One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory's name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming's literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory's involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).
One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.
Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes' SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it). It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes).
007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies' schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.
While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond's section is obsolete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working...?
I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven't seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don't know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig's previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).
Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man's return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can't say, but I do wonder whether it's worth the effort.
Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it's not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.
I'm not sure that's the case, and SPECTRE's attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn't need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically 'a kid's film', although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)
Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.
While it’s still probably advisable not to think too hard about the plot, the real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE's climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and going by the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What's more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you're not so much invited to expect something, you're almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn't deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn't appear to be the case.
Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon's confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who's going to argue with them?). I'm still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations entirely, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that this film is anything other than very impressive, even if only as a piece of spectacle.