Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott, Dave Bautista, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Jesper Christensen, Ben Wishaw
Director: Sam Mendes
Rating: 4 stars
The world's most beloved fictitious secret agent is back with a bang. With SPECTRE — the 24th instalment in the 53-year-old James Bond franchise — second-time director Sam Mendes seems to have found the right balance between the much clamoured-for “Classic Bond Formula” and the brooding, dark and gritty undertone that marked most of Daniel Craig’s three previous entries as Bond. There are gags and gadgets aplenty for the old Bond faithful while fans of the Craig-era reboot have plenty to savour as well. A return to classic Bond is evident right at the start when the signature gun-barrel opening (missing from the last three films) glides onto the screen to the blaring accompaniment of the iconic James Bond theme.
The film begins with a stunningly-crafted continuous shot over “Day of the Dead” revelry in Mexico City where Bond is tracking down an assassin, Marco Sciarra. Bond foils a deadly plot, bringing down several buildings and causing all-round mayhem in the process. All this, however, is mere prelude to an eye-popping sequence in a helicopter which does several barrel rolls while Bond battles both Sciarra and the pilot. A frenetic few minutes later, Bond coaxes the helicopter from a fatal nosedive into a perfectly-timed lift-off, skimming the crowd and back over the Mexican skyline.
SPECTRE should be well-known to Bond aficionados as the infamous terrorist organisation named “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”. After an absence of almost three decades, it makes a triumphant return to the series. The film continues the predominant theme of Craig’s previous outing, Skyfall — is there a need for field agents in an age of digital espionage? As Bond is upbraided by spymaster M (Ralph Fiennes) for his unsanctioned trip to Mexico, we learn that MI6 has been merged with MI5 to form the Joint Intelligence services under the stewardship of Max Denbigh (Sherlock's Andrew Scott), the “perfect Whitehall mandarin” who also happens to be chums with the British Home Secretary.
The slick, ambivalent Denbigh (promptly dubbed 'C' by a delightfully tongue-in-cheek Bond) is championing the cause of the use of drones to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance. Denbigh questions the relevance of the Double-O programme and in an ironic twist, Fiennes' M defends the programme. In Skyfall, it was Fiennes’ character — then simply known as Gareth Mallory — who wanted to do away with the Double-O section. At one point in SPECTRE, Denbigh, with a suspicious glint in his eye, coos excitedly about the possibilities of round-the-clock surveillance, prompting a wry M to call it “George Orwell’s worst nightmare”.
The crux of the film, however, lies in a blast from Bond’s past. His disastrous Mexico mission was the result of a cryptic video message left by his beloved former boss, also known as M (played by Dame Judi Dench). The mission sets him on collision course with Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the sinister head of SPECTRE who also happens to have ties with Bond’s unhappy childhood. The story takes us to several exotic locales before culminating in an explosive two-part finale, first in Africa and then in London. After more than nine years in the saddle, Craig has made the role his own and is arguably the best actor to play James Bond. Ever. He has swagger, style and impish charm and times his one-liners to perfection.
Waltz is delightful in his role as the main baddie although even he cannot avoid the formulaic Bond villain mistake, i.e., spilling his entire dastardly scheme for world dominance the moment the secret agent is in his clutches. Waltz, who got his break with a scene-stealing turn as Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, doesn’t quite replicate Landa’s sinister charm here, often descending into campiness, but the two-time Oscar-winner somehow makes it stick. Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) is on henchman duty here in the form of Hinx, a hulking, debonair brute who has a lot in common with another iconic henchman from the series, Goldfinger’s Oddjob.
SPECTRE is chock-full of references to previous Bond films — most notably Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live And Let Die, GoldenEye and all three Craig films. This film can be viewed as a direct sequel to Skyfall. It is also the spiritual sequel to Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as it effectively wraps up the story arc that began in the former. Lea Seydoux (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) plays Bond girl Dr Madeleine Swann, who is related to one of James Bond’s former adversaries. Dr Swann is a hauntingly beautiful, brooding young woman and Seydoux manages to pull it off for the most part. She falters when the situation calls for a light touch but otherwise, delivers a strong performance in one of the more substantial roles written for a female lead in a Bond film.
Monica Bellucci plays Sciarra's grieving widow Lucia In an all-too-brief appearance. Apart from Fiennes’ M, the supporting cast includes M’s secretary Eve Moneypenny, played by Naomie Harris and gadget-master Q, reprised by Ben Wishaw. SPECTRE is the first film in the series in which all three Bond canon staples have such juicy roles. Suffice it to say, any doubts over the 'field' credentials of the trio are put to rest here.
Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema had massive shoes to fill after stellar work by Roger Deakins in Skyfall which earned the latter an Oscar nomination. And van Hoytema meets the challenge head-on with some of the most gorgeous camerawork seen in a Bond film. SPECTRE is the best of both the Craig era and the pre-Craig era Bonds. The quips are, on occasion, mistimed but on the whole, the film manages to avoid the campiness that had plagued all of Roger Moore’s, and most of Pierce Brosnan’s films. While not perfect, SPECTRE on the whole is better than the sum of its parts and is a marvellous addition to the franchise. If, as rumoured, this indeed proves to be Daniel Craig’s swansong, he could not have asked for a better farewell.
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