By now it must be clear to even the most casual filmgoer that the last four James Bond movies are closely interlinked, somewhat like a long running saga. There are recurring characters –Mr. White, who made his appearance at the end of Casino Royale being one of them – and connections, such as the mysterious crime syndicate that goes by many names.
In the latest, Spectre, Sam Mendes not only continues from where he left off in Skyfall but also references Bond films of yore, going back to Diamonds Are Forever and so many others. Since more cannot be said without spoilers, suffice it to say that a true Bond fan (one who has seen all the films, and repeatedly) will recognise so much from the past.
Take the very name of the film, for instance. SPECTRE was first mentioned in Thunderball (1961) and then Dr No (1962) and its super villain, Ernst Stavtros Blofeld, fond of stroking his white cat, became a legend of sorts. SPECTRE, which stands for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism Revenge and Extortion, was a multinational crime syndicate whose objective was global domination; it is a tribute to Fleming’s prescience that such an outfit still sounds relevant.
For some years, SPECTRE disappeared from Bond films – while Roger Moore was battling Scaramanga or Hugo Drax, the Brosnan outings had villains like media tycoon Elliot Carver or the renegade British agent Alec Trevelyan. The overarching criminal corporation had vanished; in its place had come the lone operator.
The new film begins from where Skyfall ended—the destruction of MI6 headquarters, the death of M (Judi Dench), and the first hints of Bond’s traumatic childhood. His past comes back to haunt him, bringing with it some well kept secrets and memories best forgotten.
Mendes handles his task with flair and the scenes in foreign lands – the car chase in Rome and the breathtaking helicopter stunts above a Mexico street festival – are all what a Bond lover would want. So far so good.
The story builds up rapidly in the first hour or so, giving us a tantalising glimpse into the shady organisation but also a parallel (and connected) track of bureaucratic wars in London, where a new secret service is being shaped, that will co-ordinate with other countries and monitor every human being on the planet. This is a nod to the post-Snowden world and it is intriguing to see that the new M, rather than batting for more powers, comes down on the side of democracy.
After this, the film becomes a series of set pieces – the train fight (fantastic), the villain’s lair in the middle of the desert, complete with henchmen and champagne (a hark back to countless Connery and Moore films) and a smooth if campy villain who tries – literally — to enter Bond’s brain and change his thoughts.
Naturally a gadget supplied by Q and Bond’s female partner, Dr Madeline Swann (shades of Proust) save him and the criminal headquarters is blown up. But, as we all know, it is not yet over.
Like many a Bond film, Spectre is stylish, and Craig manages to combine interiority with violence, but its biggest problem is its length and the gradual flagging of the plot. Skyfall was a terrific comeback after the disaster that was Quantum of Solace; here Mendes is on form where the look is concerned but stretches it too far.
Hardcore Bond fans will have a good time recalling an earlier time of somewhat comic villains who are all politeness while they are planning the cruelest methods to torture the agent. Le Chiffre and Raoul Silva, the two other villains that Bond fought in Casino Royale and Skyfall were far more credible.
The much-hyped cameo by Monica Bellucci comes and goes, further hampered by the scissor wielding Indian censors but Lea Sedoux is a worthy, kickass Bond girl.
Bond fans will see it, as they should, but not many will want to include it in the top 3 or even 5. Which is a pity, because the film has a poetic quality about it in parts; it’s the sum that does not add up.