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In the last James Bond movie Skyfall, you may remember the busted-up 007 (played by Daniel Craig) was declared so physically decrepit he was all but pensionable: a nudge to us to be grateful the series was still there at all. The problem is that as a tug on our goodwill it leaves the new Bond, Spectre, only one logical move: “The dead are alive,” declares an opening title card, welcoming us to a film with themes of morbidity doodled about its margins like a teenage Goth’s diary.
We begin in the midst of Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade, a lavish set-piece involving many skeletal extras and allowing director Sam Mendes a splashy entrance to follow up his own Skyfall. In one unbroken sequence we sweep through the streets and up into a hotel room, along the ledge outside and on to the film’s first shootout, where in a visually witty flourish, the gunfire causes a domino effect of collapsing buildings. By the end, Mendes has paid a neat homage to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and it’s cue the opening credits. “I’ve been here before,” British singer Sam Smith warns in the first line of his song.
Indeed, we’re soon back in London to set the movie’s subplot in motion: the eternal peevishness of Ralph Fiennes’ M worsened by an impending merger between MI5 and MI6, and the arrival of Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott, flawless), a smug interloper obsessed with public surveillance. Here the film is at its most mischievous, a note of counter-programming sneaking into mentions of private sector benefactors helping to fund the government’s new security operation.
But the action, of course, is elsewhere, as Bond embarks on the traditional tour of scenic locales. In Rome he duly unzips a widow (Monica Bellucci, barely there) who tells him of “a place that has no mercy”. It also has surprisingly lax security, leaving him to discover a vision of the underworld as corporate baroque, a boardroom conference overlooked by a silent crowd in the manner of the orgy scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Who would have thought an AGM could be such fun?
In places the narrative is so choppy it could pass for avant-garde, but once it becomes clear that the bad guys’ business is mass surveillance, we see the two halves of the story come together from some miles away. “Orwell’s worst nightmare,” M frets, one of several moments in which the brushed steel modernity of the production design is undermined by dialogue seemingly written for a slightly deaf elderly relative. “I think you’ve got a secret,” Bond is told, and then after a pause: “It’s something you won’t tell anyone.”
A recurring motif involves characters returning from the grave: Judi Dench’s M pops up first by way of video. She’s not the only old favourite to reappear, but the risk of all this archive-raiding is that it makes for tricky comparisons with the here and now: half an hour into Spectre, you’ll like Skyfall even more than you did in 2012.
Among the new guard, Léa Seydoux rarely looks comfortable as Bond’s psychologist love interest; she’s not alone. The presence of Christoph Waltz as nemesis feels like the no-brainerest of casting calls, but once he’s here, the film doesn’t know whether to let him enjoy himself or keep him dulled by understatement. Pity the Bond villain forced to express their malevolence by wearing loafers without socks.
And therein lies the problem: after the sombre excellence of Skyfall, Spectre tries to tweak the formula while clearly being thrown into panic at the thought. Everything feels so reliant on its business-class sheen, the grooming, tailoring and tie-pins, that anything other than gunmetal and a scowl unbalances the tone.
Sometimes things click: Seydoux in a silver dress and Craig in a white tuxedo aboard a north African train is lovely; Mendes is good at the splendid and spectacular. But the mood is uneasy, and not helped by Craig, who didn’t need to make his recent widely reported noises-off to convey his disgruntlement. “That sounds marvellous,” he mutters at one point, and the sarcasm feels less that of the character than a leading man who has spent too long terrified of looking in the mirror and finding Roger Moore gazing back at him.
As Skyfall knew, we cheer Bond on because after so very many years of quips and martinis, our own sense of mortality is tied up with his, and the general good health of the series. While Spectre left me confident I’ll probably see Christmas, I am thinking I might make a doctor’s appointment.