Bond is back. Director Sam Mendes raised the bar for the Bond franchise with 2012’s Skyfall, so expectations are naturally high for Spectre.
But though Bond’s 24th outing delivers handsomely in terms of action set pieces, performances and crowd-pleasing moments, it’s let down by a weird mix of tone, a lack of plot and poorly defined characters.
The plot picks up shortly after the events of Skyfall, with Bond tracking down a man named Sciarra on the posthumous instructions of M (Judi Dench) via a recorded message. After a spectacular helicopter battle above the streets of Mexico, Bond finds a clue which takes him to yet another glamorous location, where he stumbles into a meeting of a secret society named ‘Spectre’, headed by a man thought to be dead, the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
For reasons that aren’t enormously clear, Bond also tracks down old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen) in a snowy hideaway, and learns that Spectre have been pulling the strings behind all three of his previous adventures. Vowing to protect White’s daughter (Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann), Bond sets out to kill Oberhauser, but first he has to dodge the clutches of vicious henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista). Meanwhile, back in London, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) has his hands full with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who plans to abolish the 00-program and replace it with a global surveillance system named Nine Eyes.
Mendes sets out his stall early with a terrific opening sequence that begins with a lengthy single take, set during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. The subsequent helicopter battle is the first of several thrilling set-pieces, and in terms of pure action alone, Bond delivers handsomely, with an exciting train-based punch-up, a spectacular stunt involving a plane and a gripping car chase through the streets of Rome.
Where Spectre stumbles is in tone, with the film attempting to mix some of the comedy and lightness of touch of pre-Craig Bond movies with the darker, grittier atmosphere that’s characterised the last three films. It’s clear that the filmmakers were going for a sort of ‘Best of Bond’ approach, gleefully riffing on several famous Bond moments (an underground lair here, a parachute there, the usual array of cars and gadgets), but it rather backfires, and the general plot suffers in the process.
Skyfall was always going to be a hard act to follow, and so it proves, with the script lacking the emotional impact of the previous outing. The performances, however, are mostly excellent – Craig is on fine form, Waltz makes a suitably evil villain, Fiennes is a solid M, Whishaw almost steals the film as Q – but there’s a glaring lack of chemistry between Seydoux and Craig, which isn’t helped by her poorly defined, underwritten character. She’s no Vesper Lynd, let’s put it that way, something even the film seems to ruefully acknowledge, judging by the amount of times Vesper is referenced throughout.
There is, to be fair, an enormous amount to enjoy here, right down to the opening credits, which appear to feature a sexy octopus, gyrating away to Sam Smith’s theme tune. However, in being too keen to revisit Bond films of the past, it’s actually ended up looking rather derivative, rather than capitalising on the opportunities of Skyfall. So, a good Bond, but not a great Bond.
Spectre is released in UK cinemas on Monday, October 26