There has been much whining in the run-up to the release of this latest Bond outing – from the strangulated cry of Sam Smith’s wailing theme tune (and the reaction it provoked) to the sound of leading man Daniel Craig complaining that he would rather slash his wrists than play 007 again. After the high-water mark of Skyfall (my joint-favourite Bond movie with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), there was a very real fear that director Sam Mendes’s second 007 adventure may go the misbegotten way of Quantum of Solace. Terrific to report, then, that while Spectre may not be the equal of its immediate predecessor, it’s still bang on target in delivering what an audience wants from this seemingly indestructible franchise: globetrotting locations (London, Rome, Tangier), spectacular stunts, impossible intrigue, inconceivable costume changes, laugh-out-loud zingers (most of them delivered by Ben Whishaw’s scene-stealing Q) and a plot that is at once utterly preposterous yet oddly apposite in its skewering of surveillance technology as inherently sinister and infinitely corruptible.
We open with a lavish Touch of Evil-style tracking shot that leads us through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade (shades of Live and Let Die’s voodoo festivities), into a hotel lobby, up in a lift, out of a window and on to the rooftops before finally cutting as a gun sights its target. It’s a sinewy curtain-raiser to a bravura prologue involving scenic vistas, collapsing buildings and loop-de-looping helicopters, climaxing in an oily credit sequence replete with writhing tentacles that seem to have escaped from Andrzej Zulawski’s demon-lover oddity, Possession.
All this weirdness comes crashing back down to earth in London where MI6 is being forcibly merged into a New World Order of global snooping, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s superbly unlovable Max Denbigh, aka “C” (raucous pun intended). Ralph Fiennes’s M is sidelined and Bond is out on his ear, until a voice from the grave sends him to Rome in a stolen DB10 for a very Roger Moore showdown with Monica Bellucci – the movie’s one dinosaur misstep. But it’s not until the introduction of Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann that the plot really starts to tick, Bond meeting his match in a woman who can strip a handgun and order “a vodka martini, dirty” while he’s brushed off with a protein shake. Seydoux is the film’s secret weapon, bringing emotional heft to the pantomime elements, a winning mixture of strength and sultriness.
Together, James and Madeleine square up to Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser, a nominal relative of a character from Fleming’s short story Octopussy, who’s introduced in shadowy silhouette like a diminutive version of Brando in The Godfather, whispering menacing nothings in his disposable henchmen’s ears. Oberhauser is the enigma at the heart of Spectre (the organisational name finally freed from copyright issues), threateningly sockless as he purrs: “I am the author of all your pain”, a phrase that encapsulates the strange blend of murky backstory and origin myth tied up in the severally authored screenplay.
With his European vowels and playfully threatening manner, Waltz is an old-school Bond villain, one of many throwback elements that make Spectre such fun. There is a knowing touch of Austin Powers about a sequence in which Oberhauser explains the plot to his nemesis before attempting to neutralise him with a byzantine array of robotic drills and ineffectual restraining straps.
Elsewhere, a drifty night-time car chase through the streets of Rome evokes memories of a much-loved child’s toy equipped with springy surprises and clip-on flames, while Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx is essentially a latterday Jaws who gets to batter Bond on a train in a sequence that nods not only to The Spy Who Loved Me but also From Russia With Love. Yet there’s also something very modern about these throwback tics. Christopher Nolan may have paid homage to OHMSS with the snowy-peak action of Inception, but when Bond visits Swann’s angular psycho-clinic – all glass lines and frozen vistas – you keep expecting him to ask: “Sorry, who’s dream are we in right now?” If Casino Royale saw Bond catching up with Bourne, then this sees Mendes tipping his hat to Nolan, with the support of Insterstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.
Add to this a button-pushing score that goes jaga-jaga-jaga when Bond turns a plane into a snowplough or plays dodgems with a helicopter, a fleeting visual gag about Butch and Sundance in Bolivia, and an impressively forceful showing from Naomie Harris as Moneypenny 2.0, and Spectre pretty much shoots to kill. I’ll be sad if this turns out to be Craig’s last hurrah (he’s been the best screen Bond to date), but if he walks away now he does so on a high note.