Warning: This review contains minor spoilers, so if you haven't already done so, you may prefer to watch Spectre before reading on.
When the title and principal cast of Spectre were announced back in December last year, the question on everyone's mind was how would director Sam Mendes top Skyfall. For me, this was not an idle question. The Bond films have a tendency to ratchet up the thrills and spills which each subsequent film to a level of ridiculousness that eventually requires the series to go back to basics. After the massive Skyfall, would Spectre be Daniel Craig's Moonraker or his For Your Eyes Only?
I needn't have worried. In Spectre, Sam Mendes has pulled off the trick of delivering a film that is at least the equal of Skyfall in action, stunts, terrifying villains, yet retaining focus on narrative and characters. The events are as incredible as anything in a Bond film, but we care about what happens to Bond, his colleagues, his loves, and even his enemies.
From its first moments (do not take your eyes off the screen in that first minute or so or you won't fully appreciate what is a superb piece of cinema) in Mexico's Day of the Dead festival, to its near-denouement in the desert of north Africa, Spectre is mesmerising. Considering its long running time, Spectre doesn't drag, although it has its fair share of quieter moments.
Spectre see Bond attempt to get to the bottom, or rather the top, of a mysterious organisation (SPECTRE, naturally). His efforts are unauthorised, and severely test the patience of M, although M has other matters to worry about: a merger of MI6 and MI5 pushed through by a cocky intelligence chief, Max Denbigh. Bond follows a globetrotting trail, on the way meeting Mafia wife Lucia Sciarra, indestructible henchman Mr Hinx, psychologist Dr Madeleine Swann, and head of SPECTRE, Franz Oberhauser, whose connection with Bond we learn is personal, as well as professional.
Traditional Bond is back with a vengeance. Bond does what he does best, powering through any obstacle, human or otherwise, to get to the truth, using any vehicle, object or person he can lay his hands on, all the while delivering the best one-liners since the days of Roger Moore. Nevertheless, reflecting current concerns about technology, the level of surveillance in society, the control of information, and, as heard around the SPECTRE meeting room, people trafficking, Spectre is by no means old-fashioned or nostalgic.
Part of the fun of watching a Bond film is spotting the nods and references to previous films and Ian Fleming's stories. And Spectre is filled with them. The novel of Thunderball has inspired much of the organisational set-up of SPECTRE, while the short story of 'Octopussy' is alluded to in a scene that sees the return of Mr White and, more fundamentally, in the character of Oberhauser. Bond's now famous white jacket is taken from Goldfinger, while a scene featuring Q and a cable car is redolent of Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only.
The Hoffler Klinik in the Austrian mountains brings to mind Piz Gloria, but I wonder too if there isn't a reference here to Ian Fleming's early experiences in Austria when he was sent to the Forbes Dennises at their villa in Kitzbühl to further his education. One of the subjects he studied was psychoanalysis, the very discipline that Dr Swann practises. Bond's close encounter with a health drink may also hark back to Shrublands.
Then there's the film of You Only Live Twice. To list the references would be to give too much away, but the allusions are clever and thrilling.
No film is perfect, and Spectre does have its faults. The film doesn't stay in one country for very long, giving us little time to settle down and enjoy the sights. Bond doesn't even have time to get his skis out in Austria. Perhaps the film has one ending too many, and the villain, like Silva before him, is implausibly omniscient.
But these are minor points. Spectre is, well, SPECTacular, and looks sumptuous as well. (If cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema isn't rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, there's no justice.) I have just two requests for EON when starting on the next Bond film. Can we have a story that isn't personal for Bond? And can we have Bond go through the adventure without going rogue?