The James Bond of the post-9/11 attack era has always had his own mortality painfully in mind, hence the fast sports cars, femme fatales, and shaken-not-stirred brand of functional alcoholism—coping mechanisms for a lonely life marked by heartbreak and one memorably brutal Casino Royale ball-busting incident. In Spectre, 007’s 24th screen outing and the fourth to star Daniel Craig, he finds himself drowning in it. Death literally looms everywhere around 007 as the series finale finds the British spy surrounded by emblems of the departed on the Dia de los Muertos.
Director Sam Mendes opens Spectre on a virtuoso sequence shot in Mexico City with an onscreen warning portending, “The dead are alive.” A figure emerges from swarms of revelers dressed as skeletons, initiating one gloriously exciting unbroken shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. The man is an Italian killer named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), and he moves through the crowd with purpose, disguised behind a white skull. But unbeknownst to Sciarra, he’s being stalked by another masked spook—one clad exclusively in Tom Ford.
Spectre picks up after the events of Skyfall have decimated the MI6 ranks and sent its star agent searching the globe for answers. While on “holiday” in Mexico City, Bond picks up the scent of his next clue and inadvertently causes rampant destruction in front of thousands of witnesses, in the most conspicuous ways imaginable.
The Bond of Spectre has undergone an extreme emotional crisis since we first met him in 2006’s Casino Royale, then-freshly anointed a license to kill as a new agent of the double-O program. He’s since found and lost a great love, killed powerful nemeses, lost his mojo and his mother figure, and sacrificed his childhood home.
Now Bond is dogged as ever but more careless, waging hand-to-hand combat aboard a spinning helicopter in broad daylight as thousands of Dia de Los Muertos onlookers gasp in horror. He foils a plot to blow up a stadium in the process but reduces an entire building to rubble. He dispatches his target, but doesn’t know what that death will lead to.
Bond emerges victorious from Mexico City with a cool winking smile and beads of sweat on his brow—the kind of smirk meant for the audience’s eyes only. But back in London the incident has made headlines, and 007 has become the Axel Foley of MI6. The new M (Ralph Fiennes at his most British) berates him for making a mess, and then grounds him. (It’s only the tip of the iceberg of daddy issues in Spectre.)
M’s new boss, C, is using Bond’s destructiveness to push a new system of total data surveillance in the name of global security that would eradicate the double-O program altogether. Who needs bodies when you have drones? When a concerned Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) comes worrying after James, he reveals his secret mission: His true M(um), the one played by Dame Judi Dench, sent him a message from beyond the grave urging him to avenge her by following breadcrumbs to Italy in search of a sinister new enemy.
Meanwhile in the halls of government, M is losing the war to save MI6 from C, who is close to convincing an international cabal of world powers to pool their intelligence into one central database spurred on by a series of global terrorist attacks. The unsubtle script telegraphs the plot twists to come. Zooming over to Austria in jaunty winter couture, Bond encounters a figure from his past who sends him questing into the Alps, then to Morocco, and back to London, haunted along the way by the ghosts of those he’s lost and killed.
The ghosts of the franchise loom over Spectre, too. After the critical and commercial triumph that was Skyfall, the new entry arrives with big expectations to fill—and falls short of its predecessor, by a long shot. Its aim isn’t so much to take the four-film Craig-led franchise in new directions but to wrap it all up nicely with a bowtie, a retconned resolution with a retro streak that might satisfy Bond sentimentalists, but few others else.
But in tying the fourth and perhaps final entry back to the events of Casino Royale, screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth also inadvertently beg comparison to the great moments and characters of the last three films who are sadly missing from Spectre. In one scene the faces of every significant ally and antagonist Bond has encountered, from Vesper Lynd to Le Chiffre to Raoul Silva, are literally printed out and pasted on the walls.
Spectre does benefit from its disquieting new villain, the eccentric Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz)—an evil mastermind with a personal vendetta against Bond. Waltz’s Oberhauser is, like the best of the Bond baddies, touched with charismatic insanity. He’s a tablet-wielding visionary who owns both ridiculously evil torture machines and a fluffy white cat and seeks to trigger a new world order out of the chaos he creates—the Steve Jobs of SPECTRE.
Anyone well-versed in 007 lore will pick up on Spectre’s many unsubtle callbacks to the classic Bond franchise. The film trips over its desire to play to both old school Bond lovers and fans of today’s broodier blond Bond. For one, a shadowy company meeting of SPECTRE agents seated at a long wooden table is more reminiscent of a parallel scene in Austin Powers than the original it parodied from 1965’s Thunderball. Even Hinx, the brawny human wall of a bad guy played by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista, is a silent, silver-thumbed hybrid of Oddjob and Jaws.
As for the Bond women—don’t dare call them girls—Bond’s two Spectre conquests come across strong, even if both eventually succumb to his charms. Monica Bellucci’s turn as an icy Italian mafia widow is all-too brief, in the grand tradition of femme fatales who flit in and out of Bond’s life, bedded for intel and pleasure. Their tête-à-tête is fleeting but intriguing; as Craig put it recently, Bellucci is the rare Bond girl who’s his own age.
Not so for Madeleine Swann, although at 30 years old French actress Lea Seydoux makes for a compelling partner to Bond. The Blue Is the Warmest Color star prowls her scenes with a fierce, unusual beauty playing the doctor daughter of Bond’s old foe Mr. White. She rejects his white knight offer of protection, only to require his saving her anyway. Oh, well. He’s lucky to have her around, since she’s always asking him questions that prompt convenient plot exposition.
Their lightning-quick romance is as perplexing as the airplane he pulls out of thin air in the middle of a chase scene. Where does Bond find a plane in the middle of a snowy mountain set piece? Don’t worry. When, after dispatching a foe together on a speeding train, Madeleine asks, “What do we do now?” Mendes simply cuts to the interior of a train car before letting them get amorous in PG-13 privacy.
Quibbling over realism in a Bond movie is a fool’s errand. Just sit back and enjoy watching the puzzle pieces fit together to complete the saga that began in Casino Royale. In one stunningly-lensed scene, the camera glides through a palatial Roman mansion trailing Bellucci as she sashays through her house, drink in hand, shadowed by killers. It’s all filmed with the lush elegance of a luxury perfume ad. Elsewhere we get a rare moment of Bond in repose in his own modest flat, where even his downtime is awash in rich burnt sepia. Spectre is a retirement party. A last hurrah. One final ride off into the sunset for England’s beloved, bespoke spy.
Sam Smith foretells all of this in the film’s opening credits sequence—a moody Adele-esque ballad that doesn’t quite land with the dramatic diva depths of “Skyfall” but telegraphs Spectre’s central themes in grand Bond title sequence tradition. Silhouetted ladies caress Craig’s body with licks of flame as an ominous cephalopod of doom sensually writhes its arms around their naked bodies and loaded guns. SPECTRE is the Death Octopus twisting 007’s knickers. If you never imagined your mind would wander to tentacle porn while watching a James Bond movie, well, at least Spectre serves up something unexpected. “The writing’s on the wall,” Smith croons, channeling Bond’s agony. “Is this where I give it all up?”