When you sit down to watch a James Bond film , now up to its 24th instalment with the Sam Mendes-directed Spectre, there are a number of well-tested tropes that you expect to be presented and accounted for.
Bombastically-large, awe-inspiring, edge-of-your-seat opening scene? Check. A pivotal scene set somewhere in the snowy Alps where secrets are exposed and someone dies? Check. A harrowing car chase through tight city streets and a ballsy showdown with the Big Bad of the moment? Check and check.
And of course the near-immortal utterance of “Bond. James Bond”, the ordering of a martini “shaken, not stirred” and the bedding, in near record time and with transient emotions in full flower, of a Bond girl or two.
These are all well and truly woven into the brooding tapestry of Spectre, but there’s another far more moving important ingredient thrown into the mix this time, one which fittingly and winningly dominates the narrative.
Rather than giving itself over to the large set piece action scenes and the big showdowns with menacing, calculating villains, Spectre instead concentrates on a far more interior approach, allowing the more vulnerable, conflicted Bond of recent films, portrayed to perfection by Daniel Craig, to emerge and loom large over proceedings.
The Bond we come to know in Spectre is determined and fearlessly resolute as always, but he is now also an establishment loner, operating outside the bounds of his usual protocols, pursuing a shadowy organisation, initially without a name, who could be responsible not just for the death of his beloved M (Judi Dench, Skyfall) but for a great many other crimes.
With MI-6 caught in a massive merger with Mi-5 and the UK set to join an alliance of spying allies known as “Nine Eyes”, spearheaded by arrogant young gun Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) who sees the double O program as an anachronism ripe for discarding, Bond must rely, almost completely, on his own wits, charm and a coldly-calculating, methodically-executed thirst for vengeance.
With so much time by himself – he is assisted at various times by M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), all of whom must defy the system to render Bond assistance – away from the apparatus that usually sustains him, Bond must carry out his intently-focused mission largely on his own.
There are big action scenes of course – the opening scene in Mexico City where a muscularly full-on fight aboard a helicopter threatens to plunge it into a crowd of Day of the Dead mourners below, and a gloriously intense battle between Bond and a pursuing assassin Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) on a luxury train hurtling through the Moroccan desert all fit the epicness that a Bond film demands – but these are largely subservient to Bond’s quest to uncover this rogue organisation, headed by the coolly calm Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).
It’s a quest that centres, as you might expect on a damsel in distress – in this case Dr Madeleine Swan (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of “Mr White” (Jesper Christensen) whom Bond encountered in Quantum of Solace and who is instrumental in giving the Bond the information he needs to track down hos shadowy quarry.
Rather than being a serious bedder of amorously-inclined women as he once was – although he does manage to get the requisite bedroom action in not once but twice; still a far cry from the suavely promiscuous Bond of old – he is far more inclined to stick with the one woman, should she actually stay alive.
It won’t surprise you, of course, if you’ve been paying attention to the new emotionally-raw, achingly vulnerable Bond of recent instalments, that he and Dr. Swan fall heavily for each other – she is thankfully a more than capable modern woman, well in charge of her own destiny – and it’s this relationship, along with his enduring connections to the old dearly-departed M, that power his resolve through the globe-hopping hunt for Spectre.
With dazzlingly-impressive cinematography, provided by Hoyte van Hoytema, music by Thomas Newman and measured, pitch-perfect direction by Sam Mendes (and yes a few narrative holes best left to suspension of disbelief), Spectre is at the top of its game, pulling back the curtain so we see what powers Bond, not simply what flows from the darkly emotional forces that impel him forward at every turn.
This won’t be to everyone’s taste of course.
Even with all the usual tropes well and truly in place, and all the boy’s own toys (naturally he drives a stunningly stylish car which is, as always, totalled much to Q’s chagrin) on display, and action sequences that will delight the spying blockbuster soul, there are no doubt many who will not take to the new emotionally-raw Bond, and the longer, more drawn-out dialogue heavy scenes that frame much of this film.
But this far more studied approach, this insistence on examining the why as much as the how and the what lend Spectre a dramatic richness and substance the Bond franchise hasn’t always had before, even in the much-loved Skyfall (which suffered from too much of the cheesiness of vintage Bond), which really only hinted at the Bond we see in the current instalment.
Spectre is well near brilliant – dark, brooding, thoughtful and intimately intense, an immensely-pleasing, substantial, finely-wrought addition to the Bond canon.