After all those bitter tough journeys he went through, James Bond still has other things to brood over. While serving us with a number of spectacular action sequences as well as many of its familiar conventions including pretty ladies, fancy gadgets, exotic locations, and a sinister mastermind, “Spectre”, the 24th James Bond movie, keeps digging into what makes its hero tick, but it is more like a big footnote to what was already explored in “Skyfall” (2012), just like “Quantum of Solace” (2008) felt like a minor epilogue to “Casino Royale” (2006)
The story begins at the point not long after what happened to 007 and MI6 in “Skyfall”, and the opening sequence, shot in six different places but seamlessly stitched together on the whole, shows Bond in the middle of the Day of the Dead festival held in Mexico City. Once he spots a certain guy, Bond quickly follows after his target, and this eventually leads to a breathtaking moment featuring a helicopter running amok right above the festival crowd in panic.
This public incident causes a major headache for his boss M (Ralph Fiennes), who has been dealing with a political struggle not so different from what his predecessor went through in “Skyfall”. MI6 is recently merged with MI5, and Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), an ambitious bureaucrat who is going to be the head of Joint Intelligence Service, wants to shut down the ‘00’ section while promoting a new global surveillance intelligence network for UK and its major allies around the world.
Bond is suspended from field duty by M right after he returns to London, but we all know that will not deter 007 at all. The reason behind his rough time in Mexico City is a personal message left to him by the previous M before her death (Judi Dench briefly reprises her role), and, with some help from Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), he is determined to find out what exactly she wanted him to discover through her two simple but cryptic instructions.
It soon turns out that there is a powerful global criminal organization which has managed to keep its existence in secret for many years, and its name, which is the very title of the movie, will sound very familiar to you if you are a constant audience of Bond movies. In several early Bond films including “From Russia with Love” (1963) and “Thunderball” (1965), SPECTRE, the acronym of Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, was James Bond’s main evil opponent to defeat, and its mysterious leader accompanied with his Persian cat in “From Russia with Love” has been one of many iconic images in the James Bond series.
While it is now simply called Spectre instead of “SPECTRE” here, we get a dark, ominous moment reminiscent of that memorable SPECTRE meeting scene in “Thunderball” when Bond manages to sneak into Spectre’s secret night meeting held in Rome. As some of its high-ranking members are solemnly reporting on their recent lucrative criminal operations around the world one by one, others silently and rigorously pay attention to their meeting, and then we are introduced to a shady man appearing in the middle of the meeting.
He is none other than the leader of Spectre, and, this is not a spoiler at all, he is played by Christoph Waltz, who has always been a delight to watch since his Oscar-winning turn in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) but somehow looks less compelling here in this film. His character is just sour and vicious while solely defined by his long (and pretty petty) personal grudge against Bond, and Waltz does not seem to enjoy himself a lot even during that obligatory moment of Talking Villain Syndrome, which is incidentally unfolded at a big secret facility possibly influenced by the one shown in “You Can Only Live Twice” (1967). It is apparent that his character has an understandable motive when he willingly reveals the scope and details of his diabolical plan to his long-time arch-nemesis, but, sadly, Waltz is not allowed to be more gleeful or megalomaniac in spite of being surrounded by all those minions wearing black uniforms. As a brutal, imposing Spectre henchman, former WWE wrestler David Bautista is surely well-cast in his role, but I doubt whether his character, who utters only one single line as far as I can remember, will be remembered as well as Oddjob or Jaws.
In case of two beautiful ladies Bond comes across on his perilous quest, all I can say is that 1) Monica Bellucci is still sexy and graceful although she recently had her 51st birthday and 2) Léa Seydoux looks fabulous with a glassy clinic located right on the top of a snowy mountain in the Alps, which may remind you of that insidious facility in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). While she appears only in a couple of scenes, Bellucci holds her own place with an exceptionally neat exit many of Bond’s girls did not get before, and Seydoux brings some feisty spirit into her role, though I began to miss her lethal operator in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011).
The screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth aims higher as Waltz’s character is revealed to be connected with Bond’s life more than expected a la “Scream 3” (2000), but it frequently trudges during the second act. It tries too hard as bringing the three previous Bond films into the plot as approaching to its climax part, and I merely observed its ‘surprises’ rather than enjoyed them.
Fortunately, the director Sam Mendes, who did an excellent job in “Skyfall”, keeps things rolling along with Bond. While they are not as impactful as the aforementioned opening sequence, the other action sequences are skillfully handled with enough thrill and excitement, and the various locations visited by Bond are gorgeously presented on the screen thank to the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. While the title song “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes is forgettable to say the least, Thomas Newman’s score is effective as occasionally playing Monty Norman’s famous theme with gusto.
And Daniel Craig is dependable as usual. In his first Bond film “Casino Royale”, Craig showed us surprisingly vulnerable human sides of his character amidst gritty physical actions, and that was the superb beginning of a major change the franchise has been going through during recent years. While “Quantum of Solace” was a bland disappointment, “Skyfall” let Craig show more feelings behind his character’s tough exterior, and its finale was one of a few genuinely poignant moments in the franchise. According to recent news articles, Craig seems to be not very sure about whether he will appear in another Bond film, but, considering what he has so far achieved in his four Bond films, it is probably a right time for him to make an exit and move onto other interesting things to do.
Although it is not as good as “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall”, “Spectre” is not as lackluster as “Quantum of Solace”, and it does as much as it can do with its problematic story. Seriously, I have no idea on how long the James Bond series will go on, but James Bond will surely return as promised at the very end of the end credits, and we will probably be entertained again by his next adventure.