(Sam Mendes, 2015)
Is it working in the theatre for so long that has made Sam Mendes suspicious of good-old-fashioned entertainment? Is it the pursuit of art? For in both of his Bond films, each of which is easily among the best-looking (in truth they are probably the two most beautiful films in the series) and best-crafted in the history of the franchise, he hasn't been satisfied simply to make A Bond film. No. He had to go and make THE Bond film. Twice. He had to make his films significant, with a lasting effect upon the Bond mythos. But part of the point of Bond is that nothing really has a lasting effect.
James Bond Will Return...and it will always be that way, whatever way the end of Spectre will have you thinking.
At least Mendes makes up for it by getting so many of the details so right. Spectre falls apart in the third act (which is a bit of a perfunctory mess) but for almost two hours of its (hugely overlong) two and a half hour running time it offers thrills, romance, gags and lots of in-jokes and references to keep Bond fans more than happy.
The plot pleasingly ties up all three of Daniel Craig's previous 007 outings and links them through the villain in this entry - Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (who has a new name, revealed in the last half-hour), a face from Bond's past and head of SPECTRE, a criminal organisation bound on controlling the information of all the worlds leading intelligence agencies or something else just as vague. Bond goes rogue in pursuit of this organisation, prompting an excellent pre-credit sequence on the streets, rooftops and in the skies of Mexico City. This scene contains a lengthy and stunning single shot, following Bond through the streets, into a lift, then a hotel room and out onto rooftops, which is, cinematically, one of the greatest moments in the 24-film franchise.
It also leads Bond to Rome and Monica Bellucci, surely born to play a Bond girl and lending class to a nothing part, then onto Austria, Tangiers and a meeting with the Proust-monickered Madeleine Swann (Leá Seydoux). Along the way he encounters Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), engages in a terrific fist-fight on a train (referencing at least three prior Bond moments, most obviously From Russia With Love), a car chase through Rome and some aeroplane destruction in the Alps before finally coming properly face-to-face with Waltz's bad guy at a secret HQ in the Sahara.
The sheer volume of references and allusions to Bond history (Waltz's character has a cat and earns an eye-scar, Mr. Hinx unavoidably compares with OddJob from Goldfinger) gives the whole thing a karaoke quality, but again, Mendes seems to understand that if you do the little things right, then not much else matters with Bond.
So: the action scenes are generally terrific, the highlight being that brutal train fight. Craig has chemistry with both his leading ladies, making his attachment to Madeleine at least somewhat believable (not that believability is relevant in Bond films, which by this point seem to float along on a sort of dream logic). Waltz is terrific as the Big Bad, utterly humourless, yet childishly taunting Bond about all that he has taken from him, while a near-mute Bautista is more menacing than any villain in the other Craig Bonds. Every scene between Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw, brilliant) is excellent - funny and fond, injecting a little British sitcom comedy into things, while his moments with Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) are almost as good. These more domestic characters are given something to do by the secondary villain; Andrew Scott as Denbigh (Bond chastens him "C"), whose designs on all the worlds information make him very much a post-Snowden villain. The locations are beautiful and speed by, and the whole thing goes by so fast it never bores over that long running time.
As for Craig - he utterly owns the role of Bond by now. His Bond is cold but soulful, incredibly efficient (he avoids a fight here by pointing at a guard and saying, "Stay") but handy with the odd cruel quip.
It is James Bond done well, and what more can you ask of a James Bond film?