Spectre review: James Bond back on form, but...

Tension between innovation and tradition ultimately pulls latest 007 episode to pieces

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Director: Sam Mendes
Cert: 12A
Genre: Action
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris
Running Time: 0 hr 0 mins

Since it was announced that Léa Seydoux was to play a character named Madeleine Swann in the 24th Bond film something has been nagging at this writer's feeble brain.

Madeleine? Swann? Aha! Even if the apparent dual references to Proust's À la recherche du temps Perdu – the famous cake in the opening paragraph followed by the title character of the first volume – are not intended, we still find ourselves pondering routes into reminiscence of youth.

Sam Mendes and his team have done a decent job of reinvigorating the ancient franchise, but nothing in this propulsive, if criminally overlong, thriller packs anything like the punch delivered by the most familiar refrains. 007 swivels and fires down his own gun barrel. The same agent drives an Aston Martin to the strains of Monty Norman's Bond theme. It's like being reintroduced to an Uncle who died in 1978.

The core of the film is, to be fair, a story that looks to have been “ripped from the headlines”: the threat of excessive government surveillance in an age of increasingly centralised intelligence. But it takes a while to get there.


Mendes begins with an enormously long, wildly showy, undeniably impressive take that seems designed to confirm that we are in the presence of a grown-up film-maker. It is Mexico during the Day of the Dead.

Bond, still in the blue-collar form of Daniel Craig, makes his way through the streets with a young woman – "Yes, he's with a lady," Alan Partridge would confirm – and up to a hotel room where, after muffled apologies, he abandons his date and steps out the window on his way to an assassination.

It's a ripping opening only let down by the nagging knowledge that, once it's over, we must endure that ghastly song by Sam Smith. (The nude ladies who, while apparently on fire, dance erotically around a sympathetically topless Daniel Craig during the title sequence seem to have wondered in from the Roger Moore era.)

Bond was not acting on orders and Ralph Fiennes’s M is angrier than Principal Skinner on April Fool’s Day.

Our hero receives yet another carpeting and is, once more, instructed to stand down from his duties for a spell. Yes, like that’s going to happen.

Bond is soon knocking up the frequent-flyer miles as he travels to Rome (where he has an age-appropriate fling with Monica Bellucci’s mysterious widow), some snowy mountain (where he rescues the distressed Dr Swann) and an uncharacteristically rickety hotel room in Tangiers (where he talks drunkenly to a mouse).

Eventually, Bond is confronted with this year's nasty foreign hoodlum: Cristoph Waltz as the calculating, disappointingly low-key Franz Oberhauser.

Elsewhere, our own Andrew Scott – terrifically oily, if less clean-shaven than the average British civil servant – plays a mandarin who plans to abolish the "00" section and turn the secret service into a vast listening station. Who is really behind the scheme? Might it be the sinister SPECTRE organisation?

The hysterically positive British response to Spectre kicks up comparisons with that nation's attitude to the Royal Family. The House of Windsor and the House of Bond may be outdated relics of an imperialist past, but the current incumbents are doing such a bloody fine job that it's hard to resent either.

When set beside Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan, the rough-edged Craig seems, however, more like an informal bicycling Royal from Scandinavia.

This is not to suggest the film itself is anything other than lavish. Hoyte van Hoytema (who shot the very different espionage classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) films the Italian sequences with a shadowy indulgence that recalls Vittorio Storaro's work on The Conformist.

When Seydoux – convincingly angry throughout – joins Bond by a dusty railway track in North Africa, their exquisite clothes suggest travelling murderers in a Patricia Highsmith adaptation.

Like the Royal Family, however, Bond works best when it is indulging in familiar rituals: trooping of the colour, brilliant car chases, weddings between cousins, dubious sex scenes.

The series has gone on so long that one is often unsure if apparent references are deliberate or the result of coincidence. Bond aficionados will savour a sight of the word “Hildebrand” (ask one, if that doesn’t ring a bell).

But we don't know if the excellent fight on a train is a nod towards From Rus sia With Love. After 50 years, 007 has, after all, surely punched somebody on every imaginable mode of transport.

That tension between innovation and tradition ultimately pulls Spectre to pieces.

Anybody approaching the film as a Bond virgin will be baffled by the weird shifts in tone and awkward reveals that only make sense if you understand the intended allusion. None of which matters. Virtually everybody who enjoyed Bond as a child will want to embrace the Proustian rush. Sam Mendes went to Cambridge, you know.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist