It's out, and I have seen it. Here comes the bit where I share my thoughts. WARNING, if anyone hasn't seen this, then it's wise to not read past this point, because there will be SPOILERS.
Background: none of the drama that had surrounded the previous Daniel Craig Bond films was around this one. The franchise had a stability that hadn't been present since the days of Roger Moore and John Glenn, unfortunately that created a odd sort of inertia that led to some very lacklustre entries in the franchise.
Sam Mendes directed again, making him the first person since Glenn to direct two consecutive Bond films (Martin Campbell directed 2, but they were separated by 4 films). The majority of the regular cast members, Daniel Craig included, were all signed for reprisals of their roles in Skyfall.
This stability and the success of Skyfall had fans looking forward to this one with anticipation, rather than trepidation which had been the case with Quantum of Solace (could it live up to Casino Royale? Ultimately it failed) and even Skyfall (would it be another Quantum of Solace, how badly had the delays affected it, would the money issues experience between films affect the production?). There was optimism about Spectre and I think the very fact that a villainous organisation that the fans were familiar with in Spectre, also helped with that.
The move of having Neil Purvis and Robert Wade polish the script rather than write it entirely was also a good one. They've written scripts from The World is Not Enough to this one and they can occasionally miss the mark if they're given too much latitude as happened with Quantum of Solace and Die Another Day.
Story: this is a complicated one and delves deep into Bond's personal history. It struck me while watching this that, with the possible exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the audience has found out more about the character's background in these last 4 films than any of the preceding 20.
Bond follows a lead that M sent him from beyond the grave. This takes him to Mexico City where he causes an international incident acting alone. The resulting fall out with the Gareth Mallory, the new M, is not that far removed from the previous M's reaction to his African adventure at the start of Casino Royale.
A lot of M's concern is driven by Max Denbigh, a young political animal, who wants to bring all the world's secret services into line and control it all, thus doing away with the 00 program, which he sees as antiquated. Bond meets Denbigh and doesn't much like him, tagging him with the name C, one of the initials in the organisation he heads up.
Despite warnings from M to stay in the country and even having Q inject nannites into his bloodstream to keep track of him, Bond still pursues his personal mission, bringing Moneypenny into the team and Q, even stealing the prototype DB that Q had been tricking out for 009.
He winds up first in Rome, attending the funeral of the man he killed in Mexico City, he then meets his widow, Lucia Sciarra, saves her from assassination, seduces her and then using a ring with a curious octopus device gains entry into a secret meeting.
The meeting is one of Spectre's and when the head of the organisation attends, Bond realises he knows the man. Franz Oberhauser, who was supposed to have died in a climbing accident decades ago. He's also James Bond's foster brother, the son of the man who briefly fostered a young James, following the death of his parents. He knows James is there and he's not all that chuffed about it. This results in a fantastic car chase through Rome, with Bond in the specially equipped DB, being pursued by Mr Hinx, a muscled up henchman of Oberhauser's, who is physically capable of crushing a man's skull with his bare hands.
Bond totals the car, but does escape and heads to Austria, following the trail of his old sparring partner Mr White. White is dying, but wants to protect his daughter from Oberhauser, Bond tells him that if he gives him the information he needs, he'll allow him to go to his grave easy. White gives Bond the name the Americain, then shoots himself in the head.
Bond turns up at a health institution on a mountain side (shades of On Her Majesty's Secret Service there), and meets with Madeline Swann. She doesn't believe him or like him and arranges to have him thrown out. Q also turns up there and takes the ring from Bond for analysis, he's almost caught, but proves equal to the task of evasion.
Bond and Madeline find themselves running from Hinx and a squad of Spectre goons and with the use of an airplane, some skills and lots of explosions get away and head for a train to the middle east, where Madeline will take Bond to the American, which isn't a person, but a hotel.
Bond eventually finds White's secret room in the hotel, where he kept information about Spectre, Oberhauser and everything else, there's even a video of Vesper's interview when they brought her in to spy on Bond.
The two take a train across Africa to find an installation occupied by Oberhauser. Hinx turns up on the train and there's an awesome fight between he and Bond. It's very reminiscent of the battle between Bond and Grant in From Russia With Love and the one between he and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond manages to take Hinx out, but just like with Grant and Jaws he has to cheat to do it. Hinx would have actually given Jaws a run for his money physically.
Oberhauser sends a car to transport Bond and Madeline to his installation. It's a meteorite crater in the desert and I kept thinking of Blofeld's lair in You Only Live Twice. Sure enough, while torturing Bond, Oberhauser reveals that he uses the name Blofeld (from his mother's side of the family) now. Using an explosive watch from Q, Bond and Madeline escape and head back to London.
C, who was working for Blofeld, then takes measures to try and take everyone else out. Moneypenny and Q escape. M confronts C and kills him. Meanwhile Bond is taken and delivered to the old MI6 building, the one that got blown up in Skyfall. He follows leads and eventually finds himself facing a badly scarred Blofeld. He sets off an explosion timed to go in 3 minutes and leaves Bond to try and locate Madeline. He does this and rescues her, then shoots down Blofeld's helicopter and lets him be taken into custody.
Bond will return, but will Blofeld?
Casting: The casting of the director, the main character and the regularly recurring peripherals went so smoothly this time around, that there’s not a lot to say about it all, really.
Sam Mendes, once he’d heard what Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli intended to do this time around, signed up very quickly to direct again. No doubt his decision was influenced by the positive reaction to Skyfall. He did another sterling job. He uses his locations so well, and he had some good ones in this film: Mexico City, Rome, the Austrian alps, somewhere in the North African desert and London. Mendes makes the viewer feel like they’re actually there. He had developed a good relationship with his regular cast in the last film and got solid performances out of them. I think he, and they, lifted the bar this time, and they nailed it.
Bond: for once there wasn’t a whole lot of speculation over who was going to play the pivotal role. People accepted that it was Daniel Craig and just let him get on with it. The usual suspects for who could play the role in the future, or maybe even do it better currently, cropped up. Usually from the same sources who are never happy with the status quo, but no one played them a whole lot of attention. Craig was devastating as usual. He’s a suaver, more assured Bond than when he first stepped into the role with Casino Royale (maybe a bit too unruffled, veering into Roger Moore territory at times, although I do like the cuff shooting thing). Occasionally he’s a bit more Superman than James Bond. He shouldn’t have recovered from the fight with Hinx as quickly as he did and the same with the torturing from Blofeld. I know he’s a good shot, but bringing down the helicopter with one shot, come on. The actor has been fairly non comittal about whether he’ll saddle up again. Personally I think he’ll do one more and then hand the baton over. He’s not saying anything at present, but I think 5 is a nice number and a good legacy.
Peripherals: as flagged in Skyfall, Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory stepped into Judi Dench’s very large shoes and carried it off seamlessly. He’s clearly younger and therefore more spry than previous M’s, so he can get involved in the action a little more. At times, especially in the office scenes, he looked so much like a younger Bernard Lee that it was actually scary. Naomie Harris was his always present PA, Moneypenny. She, unlike previous incarnations, can also get involved in the action and is a useful tool for Bond when he needs information that he shouldn’t be able to access. She’s also delightfully snarky about her boss, the line about missing her birthday was priceless. Ben Whishaw’s Q is also a delight, again he’s younger than Desmond Llewellyn ever was in the role, so can do things like turn up in Austria and find himself in a spot of bother. His interactions with Craig’s Bond, though show that he’s an old man in a young body, and has the same combative relationship that Llewellyn’s Q shared with Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. Rory Kinnear plays Tanner the way the role was meant to be, he’s always there, you just don’t notice him a lot of the time.
The villain/s: securing the services of two time Oscar winner Christophe Waltz as Oberhauser/Blofeld, was a real coup for the franchise. The guy is such a professional and you can really believe him as the psychotic Blofeld. Although the backstory abouthim being James’ foster brother is a stretch, he made me buy into it and I didn’t have any issues seeing him as the hand holding the strings of Le Chiffre, Greene and Silva. He also took great delight in engineering Bond’s pain by killing Vesper and M, and now planning to take the very thing that defines the agent, his job and his country’s safety. He survived and acquired the facial scar that made Donald Pleasance's portrayal so effective (I always wondered why the next two incarnations of the character played by Telly Savalas and Charles Gray never had it), so hopefully he’ll return in the next film to plague Bond some more.
Mr Hinx: we never find out his first name and considering his demise we probably never will. Surprisingly given the rather cartoonish nature of many of the physical villians Bond faces, they haven’t often mined the world of professional wrestling for talent (Harold Sakata’s Oddjob is one exception), but this time they did and cast the imposing Dave Bautista (who wrestles under the name Batista) as Hinx. He doesn’t have to do a lot of acting, but he does do a lot of fighting, and that he’s very good at. I haven’t seen Bond thrown about like that since Jaws, and given Richard Kiel was over 7 feet tall that wasn’t surprising. Dave Bautista is 6’6” and weighs well over 250 pounds, most of it muscle. The fight was brilliantly choreographed and Craig’s stunt performer earned every one of his dollars. The only odd thing about the fight was that Bond survived long enough to vanquish Hinx.
Max Denbigh/C: I like Andrew Scott and I was pleased when I heard he’s be a villain in this. He was a little disappointing. I’d hoped he’d be more than just a Blofeld/Specre pawn and actually turn the tables the way his Moriarty does. He was suitably weaselly, though and it was nice to see him be thrown off the top floor of his own building and shatter on the stones below.
Mr White: hard to say if he’s really a villain this time. He was, but he’s so broken now, that he’s not anymore. I don’t think the audience felt sorry for him, but they probably weren’t threatened by him like they were previously.
The girls: I have two instead of the usual one this time. I’ll begin with Lucia Sciarra. The widow of the person Bond throws out a helicopter in the pre credit sequence. She was played by Monica Bellucci. The Italian actress is all class and even at the age of 50+ still one of the world’s most beautiful woman. A lot was made about casting her. The story emerged that she’d been considered for the role of Paris Carver in Never Dies before Teri Hatcher won the role. Something that upset Pierce Brosnan. He and Hatcher did not like each other and it showed in their lack of chemistry. I’m sure Monica Bellucci would have done a better job. There was speculation that her character was deeply involved with Spectre and rumours that she was Blofeld’s daughter or even Blofeld. The actress herself did a piece where she spoke about how unique it was to see Bond with a woman older than himself, because this had never been done before. She was wrong there Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore was older than Sean Connery in Goldfinger (although they never specified that Pussy was older than Bond, as they did with Lucia). However she seemed to be there just to meet and sleep with Bond and give him the Spectre ring. She played it with her usual class, but it was such a nothing role that they could have cast any number of attractive older women in that I felt a bit cheated and wondered why they bothered.
Lea Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, though. Now that was something. I must have seen here in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards, but didn’t recall her. She was amazing. Great chemistry with Craig, genuine acting chops, stunningly beautiful. I’m not sure it was intentional, but in the train wearing the silver dress she looked like a blonde Vesper. If anyone can survive the franchise’s supposed curse it will be Lea Seydoux, although I argue that there are a number of actresses that have already done that: the names Diana Rigg, Jane Seymour, Michelle Yeoh, Sophie Marceau, Halle Berry and Eva Green immediately spring to mind.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: it’s still too early to call this on Lea Seydoux. She’s done a couple of Hollywood films before and had a very solid background in French films. If this film doesn’t bring Hollywood knocking, then they’ve got rocks in their head. Future superstar for mine. The character doesn’t eclipse Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, but Lea Seydoux is a better actress than Eva Green, and she hasn’t been short of work since Casino Royale.
Gadgets: the car was nice. It had arms, although the ammunition wasn’t loaded. It had atmosphere, which was actually music, chosen to 009’s taste. Fire was useful, it nearly incinerated Hinx’s car. Air was the piece de resistance, though. It was an updated ejector seat. Attached a parachute to Bond, catapulted him out of the car and he landed safely a few streets away without a hair out of place. The exploding watch was a bit cliché, but it worked. Q must have confiscated the signature gun, or not supplied 007 with a replacement after he left the last one in Macao. The tracking blood probably also qualifies as a gadget of sorts.
Music: hard to say if they got the music right yet. I think they did. I’m not really a fan of Sam Smith, and I wouldn’t rush out to buy the title track or listen to it much, but it does suit the film. It’s case of a song being specifically supplied for the film. It will be a commercial hit, because it’s a good song, just not to my taste, but I doubt it will do what Adele’s theme for Skyfall did, either to the market or garner quite the same acclaim.
Pre credit sequence: there were reports that this was the most expensive pre credit sequence they’ve done, and I can see where the money went. Costumes, enormous amounts of extra, shutting down parts of Mexico City to film, stunts, they blew stuff up and helicopter flying like that doesn’t come cheap. I preferred the pre credits of Casino Royale and even Skyfall, but this one was very good and continued the franchise’s reputation for getting these right. It was key to the main story as well, because it was Bond carrying out the mission that Judi Dench’s M had tasked him with, and it led to Spectre and Blofeld. Interestingly the credits showed images and characters from Casino Royale and Skyfall, but nothing from Quantum of Solace and it was only fleetingly mentioned in the film. It’s one of those films the franchise would like to sweep under the carpet.
Overall: I liked it. I’ll need to see it again to make a real judgement, although at this stage I’m giving it a shaken not stirred. It’s very good, just not great. My opinion may change a little on subsequent viewings, although I doubt it. The ranking will probably stay. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this. The change of M’s, and the reintroduction of Moneypenny and Q (very different from previous versions of them), as well as the rumours about Blofeld, gave a bit of a wildcard feel to the film. It wasn’t a reboot, not the way Casino Royale was. It does however open up new directions for the story to go in. The franchise has been reluctant to remake films. The only instance is Thunderball being remade as Never Say Never Again, and the latter is not considered an official Bond film, despite the appearance of Sean Connery. However I think the time is now ripe to do this. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the most important films in the whole canon, because of what happens in it. Unfortunately the original, while still being a better film than I had through for many years, suffers badly from poor direction, a less than brilliant script, an inexperienced actor and a lack of chemistry between the male and female leads. Blofeld’s second actual screen appearance was in OHMSS. Prior to meeting the criminal mastermind face to face, Bond had tangled with his organisation three times. This is the same situation we have at the end of Spectre. It would take some significant rewriting (I still can’t understand how putting Bond in a kilt and giving him a Scottish accent and changing his name means Blofeld won’t recognise him, even if he was played by a different actor), but I think they’re equal to it. Not sure who would direct, I think Mendes wants a break and three films in a row may be pushing it a bit and lead to staleness. It would however be the perfect way for Craig to go out and put right a wrong that has blighted the franchise for nearly 50 years.