Sam Mendes’ second outing directing the legendary spy feels like Daniel Craig’s perfect swan song - if it is to be that way
Weeks on from Daniel Craig’s choice use of the phrase “I’d rather slash my wrists”, there’s a real chance that SPECTRE, Sam Mendes’ second time in the director’s chair (the first being Skyfall), could be the 47-year-old’s last film. If it is, he's never had it better.
In the fourth film since Bond was relaunched as a Bourne-esque, rough-and-tumble and occasionally clumsy secret agent, Mendes has delivered a perfect balance of the new Bond and the old. There’s a tour of lucrative sights across the globe from Rome to Austria, through the bustling city streets of Mexico and the deserts of Africa; fanciful gadgets; a frankly outrageous number of outfits for Bond and co. to change into as they move from place to place; and of course, an outrageous Aston Martin. It preserves what made the classic Bond films so fun to watch while keeping the modern-day Bond’s edge, and his heart, at the core.
The situation is tricky for Bond post-Skyfall, in a climate which sees double–0 agents like himself and his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes) put out to pasture. At the centre of the shake-up is a new Joint Intelligence Service, headed up by ‘C’ (pun intended, and heartily absorbed, by Andrew Scott), who proposes a joint surveillance service run by nine of the world’s most powerful nations. The sentiment towards surveillance - that it is fallible, and corruptible - is heavy-handed, but sits well in the proceedings.
Bond, officially off-duty after levelling an apartment block in the sweeping, bombastic opening sequence in Mexico City, steals Q’s (Ben Whishaw, on scene-stealing form) latest bulletproof Aston Martin and shoots off to Rome on the trail of SPECTRE (back in the hands of EON Productions after a decades-long copyright battle), a mysterious set of string-pullers apparently responsible for a number of incidents across the world.
At the head of the organisation is the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, the most threatening villain to swan about barefoot in three-quarter lengths), a fruitily European but sinister, attention-grabbing villain in the mould of many a Bond baddie gone before him. Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx is the classic henchman - an Oddjob to Waltz’s Goldfinger, a Jaws to his Stromberg - following Bond from Rome to Austria (where an Inception-esque medical clinic in the mountains awaits), climaxing in an intense, messy, hand-to-hand showdown on board a rickety train rushing through the night-time plains of Africa.
But while Craig’s steely, post-production-enhanced twinkling eyes and cooly exasperated Bond is as on form as ever, SPECTRE’s real secret weapon lies in Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Initially cool to Bond and seemingly timid, she gives the plot fire efficiently stripping down handguns and ordering dirty martinis; the relationship between Swann and Bond is a callback to the initial blossoming of something with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale - a chunk of emotional heft that felt stolen away at the start of Daniel Craig’s story arc that has come full circle. Bond and Swann's exchanges and building relationship evolve spy film extravagance into a fully-formed piece of involving cinema.
SPECTRE, then, is perhaps the finest ‘new’ Bond to date. Mendes has successfully melded old with new, recalling the classics while retaining the rough edges that makes Craig’s suave spy a compelling and enjoyable watch. Although perhaps improvised, Craig’s story arc - from Casino Royale, through to Quantum and Skyfall - has been brought to something of a comforting close. If this is to be Craig’s final Bond film, so be it - but at least he can hold his head high if he decides to hang up the Walther for good.