At the heart of all contemporary film adventures of Ian Fleming's secret agent James Bond is the same question all modern-day Hollywood blockbusters ask: can there actually be a proper narrative film inside the enforced checklist of product placement and audience-pleasing spectacle?
Spectre, Bond's 24th big-screen adventure, does not pull it off with quite the same panache as its predecessor Skyfall (to which it is a direct sequel of sorts). But that it does pull it off is proof enough that yes, there can be a proper film within the flashy red-carpet wrapping, while at the same time showing the 007 series has found its groove in the 21st century (as long as you gloss over the dreadful Quantum of Solace).
Spectre picks up pretty much where Skyfall left off, in its underground battle between old-fashioned, human-centred espionage tradecraft and sophisticated technological 24/7 surveillance. The script, by the returning committee of John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (enriched by script doctor du jour Jez Butterworth), connects tidily the cyber-crime ramifications of Skyfall with the slow reveal of secret criminal organization SPECTRE, a holdover from the old Bond derring-do here redesigned as a cancerous parallel economy feeding on the world's fears.
The technological abilities of SPECTRE as an always-on Big Brother, led by the coldly delusional Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), are mirrored in the flashy, steel-and-glass new Centre for National Surveillance built by the new MI6 chief Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott). Denbigh is also intent on dismantling the "pre-historic" 00 programme by introducing an all-seeing, all-powerful global surveillance system. These give the film its topical heart, while also pointing out, in a troublingly matter-of-fact way, that "boots on the ground" will always be required where surveillance can do nothing. Such boots are here embodied in the sleek, ruthless thug that is Daniel Craig's world-weary Bond, always counted on to save the day whenever technology shows off its limits.
Though Spectre fulfills the required quota of Bond-isms in pretty much every department - from the sly wisecracking between Bond and Ben Whishaw's Q to the obligatory pre-credits set-piece, set in Mexico City, starting out as a sweepingly realised single continuous roving shot - it's when it updates and toys with the series' past that it works best, making clear this is a 21st century Bond and not just an updated sixties romp.
See just how the new M (a gentlemanly yet steely Ralph Fiennes introduced in Skyfall as former career military) has no desire to stay out of the fray when things go wrong, or how Bond himself has become less of an unbreakable hero and more of a thoughtful soul. (The heart of the film may, in fact, lie in the apparently throwaway scene where M and Denbigh discuss what the "license to kill" awarded to the 00 agents means.) While Dave Bautista's all-but-mute assassin may bring back memories of Richard Kiel's Jaws in the Roger Moore years, there's no wink at the audience; instead, a sense of cold, remorseless indestructibility. Even Monica Bellucci's guest turn as the film's equivalent of a "mob widow" carries a sense of fatalistic desperation, well underlined by returning director Sam Mendes' approach to jet-setting action as a necessary connection to what makes these characters who they are.
It's, again and as in the previous instalments, in the villain that Spectre is a major letdown - as if the series' contemporary tone, less outlandish and more layered, would make the idea of an over-the-top, suavely cartoonish villain is surplus to requirements. This is not made better by the utter laziness with which Blofeld has been written and performed, asking nothing of Mr. Waltz other than re-running his Hans Landa in modern dress for a few uninspired brief scenes, with an uncalled-for, overblown origin story apparently hurriedly tacked on to give a semblance of depth to the character.
Maybe that's also why franchise runners Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have allowed Spectre to run bloated for nearly two and a half hours - as if "bigger" could distract from the fact that the film starts off as a thrilling, thoughtful follow-up to Skyfall, its pieces cleverly fitting into a bigger picture, only to lose focus towards the third act as the villain is revealed to have a world-sized chip on his shoulder.
Mr. Mendes does manage to pull Spectre back up in its taut, tight, dark final reel, and seen as a whole it's still a smarter film than most everything put out by a major studio this year. But, if you factor in the below-par theme song by Sam Smith and the uninspired credit sequence from Daniel Kleinman, there's a sense this had everything going for itself only to throw in the towel as the finish line approaches (and yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors). Thankfully, there is still in here a film that survives beyond its assembly-line, series-episode status.
USA, UK, 2015, 148 minutes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Sam Mendes; screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, based on a story by Messrs. Logan, Purvis and Wade; cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (widescreen); music by Thomas Newman; production designer Dennis Gassner; costume designer Jany Temime; visual effects supervisor Steve Begg; special effects supervisor Chris Corbould; film editor Lee Smith; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, Eon Productions and B24
Screened November 3rd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening