** SPOILERS **
The Dead Are Alive
SPECTRE, like the tentacles of its octopus logo, brings all of Daniel Craig's James Bond movies together, merging them as one complete narrative. The nefarious organization bent on world domination that Sean Connery defeated, that left George Lazenby emotionally wounded, and that Roger Moore ended once and for all returns in a 21st century incarnation to plague Daniel Craig's 007 in SPECTRE, revealing itself as "the architect of all of [Bond's] pain." Indeed, James Bond unwittingly played a part in SPECTRE's very creation. This new SPECTRE is bigger than the original 1960s crime syndicate; now, SPECTRE is a multinational organization secretly running much of the world, its tentacles reaching further and deeper than ever before. Instead of stealing nuclear missiles to blackmail NATO or highjacking the space program, the new SPECTRE's stock and trade is information and surveillance, controlling and manipulating anyone and anything by seeing and hearing virtually everything. Nearly every enemy Craig's Bond has faced, we learn, was part of SPECTRE: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in Casino Royale, Greene (Mathieu Amalric) in Quantum of Solace, Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall, the entire Quantum organization, and even his late, beloved Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Naturally, the only one who can stop such an insidious threat is an extremely well dressed man with a gun.
A globe hopping action yarn that's also a very personal story of revenge, SPECTRE tries to have it all but tends to overreach. In a spectacular opening sequence at the Dia De Los Muertos festival in Mexico City, we find Bond gone rogue, on a manhunt for a man named Sciarra, that ends in explosive fashion, as all of Bond's manhunts must. Bond is once more "grounded" by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and stripped of his spying privileges as MI6 continues to reel from the events of Skyfall, faced with being replaced by a new global organization of shared intelligence headed by C (Andrew Scott, the malevolent Moriarty from Sherlock), who is clearly in league with SPECTRE. We learn that Bond, rather touchingly, is still taking marching orders from his mentor, the late former M (Judi Dench), who charged him from the grave to find and destroy the secret organization she has been aware of probably since the beginning. Bond absconds to the continent; to shadowy Rome, to the snowy peaks of Austria, to the dusty deserts of Morocco, searching for SPECTRE and finding more than he bargained for, as a ghost from the past emerges from the shadows. Meanwhile, on the homefront, the MI6 crew led by M, including Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear), get plenty of field time trying to save the Double 0 program as a whole from extinction. (Though why they didn't call for backup from the other Double 0 agents, M only knows.)
Director Sam Mendes and his screenwriters, John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, having emptied the clip and scored the biggest bullseye with Skyfall, this time delve into the classic James Bond movies. They emerged with a Greatest Hits of the franchise collection, letting Daniel Craig's 007 walk in the footsteps of his predecessors. SPECTRE is a cornucopia of tributes to past James Bond movies, specifically Connery and Moore's. A striking new silent but deadly hulking hitman in the vein of Oddball and Jaws, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), all but destroys Bond in a devastating fight scene on a train from Tangiers with odes to From Russia with Love. The watery catacombs beneath MI6 invoke the tunnels beneath Istanbul in From Russia with Love. Bond engages in a breakneck car chase in Rome, putting his souped up new Aston Martin DB10 and its gadgets through its paces, complete with gags in the Roger Moore fashion. Craig's Bond behaves more scandalously than ever before, especially when forcing himself on Monica Bellucci, who is not quite in mourning for her husband Bond killed in Mexico City. Bond brazenly attends a shadowy SPECTRE meeting (the first time James Bond has ever been to one), an updated version of the SPECTRE meeting at the onset of Thunderball. And what SPECTRE meeting is ever complete without an execution at the conference table? When Bond arrives at SPECTRE headquarters in the Moroccan desert, we see it's a sprawling fortress inside an impact crater that very much resembles the SPECTRE base inside the Japanese volcano in You Only Live Twice. And when Bond comes face to face with his arch nemesis, Franz Oberhauser (Christophe Waltz) a former childhood mate presumed dead but now the leader of SPECTRE, well, the blinded eye and facial scar Bond gifts him with, plus the white fluffy cat, means Oberhauser must really be the ultimate blast from the past: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Their final confrontation over the Thames and the ruins of the M16 base Silva demolished in Skyfall takes place with a helicopter -- a helicopter is the means by which Roger Moore finally executed Blofeld at the start of For Your Eyes Only.
More settled and comfortable in Bond's skin -- more James Bondian than ever -- Craig attends to his business of action, seduction, and death with efficiency. Unlike Skyfall, which challenged Craig's Bond's very existence and stripped him of M, the second woman in his life he actually loved besides Vesper, Bond, and therefore SPECTRE, feel a bit cold and distant, despite its splendid locales and incredible spectacle. It's only when he meets his new Bond Girl Madeleine Swann (the fetching Lea Seydoux), the daughter of his one of his oldest foes Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), does Bond's blood begin to run red hot. Bond's scenes with Swann are some of SPECTRE's best, and there's a palpable chemistry between them lacking between Craig's Bond and every Bond Girl since Vesper Lynd. Bond's confrontations with Blofeld feel a bit underwhelming, despite their shared past (the young James came to live with Franz Oberhauser for a time after he was orphaned -- they are ersatz "brothers") and Blofeld gleefully admitting he personally had everyone Bond ever cared about killed. Bond is once again tortured like he was in Casino Royale, this time by needles bored into his neck, but despite Blofeld's promises of amnesia and catatonia, Bond emerged unscathed, despite a couple of pricks. When he does get to interact with his fellows in MI6, Bond classically toys with Q, stealing the newest Aston Martin right from under his nose, and flirts with Moneypenny. Both Bond and Moneypenny seem relieved that she doesn't pine for him as others have for previous Bonds.
Could SPECTRE ever have equalled Skyfall, a one in a million (or rather, one in a Bond -- the third film for a Bond actor is usually the best one) achievement for the Bond franchise? Perhaps not. One can even surmise this from the title song: Sam Smith's "The Writing's On The Wall" is no "Skyfall" by Adele. But as a love letter to the best of the franchise's past, brimming with blistering action, global adventure, awesome spectacle and copious amounts of destruction and death, SPECTRE delivers admirably. Overall, SPECTRE falls in line with Connery's fourth, Thunderball, a bigger, more sprawling and ambitious follow up to his most popular, Goldfinger, but not quite its equal. That is still much preferable to what followed Moore's finest Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond in outer space misstep Moonraker or Pierce Brosnan's franchise-stopper Die Another Day. If Daniel Craig indeed stars in a fifth 007 film, he will still be two short of Connery and Moore, but by that time, about 12 years, Craig will be the actor with the longest tenure as James Bond. SPECTRE concludes with Bond seemingly out of the British Secret Service, driving off into the sunset with Madeleine in his Aston Martin DB5, leaving behind all of his ghosts. Of course, James Bond will return. Bond chose not to exercise his license to kill and let Blofeld live, an act of mercy that will likely ensure no matter what adventure awaits him next, James Bond will not soon escape the spectre of that mistake.