PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
The time has come to acknowledge that, notwithstanding the hellish editing in the car chase that opens Quantum of Solace, the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise has been almost unfairly great at opening scenes. This one is set in Mexico City, during the Día de Muertos (because you can't go someplace in a Bond movie and have it not be a major local festival, duh), and Bond is hunting down a mysterious Italian man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). He does this, by the way, in the form of a long take that is, all by itself, one of the best things that has ever shown up on a Bond movie. And then there's the fistfight on a helicopter that erupts after Bond shoots all of Sciarra's associates, but not Sciarra himself, and blows up a half of a city block in the process. This helicopter, mind you, is currently performing corkscrews and frequently almost plunging into a crowd of people stuffed into the Zócalo. It's mouth-wateringly good action, and Thomas Newman's score that keeps hinting at Monty Norman's Bond theme is on hand to make it even better, just in case we somehow we were less than 100% excited.

Though if "fist fight on a helicopter doing corkscrews" doesn't make you 100% excited, you are dead, and shouldn't be watching movies.


Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
Looks like somebody learned all the wrong lessons from Skyfall, and Adele's Oscar-winning smash hit theme song thereof. Once again we have a slow ballad based somewhat on the structure of the Bond theme, slowed to a crawl, that erupts into big orchestral fireworks at the verses. What we do not have is a woman with a smoldering mezzo-soprano or alto voice who sounds like we caught her mere seconds into a cigarette break. Instead, "Writing's on the Wall" (the third time in the four Craig films that the theme song does not share the title of the film nor does the title appear in the lyrics) finds Sam Smith - who not merely claims to have written it in less than a half-hour, he's practically bragging about it - squeaking along with a dreadful falsetto that's an incongruous fit at best with the moody slowness of the music. And when I saw "moody slowness", I am being somewhat over-polite, when I actually mean "fuck-all boring". Tepid, watery, and a near-low for the whole franchise.

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Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
So bad, or so bad it's good? And those are the only options, please note. I will concede that Daniel Kleinman, who has been responsible for some of the best title sequences in the franchise's history over the years, shows absolutely no fear and bless him for it; and one thing that nobody could claim is to be bored by the nutcase feverishness of the CGI octopodes dominating the sequence in a discomfitingly porny way (we have to ask, where the hell was Kleinman when they made Octopussy?). It is magnetically weird, even if it's kind of awful.

But - there is also the matter of the sequence's narrative. Which is a forthright attempt to summarise the three-film history of the Craig era using clips and snippets from the previous films, and a whole lot of images of Craig himself. It's ungainly, and it prefigures the very worst that Spectre has to offer: its sweaty attempt to wrap up the whole Craig era into one overstuffed package.

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Rating: 1 Silhouetted Woman


THE PLOT
Aye, what is the plot? It's all over the place and nowhere at all: somehow, Spectre contrives to be the longest Bond film ever made despite having no apparent narrative. Bond's shenanigans in Mexico City have come at a terrible time for MI6: it has just been merged with MI5 under the stewardship of mad bureaucrat C (Andrew Scott), who is making noises about shutting down the 00 program altogether, while making life agony for Bond's (still, for now) boss M (Ralph Fiennes). Confident that he's on the trail of a super-secret world-spanning evil syndicate, Bond skips London with the reluctant help of M's secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and MI6 tech wizard Q (Ben Whishaw), and ends up in Rome to attend Sciarra's funeral and learn what he might from the dead man's sexy widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci).

From here... stuff happens? The plot is perfectly easy to follow, it's not convoluted or anything, but it's also terribly aimless. Bond storms through Europe gathering trivial clues and not having to work very hard at all to do so, all in the interest of not stopping any villainous plot - this is purely an exercise in uncovering the existence and structure of SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, an entity that From Russia with Love was able to establish and sketch out within its first ten minutes. The real plot, meanwhile, is all happening back in London, while M learns with horror of the full scope of C's intentions to oversee the alignment of all the intelligence agencies of the West under one banner which he will be able to place in the hands of SPECTRE itself. It takes a very, very long time for this to reveal itself, despite the laws of economic screenwriting demanding from the get-go that this is where we're going to end up.

At about two-thirds of the way through, Bond finally catches up with the shadowy head of SPECTRE, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), with whom he has a long personal history. It is exactly at this point that the film, which has been amiable in its shagginess, suddenly goes flying off the rails. But we'll get to that later on.

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Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Look, the cat-owning head of SPECTRE is the cat-owning head of SPECTRE by any name. When Oberhauser smugly announces to Bond that he's taken his mother's name and is now going by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it's the most misjudged "yeah, duh" villain-related twist since Benedict Cumberbatch sneered the word "Khan" in Star Trek Into Darkness.

That's not really even a problem, though. The problem is that Oberhauser or Blofeld or a boy named Sue is a pretty bland incarnation of the form, with the film's new backstory - Bond and Blofeld were childhood friends, nearly even brothers - domesticating the character in a bafflingly pedestrian way. Why not let the evil mastermind be an evil mastermind? Instead, we get a plot point snagged from a goddamned parody of Bond, Austin Powers in Goldmember, where it was obviously meant to be hokey nonsense. Compounding this, our new Blofeld feels like no kind of threat - when he has Bond in a torture rig, it seems quite impossible that Bond will experience any legitimate danger - and while I am pleased that Waltz has stepped back from the fast-talking German eccentric shtick for this role, he's still too plummy and genial to be imposing in the way that the leader of a worldwide criminal organisation had ought to be.

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Rating: 2 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Ah, now this is more like it. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) isn't quite one for the ages, but she's a largely satisfying foil to Bond, and she gets to drive the plot - such as it is - more than the vast majority of her forebears. Grappling with the unresolved rage she feels at her late criminal father White (Jesper Christensen, playing the character for the third time), she has a sharper tragic dimension than many a Bond woman before her, and the script's fumbling attempts to modernise the film for contemporary sensibilities allow her to be fully sexy without objectifying her or leaving the suggestion that she's only there to be sexed up by the superspy. She's capable in a fight and even more capable at pushing back against Bond, suggesting a whole movie of tensions in her own character that only happen to intersect with Spectre for a time. It helps that Seydoux is a genuinely great actress, a relative rarity for the Bond films.

And then it all goes to hell, with the filmmakers forcibly trying to convince us that Swann and Bond are some kind of soulmates, in a galling manner that's clumsy and tone-deaf even by the standards of a tone-deaf final third. Still, it's nice while it lasts. And you've got to love a character whose name is a random-as-hell Proust reference.

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Rating: 3.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
Ain't nothing like a giant unspeaking man-mountain, and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) can loom with the best of them. He has only the smallest kind of gimmick (steel-plated thumbnails, the better for poking out the eyes of hapless victims), but in the pared-down Craig films, that's colorful enough. He's a memorable physical threat and presence at a level that the current generation of Bond films has mostly spent all of its energy avoiding, and Bautista is just charismatic enough that the character's big meaty sneers play as a nice sort of campy humor in the midst of a generally unsmiling movie. His last scene is a particular highlight on that front. He's exactly what Spectre (and the franchise as a whole, at this point in its development) needs from its bad guys, and the film takes a significant step down once he leaves it.

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Rating: 4.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD, PROBABLY, OR SOMETHING
For the first time in 24 films over 53 years, James Bond sleeps with a woman older than he is. With a middle-aged woman as profoundly sexy as Monica Bellucci, I can't imagine it cost him too much. The character is typical and formulaic as all hell (wife of a bad guy sleeps with James, gives him info, leaves the movie), but Bellucci invests the character with years of accumulated resentment and fear, giving a stereotypical role genuinely tragic dimensions, while also showing off flawlessly smoldering chemistry with Craig.

On the negative side of the ledger: she's barely in the film at all: two whole scenes, neither of them terribly long. And when the movie is done with her, she more or less evaporates: there's no sense of what's going to happen to her next, really, and even less of a sense that we, or Bond, or Lucia herself cares very much. A disappointingly trivial, flat treatment for a character who certainly had enough gas in the tank to be one of the highlights of the whole franchise.

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Rating: 4 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The downside of starting with that astonishing Mexico City opening is that there's nowhere left to go. Not a single one of Spectre's remaining action setpieces is disappointing or deficient or any such thing, nothing like that; but all of them can't help but feel a little bit anticlimactic, particularly since the big car chase is one of those "European cities have narrow windy roads that are difficult to navigate at high speeds" jobs that we've seen plenty of. It's a good version of that; just not a revelatory version of that. Same thing with the train-bound fistfight that's exciting, brutal, and clearly in no way an improvement on the one this very same franchise introduced over a half-century ago in From Russia with Love.

All that being said, Mexico City is a masterpiece, and the film includes the official record-setting biggest practical explosions ever filmed, so let's not be too hard on it.

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Rating: 4 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
An exploding watch that also tells time; a variety of poorly-marked buttons in a spy car. That's all. I understand the current wave of films is deliberately trying to scale back on all the giddy nonsense of the franchise as a whole, but they can't make me like it.

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Rating: 2 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
There is a mountaintop health spa and ski lodge here, and it is all that I ever want my movie sets to be: imperious glass walls everywhere, multiple levels to be kept in frame simultaneously, perilously austere furniture. Production designer Dennis Gassner and set decorator Anna Pinnock really went to town on the spa, and no two ways about it. And the headquarters of C's new spy headquarters is, while definitely gaudy, a festive and sprawling and Guggenheim-esque kind of gaudy.

And as for the rest of the film? Eh. Fine. Boring. SPECTRE headquarters is a peculiar-looking heap out in the middle of the desert - having already played the "desert hideout" card so perfectly in Quantum of Solace, I'm surprised the producers thought they could get away with threading that needle twice during Craig's time in the role - that feels like a kludge of ideas for the backstory of the physical location that never got resolved before the time came to build it, and the super-secret observation room is archaic spy-movie boilerplate. The very good sets certainly stick out more in memory, but they are fewer in number.

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Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
The persistent reality of the Daniel Craig films - a shortcoming, I'd even say, but I'm biased - is that they're simply not very glamorous. Electing to focus on Bond as a thuggish brute representing a decaying world order in a largely realistic setting will do that. But here, at last, we start back in the direction of elegance, and it's all very grand: the suave costumes of the Mexico City sequence, the wall-to-wall Tom Ford that Craig wears better than he's ever worn clothes in a Bond picture, the withering superiority of finding himself in a health spa with no vodka martinis. It's the first time ever that Craig-Bond has come across as somebody whose life seems largely worth emulating, and I appreciated the flickers of it here and there. His apartment is a pointedly empty shell, for which many points come off.

And then there's the car.

For this movie, Aston Martin designed a brand-new concept car, the DB10, of which only ten were made, all of them for the movie shoot. Reader, it is the most beautiful car I have ever seen, with lines flowing like a rampaging river and a coiled tension in its frame like a predator on the hunt. I don't even like cars. But oh my God, this car is the car that angels would drive. And James Bond gets to drive it, and I am very jealous of him.

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Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Whispered to Lucia, slowly, right as their scene shifts from hate-seduction to lust-seduction.
Forced or Badass? Oh, very, very badass.


BEST QUIP
MADELEINE: Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin?
BOND: Well, it was that or the priesthood.

Best I could do - this is maybe the most un-quippy Bond film ever made


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
If Spectre ends up not being the final Daniel Craig film, everybody is going to look a bit silly. The whole thing turns out to be such a self-conscious summing up that it's difficult to imagine it wasn't designed that way; right down to the meaningful way Bond and the girl ride off into the sunset. Certainly, the sense of all history coalescing into this one showdown between Bond and his brother-antagonist Blofeld suggests the last movement of some epic symphony of globe-trotting and superspying. I find it all a bit tedious and frankly stupid, and pretty much from the moment Bond arrives at Blofeld's desert base, the film's whirligig frenzy of crescendoes not just for its own plot but the plots of the three Bond pictures preceding it becomes a pure annoyance. The degree to which the franchise went serial-mad has never been clearer than here: everything that Spectre takes 148 minutes to establish was tossed off in dialogue as the mere background to From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice. Perhaps it's nostalgic peevishness on my part that I prefer Bond when he's handed a dossier and told "this crazy person with a colorful, thematically appropriate personality has a doomsday machine. Please go shut it down". I just find the laborious way that the four Craig films have doubled-down on being origin stories - four films now, and we're still with the origin story - to be contrary to the things Bond is great at. Casino Royale was precisely the Bond film we needed in 2006; but we did not need four Casino Royales, and that's basically what we got.

I'm grouching. The fact of the matter is, I quite enjoyed Spectre when it wasn't up its own ass with continuity, so basically the first two-thirds. On a moment-by-moment basis, there's plenty in it that's delightful on its own, not least of that being the way that Q, Moneypenny, and M get up to mischief on the homefront; it's the most action that those three characters, collectively, have ever enjoyed together, and the smooshed-together family that they form when working as a trio is easily Spectre's finest contribution to the James Bond mythos.

Meanwhile, the film's stock elements work more often than not: for large portions of the middle, this is the most that a Bond film has felt like a Bond film since Pierce Brosnan retired, and there's hardly a trace of Jason Bourne's DNA to be detected. It's a for-real globetrotting adventure of the first order, I am happy to say, with lots of beautiful location photography provided by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and a breezy pace imparted by director Sam Mendes and the crisp cross-cutting he and editor Lee Smith built into the spine of the movie. That opening tracking shot sets the tone: this is a gliding, weightless James Bond film, which probably sounds meaner than I want it to. I love that it's gliding; even though Casino Royale and Skyfall are plainly better than this, their heaviness is better appreciated occasionally than as the inescapable new normal of the franchise.

And then, like a light switching off, it just collapses. The film's final movement is really no damn good at all, with the exception of a tightly-edited and claustrophobically-shot chase through a building about to explode. Oberhauser-Blofeld is a tedious villain, ominous without earning it, and the avatar of all the film's "let's give James Bond a retroactive Hero's Journey!" impulses that make it a remarkable slog towards the end; the presence of unconvincing dramatic stakes is somehow worse than the absence of stakes altogether; the entire matter of Bond and Swann after the torture chamber sequence where she realises her love for him is utterly ghastly in every way. I do have positive feelings about Spectre, all in all, for its highs are giddy indeed, including some legitimate franchise pinnacles. But dear God, it's not pleasant to watch a film crap over itself with the enthusiasm that this one does.