The Daniel Craig era of James Bond has given the franchise a darker, grittier, more world-weary secret agent for the twenty-first century, a man whose deadly force and personal losses have begun to weigh heavily on his conscience. Sure, he can still seduce most anyone into bed with him, but it seems as if he drinks his martinis (and any other alcohol he can find) less out of recreation and more as a means of soothing his pains. Because 2012's "Skyfall
" ended on a particularly downbeat note with the tragic loss of Bond's beloved boss M (Judi Dench), it was fair to assume the character's 24th adventure overall and the fourth starring Craig would follow tonal suit. While the stakes in "Spectre" have risen ever higher, returning director Sam Mendes and writers John Logan (2011's "Hugo
") and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (2008's "Quantum of Solace
") and Jez Butterworth (2015's "Black Mass
") have opted to bring a helping of much-needed escapist fun back into the series. It came at just the right time, a balance of globe-trotting action and drama with just enough of a wink to verify Bond hasn't lost his sense of humor.
In the aftermath of M's death, James Bond carries out one of her last unofficial orders, arriving in Mexico City to put a stop to an assassin's plot to blow up a stadium. Back in London, new MI6 head Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) takes him off-duty for carrying out an unsanctioned mission. With the fate of the '00' section of MI6 in jeopardy, Bond is determined to track down the shadowy terrorist organization that has been haunting his every footstep for the last several years. Vowing to protect a former adversary's daughter, psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), in exchange for vital information on the SPECTRE syndicate's whereabouts, Bond's journey will take him from Rome to the Austrian Alps to Tangier as he moves closer to a long-thought-dead figure from his past, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
"You're a kite dancing in a hurricane," a seriously ill Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) warns James when he presses him for details sure to take his search down some harrowing fresh avenues. Following 2008's disappointing, choppily edited "Quantum of Solace
" and 2012's highly acclaimed, slightly long-winded "Skyfall
," the 007 films reclaim the spirit and footing of 2006's "Casino Royale
"the first (and, arguably, best) of the post-Pierce Brosnan outingswith the malevolently titled "Spectre." Director Sam Mendes captures the exact feel and tempo he is striving for; he treats Bond and the heartaches of his past with a solemn dignity and thankful continuity, but he never drags the proceedings into suffocating, straight-faced morbidity. Above all, he is aware he is making a popcorn entertainment and, as such, recaptures the sensual spirit and jaunty, eager-to-please flair for which Ian Fleming's cinematic features have become known over the last six decades.
The film gets off to a spirited start with a characteristically dazzling prologue, this one involving an out-of-control helicopter hovering about a massive Día de Muertos celebration in Mexico City. The ensuing opening credits sequence, scored to Sam Smith's moody "Writing's on the Wall," boasts a stream of evocative imagery as it pays tribute to the characters Bond has lost while introducing a threatening, borderline sci-fi octopus motifthe emblem of the SPECTRE organization. Despite the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, the editing remains crisp, buzzing along at a compelling clip as Bond's investigation propels him forward. Later action set-pieces are impressively mounted in their own right, from a snowy Austrian chase scene between three automobiles and an aircraft, to another along Rome's Tiber River, to a knuckle-crunching fight aboard a moving train pitting Bond against Oberhauser's muscled henchman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). The multiple climaxesone set in Oberhauser's desert compound and another among the ruins of the soon-to-be-leveled MI6 headquarters previously bombed in "Skyfall
"boast a rousing, coherent showmanship.
Daniel Craig's (2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
") take on 007 has been gruffer and more insular than many of the actors who have gone before him. With all that has happened to him in the previous three pictures, the role was threatening to become a morose, one-note slog. Apparently, Craig agreed with this reading; his work in "Spectre" is noticeably more dynamic, the emotional layers he gives Bond balanced by a suave seductiveness and unforced twinkle in his eyes. Christoph Waltz (2014's "Horrible Bosses 2
") has demonstrated a keen ability to emanate the spitefulness of his characters without having to some much as raise his voice. This is precisely what he does with Franz Oberhauser, the SPECTRE puppet master whose identity and name change are about to transform him into one of the most iconic of all past Bond villains. As the headstrong Madeleine Swann, Léa Seydoux (2012's "Sister
") plays the most colorful, complicated "Bond girl" since Eva Green's Vesper Lynd in "Casino Royale
." Seydoux is so enticing in the part and she and Craig share such arresting chemistry one can only hope the actress will not be forgotten about when Bond returns in a few years' time. Also of note, Monica Bellucci (2010's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice
") makes a striking, expressive mark on her too-brief role as Lucia Sciarra, the endangered widow of an assassin Bond took down.
"It has always been methe author of all your pain," Oberhauser tells Bond, the diseased history between secret agent and megalomaniac lending "Spectre" a depth the franchise could never quite attain when it was all but entirely resetting itself with each new pre-Craig installment. By carrying on with the same storyline and not forgetting what has occurred since "Casino Royale
," Bond's journey means more and events have consequences lasting beyond the current entry's end credits. "Skyfall
" was so well-received critically and by the general public the pressure must have been tremendous for Sam Mendes to live up to his previous effort. From this writer's perspective, "Spectre" surpasses its predecessor. The action is more consistently threaded throughout the narrative, the tone is decidedly lighter without losing any potential pathos, the female participants are treated as more than window dressing, and Bond is given the chance to finally act like Bond again, albeit one who has been around the block a time or four. Delivering tautly designed thrills, handsome production values, and welcome shades of personality, "Spectre" is savvy commercial moviemaking with the right amount of edge to stand out from the crowd.