What did you expect, an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore” quipped Ben Whishaw’s Q in Skyfall, director Sam Mendes’ last Bond outing. Spectre (his second, Craig’s fourth and the 24th overall) continues on that back-to-basics, playfully camp, slightly meta line, but does so with a tremendous sense of elegance and brawn – and with a remarkably urgent overarching narrative too. It also offers fleshed-out roles for some of Mendes’ new recruits while cementing Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema as one of the heavyweights in the business.
His opening shot sets the bravado tone with a stunning, impossibly choreographed long take through the Mexico City streets during Día de Muertos that seems to quote Sukurov’s Russian Ark, and perhaps Soy Cuba too (there’s even a wink to Salvador Dali’s dream sequence from Spellbound during Sam Smith’s forgettable opening tune).
James, we learn, has come to the Mexican capital – on a trail left posthumously by M – to hunt down a man who will, in turn, lead him closer to Spectre, a criminal Illuminati who plan to hijack a planned multinational information based security system (a refreshing reference to contemporary fears, even if it does grant MI6 a little too much moral leeway). The film plays out as two parallel narratives with Bond roaming the planet for Spectre’s enigmatic leader (a destiny-fulfilling Christoph Waltz) while, back in London, MI6’s new M (Fiennes) attempts to justify the value of the double-O program as a new Joint Security Service – merging MI5 and MI6 – opens its new shiny HQ. The bombed-out bricks of the British Secret Service are left looking a little old fashioned indeed.
Bond’s hunt leads him to Rome, Tangiers and the Austrian Alps, picking up the age-appropriate Monica Bellucci and (not so much) Léa Seydoux along the way. Relationships are fleshed out with M and a welcome friendship blossoms between Craig and Q. Each locale comes with its own enormous action set piece and, at 150 minutes, that might be one too many, but it does seem in keeping with the sheer enormity of this thing. It is a vast, stylish, panoramic blockbuster, and a perfect match for the architectural eye of its DP. Taking the reins from the outgoing Roger Deakins, Hoytema captures the scale and physicality of Spectre’s most outlandish scenes, from a claustrophobic brawl with Dave Bautista on a moving train to a vertigo-inducing barrel-rolling helicopter ride in Mexico City to a breakneck DB-10 car chase down Rome’s Tiber.
Combined with Thomas Newman’s pulsating score, it delivers a tremendous sense of momentum to the film, a sense of all-roads-lead-here for Craig and Mendes’ incarnation, and perhaps an end to their particular cycle too. And what a shame that would be; this is Bond at its most confident, firing on all cylinders.
Spectre | Directed by Sam Mendes (UK, USA 2015) with Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux. Opens in NYC November 6