Solidly entertaining but narratively uninspired 24th instalment in the Bond franchise
It's a miracle that the Bond franchise continues to not only endure but thrive in an age that seems an ill-fit for its brand of taciturn masculinity, relentless formalwear and disposable glamour-gals. Not only that, but by the end of 2012's widely lauded Skyfall – with its Best British Film BAFTA and billion-dollar box-office – things had reverted back to an even earlier template, when Ralph Fiennes succeeded Judi Dench as M and Naomie Harris' Moneypenny swapped the field for a desk. However, with the boldly feminist Mad Max: Fury Road ripping the modern actioner a new one, could time be running out for Mr Bond?
Immediately casting such doubts aside, Spectre opens with a bit of cinematic swagger as a bravura tracking shot takes us into Mexico City's Day of the Dead. The camera picks out a masked, costumed Bond (Daniel Craig of course) and his companion and follows them up to their hotel room, before James hops out for a quick assassination. He's there to kill a Mafia kingpin on the orders of an old friend. Shortly after the funeral in Rome he makes a move on the man's widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), who's all too obliging, which leads him to his first brush with the global crime syndicate of the title. Meanwhile, back at HQ, a security services merger has put reckless moderniser C (Andrew Scott) at the top of the tree, with the '00' programme and M himself under threat.
Returning director Sam Mendes has promised a more proactive Bond, and that's certainly what he delivers. The super-spy seems to have got his mojo back after the traumatic events of the previous film; Craig has the role down pat, and there's a terrific sense of urgency as he once again goes rogue. Moreover, the frequent, well-executed action seldom fails to excite, with Bond's train-based fist-fight with Dave Bautista's humongous henchman a bruising and invigorating highlight.
The comedy is sparing and well-judged and, taking a lead from Craig's dry delivery and furrowed brow, the film predominantly resists playfulness – save for some tentative, pretty adorable attempts at humour from Ben Whishaw's Q, who also devises some fun gadgets. Christoph Waltz is the big bad Franz Oberhauser and his emergence from the shadows is nicely handled, yet his performance feels overly familiar and lacks that delicious menace that Javier Bardem brought to Skyfall.
But where Spectre really falls down is in its fidgety, thin and uninspired narrative. The cursory characterisation torpedoes Bond's romance with Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, rendering pivotal scenes unconvincing. It weathers its epic runtime very well but, in its haste to get to the next fabulous location, it whips through scenes and is filled with clichéd dialogue and logical leaps. Most disappointingly, it has a predictable trajectory, with its twists signposted by the title and some unimaginative casting.
Ignoring the desperately disappointing Quantum of Solace, the Craig-era Bond films have delivered impactful deaths and emotional depth but, by looking to the past for inspiration, Spectre has taken a step back. All too eager to please, it fails to cultivate credibility or anything resembling individuality, meaning it's easy to enjoy but hard to care about. As the film ticks every franchise box going, we're left to speculate what a Bond liberated from tradition and the weight of expectation might look like.
General release from Mon 26 Oct.