On a rogue mission in Mexico City, James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a clue to the existence of a sinister organization known as SPECTRE. Meanwhile back in London, the fallout from Bond's misadventure hinders M (Ralph Fiennes) as he attempts to foil the efforts of Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the ambitious new head of the Centre of National Security intent on disbanding MI6. A trail of clues leads Bond to an encounter in Rome with mobster's widow Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) to a reunion with an old enemy before he meets the beautiful Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), whose personal history enables her to understand Bond in a way few others can. It all leads to Tangiers where a shadowy figure from Bond's past, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) threatens the world.
Perhaps the most surprising thing, given how unorthodox the last three Daniel Craig films were, is how much Spectre feels like a 'traditional' Bond film. Yet far from a rehash of stale clichés, Bond twenty-four revitalizes and reinvigorates familiar motifs with an exhilarating emotional charge. It is also the most playful, even downright joyous of all the Craig era Bond films, riddled with ingenious inversions of classic Bond imagery and nods to the past. From Bond's top hat and skull mask that evokes Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973) to the alpine clinic from On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and brutal train fight in From Russia with Love (1963). Even the neat pairing of a sly quote from Goldfinger (1964) with the return of a certain iconic feline. Co-written by the returning team of John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with additional input from Jez Butterworth, fresh off last year's outstanding Edge of Tomorrow (2014), the witty script enables an exceptional ensemble cast to shine. Returning players Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw land several sublime moments while Naomi Harris deftly expands Moneypenny's relationship with Bond.
Finally freed from having to reassemble the character piece by piece, Daniel Craig seems more commanding and charismatic than ever. Moving with the grace of a dancer, Craig glides throughout the succession of spectacular action sequences orchestrated by Sam Mendes. Returning after the triumph of Skyfall (2012), Mendes kicks things off with a dazzling homage to Touch of Evil (1958) amidst the revelry of the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, set to a pounding tribal rhythm from composer Thomas Newman. It is surely destined to rank among the finest moments in the entire Bond series. Thereafter he handles the breakneck set-pieces with remarkable panache and gives a masterclass in how to pace an action film. For while at one-hundred and forty-eight minutes Spectre ranks at the longest Bond film it zips by as speedily as Bond's sleek new Aston Martin DB10. Not everything works yet there is not one moment when the film feels clunky or dull.
Among the few very minor missteps, after all the hype surrounding Monica Bellucci's casting as a mature Bond woman, Spectre wastes her in a borderline superfluous role. Having said that, the accomplished actress makes the most of her scenes as an intriguingly enigmatic character. Elsewhere the plot strand involving Christoph Waltz dredges memories of the bait and switch with Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Surprisingly little comes from Oberhauser's personal connection to James Bond to the point where obscuring his identity seems fairly pointless. Nevertheless, a pitch perfect Christoph Waltz imbues the role with seething menace and happily lays to rest the spectre (see what I did there?) of Mike Myers as Dr. Evil. Also the film successfully reinvents the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion for the current age combat drones, cyber-terrorism and paranoia over global surveillance. Even if the finer points of SPECTRE's plan for world domination are hard to grasp. At least on first viewing.
Despite, or perhaps because of its multiple writers, Spectre deftly juggles multiple styles of Bond film. It succeeds only because there is an emotional through line that connects Bond's still raw feelings for Vesper Lynd and his dead mentor M (Judi Dench) with his life-affirming relationship with the spirited and intuitive Madeleine Swann which opens the door to a possible life beyond espionage. Indeed the film crafts a surprisingly charming and believable love story. A lot of this is down to Léa Seydoux, easily the most faceted and engaging Bond girl since Eva Green's Vesper. A substantial casting coup for the franchise, Seydoux works wonders with psychological connection to 007 far more cleverly conceived than many reviewers seem to have noticed. In fact one would welcome Madeleine's return in a future installment. If this is to be Daniel Craig's swansong then he is gone out on a high. If not, then Spectre opens the door to a multitude of tantalizing possibilities. Even Sam Smith's divisive theme song functions brilliantly set beside Daniel Kleinman's astonishingly surreal opening credit sequence.