosses out Bond’s pre-spy history and personal life (we knew hardly anything about him, pre-Skyfall; now we’re invited into his living room). And that’s something likely to irk 007 purists. However, a return to the tried-and-tested formula of outlandish thrills and reassuring – if recycled – Bondian peril will have the popcorn crowd eating it up.

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Spectre is released in cinemas on Monday 26 October