As a fan of the James Bond series of films, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that there is a distinct difference between which of them are good films and which of them are merely good Bond films. While they all have a unique feature to set them apart – “Oh, this is the one with the space battle” – only a handful of them are legitimately great movies, worthy of being put on lists as such. In 2012, Sam Mendes made what is arguably the best film in all of the Bond series, Skyfall, and it was a worry of mine that its follow-up, Spectre, might not be up to par. While it doesn’t touch its predecessor, I’m happy to say Spectre is another great film in the Bond canon.
Since the reboot of the series with Daniel Craig in the lead role, with 2006’s Casino Royale, there has been a concerted effort to place all of his films in a specific continuity. This is a rarity for the series, which for the previous 20 films only made passing mentions of past adventures, if that. Even when *spoilers for a nearly 50-year-old movie* Bond’s wife is killed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he seems to get over it very quickly in Diamonds Are Forever and visits her grave once, a decade later, in For Your Eyes Only, just to set up a silly action sequence.
In Spectre, the entirety of not only Bond’s history, or future-history, is presented, but all of Craig’s previous adventures are referenced and directly explained as well. A massive conspiracy is uncovered that has been orchestrated almost entirely to destroy Bond’s life. But why? Following what happened at Skyfall, Bond goes a bit rogue to clean up some loose ends, which puts him slightly at odds with M (Ralph Fiennes) who wants him to cool it because the new chief of security, C (Andrew Scott), wants to find any reason to shut the Double-O program down. But Bond can’t stop and brings Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) into his scheme for help. Bond soon discovers a shady organization which seems to be in control of all of the major terrorist activities happening, and sees a man he recognizes to be Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who Bond knows from his past. This in turn leads him to look up someone else from his past, and his daughter Dr. Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux). Monica Bellucci is also in the film in a nice extended cameo.
At the same time, the ideas of international security and automating a massive surveillance network are happening, which is very of-the-moment. Spies as Ian Fleming wrote about them are becoming passe, a relic of a time when you couldn’t just spy on everybody from thousands of miles away. There’s an argument made in the film to keep things more personal, but it seems much easier now for us to be watched by our own government and we pretty much have to be okay with it.
Enough of that thematic and topical nonsense; what about the action? Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema offer up distinct sequences shot in different locations across the world, which is exactly what you want from a James Bond movie. From the massive fight inside a helicopter in Mexico City in the movie’s opening scene to a brilliant high-speed car chase through the side streets of Rome to a brilliantly choreographed and highly brutal fistfight on a train between Bond and the massive Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), Spectre‘s got the action on lockdown.
All that really needed to then happen was for the plot to make sense. Bond movie plots are usually only held together with a thin strand of logic, and sometimes that strand gets destroyed pretty early on. Spectre, however, makes perfect sense as far as I’m concerned and doesn’t try to make things overly complicated so that it can spend its energies on character development and revelations. There’s no real surprises if you’ve been paying attention to the series, but it’s still a lot of fun when they arrive. This outing is also higher on the joke quota than the last film, but not distractingly so. Seydoux’s character is believably strong while also not really wanting to engage in action. She’s neither a damsel nor a victim; she mostly just wants to be left alone, and that’s particularly enjoyable given the series’ often damnable sexual politics.
Really, the only thing Spectre has against it is it follows Skyfall which was SO good and had the benefit of following what is easily Craig’s weakest film, Quantum of Solace. But this is top-form James Bond and, amid all the other spy movies coming out this year (specifically Kingsman and Mission Impossible 5), it’s good for 007 to reassert himself in such a firm and resounding way. Bond will be back, but Craig and Mendes might not. I hope they do, but if they don’t this is a pretty great way to go out.