The 24th James Bond picture represents the culmination of three filmmakers, five writers, multiple producers, a plethora of actors, and countless crew members over the course of eleven years. It’s the end of one story stretched across four movies, the first of its kind in a 50 year-old franchise that used to prize itself on a lack of continuity. “Spectre” is a multi-faceted achievement that would prove the brilliance of that so-called “long game” were it not for the seeping suspicion that it was all an accident.
Director number three Sam Mendes has rightfully been bestowed enormous credit for catapulting this character into the rarefied space of prestige blockbusters, but we mustn’t forget that he was preceded by Martin Campbell and Marc Forster, talents who laid the dirty work for this dirty world that our blonde Bond inhabits. We also mustn’t forget who preceded them, and that’s why, coming off of the subversive thrills of “Skyfall,” this latest installment embraces the tried-and-true, once-abandoned Bond formula of yesteryear, revamped and reinvigorated for 2015. Back are the archetypal Bond girls, here exemplified by Dr. Madeline Swann, a psychiatrist working at a remote medical enclave in the Austrian Alps, and Lucia Sciarra, the good-hearted widow of a wealthy terrorist. Lea Seydoux is exquisitely endearing as Swann, a woman who can handle a gun and stave off 007’s initial pursuits in equal measure. While their relationship appears rushed by the time she utters “I love you” during a climactic shootout, Swann is the first female character to make a grand impression since Eva Green’s iconic Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale.” Craig, for his part, continues to make you forget about the old spy’s misogynist tendencies. You’re charmed by him in spite of yourself, and it doesn’t hurt that the 47 year-old actor is still as rugged and as believable as ever commandeering a careening helicopter or a rickety boat, or holding his own in those crunchy hand-to-hand combat scenes.
Which reminds me…back are the archetypal Bond villains. The megalomaniac with his finger on the pulse of everything, controlling it all from an elegant lair in the desert. The silent but deadly, seemingly invincible henchman with a signature killing move. These would be cliches if they weren’t so scarce lately, at least in the world of Bond. Instead their appeal has been charmingly renewed, re-packaged with the eerie kindness of Christoph Waltz and the brutish charisma of Dave Bautista. Mr. Hinx and Franz Oberhauser are callbacks to an earlier era, new spins on time-tested characters whose menace is still very much palpable, regardless of their familiar attributes. Where “Spectre” falters, and only slightly, is in re-appropriating a familiar and very recent plot: in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, neo-Nazi regime Hydra attempts a worldwide shakedown under the guise of increased security in a chaotic world. Nearly identical happenings plague MI6, and at the same time the 007 program is threatened with extinction to boot, an effective subplot carried over from “Skyfall.” Obvious similarities aren’t completely damaging, but it doesn’t help that the all powerful organization here also brandishes the insignia of an octopus. Or is it a ghost, hence the name Spectre, and the foreboding quote “the dead are alive?” Animated squids in the opening credits confuse the equation.
There’s enough blistering action and character development to distract from such minor quibbles, like an impressive display of savage fisticuffs aboard a moving train, or an opening aerial feat above a Day of the Dead festival. When Bond flinches at Vesper’s name, or reveals the reason he went after one terrorist in Mexico City, unbeknownst to his superiors, it’s apparent the man is still hurting from these years of personal tragedy. “Spectre” may bring back a certain cinematic formula, a veritable ghost of Bond movies past, but it does so with gusto and bravura filmmaking choices, cementing the Daniel Craig era as the best stretch of Bond in Hollywood history.