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Movie Review: Spectre

After 44 years of lawsuits and counter-suits and veiled references and parodies and unofficial Bond films, Spectre is back. Understand this: because of some bad people, the last time Spectre could be used in an official Bond film was Diamonds Are Forever in 1971.

Directed by Sam Mendes
In Theatres

You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond."

And like that, after 44 years, Spectre is back.

After 44 years of lawsuits and counter-suits and veiled references and parodies and unofficial Bond films, Spectre is back. Understand this: because of some bad people, the last time Spectre could be used in an official Bond film was Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. I won't get into the whole story of why Spectre couldn't be used in the official Bond series, that kinda thing is only interesting to serious Bond geeks and fans of intellectual property arguments. EON productions owns all things Bond again and the world may be in turmoil but at least we have that going for us. Ian Fleming created Spectre to replace the Soviet bloc villains that had populated the earlier Bond works. He saw the cold war coming to an end one day and wanted to ensure the Bond series would appeal to a post cold war world. That is some serious forward thinking from a guy who, along with being a legendary spy fiction writer and intelligence warrior, was also a misogynist, a racist, and an unrepentant homophobe. Seriously, go and read Goldfinger if you think I'm exaggerating. Jesus on a trampoline, that novel has some serious issues. The least of them is the seven thousand pages spent on Bond and Goldfinger playing golf. The worst of them is Bond raping Pussy Galore to "cure" her of being a lesbian. I need a shower just remembering that chapter…

Spectre as a villain is kind of comforting right now, especially after the events in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad in the last few days. The notion that a multinational group of psychopaths exists manipulating world events and can only be stopped by a handsome British secret agent in a really, really, really nice suit is the kind of pop culture we need right now. Bond films may be pure escapism, but they are escapism of the highest order, prescient but at the same time like some old sweater that we pull out on cold winter evenings and have a vague smell of the past clinging to them.

Spectre the film begins with just about the best pre-credits sequence of any Bond film ever. Inspired by the opening of Touch of Evil, Sam Mendes and his team create a tracking shot for the ages. Opening on a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City the camera follows Bond through the crowd, into a hotel, onto an elevator, across rooftops in an unbroken take that is breathtaking and confident and tension building to a degree never before seen in the Bond series. That level of confident film-making permeates Spectre, continuing the high level of skill that has been found in the Daniel Craig films. Beginning with Casino Royale the Bond films turned a corner into Serious Filmmaking. Long gone are the days of hacks and slide-whistles and cardboard sets. Spectre continues the recent tradition that resulted in a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for Skyfall. Spectre may not look as amazing as Skyfall, but that's because Roger Deakins is a hard act to follow and anyone stepping into his shoes to shoot Spectre is going to pale in comparison. Spectre still looks awesome, in the full sense of the word. It's just not to Skyfall's level of take your breath away beautiful, where every frame is absolutely perfectly composed and shot.

I'm not going to go anywhere near the plot of Spectre here. Way too many chances to spoil. If you've seen the film and you see me out and about and want to talk about it, sure, we can do that. But, please, if you plan on leaving any comments be mindful that a giant chunk of people haven't seen the film yet and respect that.

What I will say is that Spectre shows that Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson are interested in telling a story that spans multiple films. We should've seen this coming with Quantum of Solace picking up, like, four and a half minutes after the end of Casino Royale. Spectre brings together the three previous films in a way that is surprising and feels organic, like this was the plan from the beginning when we first met Daniel Craig sitting in an office waiting for his target as Casino Royale opens. The fact that each of the Daniel Craig Bond films has been in pre-production before the previous one is released suggests that, maybe, just maybe this story has been planned from the beginning.

With all that said, gentle reader, you don't need to have seen any of the previous three films to enjoy the heck out of Spectre. The balance between telling a continuing story and embracing new fans and novice viewers of the franchise is a tightrope walk that only the brave and bold can achieve. And this film is a master class on how to achieve that. Like Skyfall before it, and Casino Royale, the new fresh eyeballs watching this film will find a story that is compelling and stirring and exciting and will tempt them to explore the previous chapters in the Bond franchise. Veteran Bond fanatics will find a movie that hits that sweet spot that Quantum tried so hard to hit but missed spectacularly. I think what I'm trying to say here is that, where Quantum only works when you watch it right after you've finished Casino Royale, Spectre works as both a stand-alone film and as the fourth chapter in a continuing story.

There are some demerit points to hand out to Spectre, beginning with the way that Monica Bellucci is treated. One of the great talents of her generation and one of the most beautiful women of, well, ever is given very little to do and she's in and out of the film so fast she's essentially an extended cameo. I was really, truly and honestly, hoping that her presence in Spectre would amount to more than "wait, was that Monica Bellucci?", but it doesn't and it gives me the sads.

And another demerit point for the bland Sam Smith song Writing's on the Wall. Okay, I understand that after Adele's Skyfall pretty well any theme song by pretty well anybody is going to pale in comparison, but, my goodness that song just kind of sits there like some kind of grey wallpaper. It's not bad, it's not that Ah-ha song or the Duran Duran song or that truly awful Madonna song, it's just boring and bland and kind of does the job as the credits play. Instead of Shirley Bassey or Adele or Paul McCartney levels of greatness, Sam Smith hits the Sheryl Crow or Rita Coolidge level of "oh, yeah, they did a Bond theme didn't they?" Not horrible, not great, just way too comfortably middle of the road.

Like all Bond films the villain's master plan doesn't seem to make much sense. It's not Octopussy's or On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Quantum's level of batcrap insanity where it feels like the villain's master plan was created during a game of madlibs, but it is kinda hard to figure out the bad guy's endgame. But, unlike most Bond films, Spectre follows its predecessor's example and very rarely lags, even in the middle where most Bond films struggle. At 148 minutes Spectre is the longest entry in the series but it feels like it's an hour shorter than On Her Majesty's Secret Service and about 17 hours shorter than Thunderball.

The performances in Spectre are all great, everyone brings their A-game. Christoph Waltz and Daniel Craig have great chemistry, playing off each other in a way that feels real. Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Jesper Christensen and Naomie Harris return, digging their teeth further into their characters and finding new depths in iconic roles that have been with us for over fifty years. Lea Seydoux, as Madeleine Swann, doesn't play a Bond Girl, she is a Bond Woman, strong and proactive and fierce and jumping into the fight. She takes the foundation that Olga Kurylenko built in Quantum and expands on it, creating the archetype of the Bond Woman in the 21st Century. Andrew Scott makes the jump from Sherlock to Bond seamlessly and effortlessly.

The real standout in Spectre is Dave Bautista. One of the mightiest tropes of the Bond series is the henchmen, many have come, only a few are iconic. Oddjob, Jaws, Red Grant, Samedi - these are the henchmen that even folks who have never seen a single Bond film are probably familiar with. They're in the Henchmen Hall of Fame. Dave Bautista Mr. Hinx joins them. He has one line, actually one word, in the entire film but it is so, so very memorable. An unstoppable force of nature and smart and violent and relentless, Dave Bautista brings the same natural charisma to Spectre that he very, nearly stole Guardians of the Galaxy with.

So, still wondering if you should drop the monies and sit down for nearly two and half hours for some Bond film goodness? My advice, yes, yes and yes. Spectre, while not the topper most of the upper most like Skyfall or From Russia With Love, is in that tier of Bond films that rests just below those two heavyweights. 2015 has been a bit of a banner year for spy films, with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Bridge of Spies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It continues with Spectre.

With the every release of every new Bond film since probably the release of From Russia With Love, an army of writers clickity-clack that the time of Bond is over, Bond should die, fade away, just stop. I'm not going down that rabbit hole, I just want to address it by directing anyone who feels that way to check out the box office grosses of the series and ponder why so, so, so many people disagree with them and maybe they should just stop repeating this dumb argument. Yes, they are formulaic and sometimes they creak under the weight of the convoluted plots and sure, nearly every single one of them drags in the middle, and, yes, Bond is an alcoholic sociopath with some disturbing relationship issues. But, damn if they aren't fun to watch. They're exhilarating and breathtaking and, especially in the Daniel Craig films, occasionally moving and tragic.

And now is when I turn to you, gentle reader, and interact with you and invite your comments and thoughts and whatnot. Today's subject, if you will humour me, is: first Bond film, favourite Bond film and favourite Bond. I'll go first: Live and Let Die; Casino Royale; and Daniel Craig/Sean Connery. Now, your turn. Go.

One more thing. Looking for a podcast to listen to as you go about your day? For the film history buff, check out You Must Remember This, a podcast about "the forgotten and/or secret history of Hollywood's first century". Hosted by Karina Longworth, the most current series has been a the history of MGM, the studio that brings us the Bond films. See how it comes around?

Or if you're looking for more freeform comedy, check out James Bonding. Hosted by Matt Gourley and Matt Mira, James Bonding is an ongoing love letter to all things James Bond. And once again, it comes around.

Rob Slack will return.