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Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond, in "Spectre"
Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond, in “Spectre”

I’ll admit, I didn’t go in expecting great things. Nonetheless, it’s my favorite film of Fall 2015 so far.

Its three act structure should be the envy of any aspiring dramatist. Its lead character is fascinating, despite an off-putting brusqueness. Orphaned at a young age, he has major trust and intimacy issues, especially involving those of the opposite sex. High-tech gadgetry is really more his thing, getting him out of many a scrape.

But enough about Steve Jobs. Let’s talk about Spectre instead.

Bond 24 is surprisingly satisfying, too. My expectations were slight here as well, since I haven’t been a fan of Daniel Craig’s Bond movies till now. But Spectre is the most enjoyable 007 outing since Pierce Brosnan’s debut in GoldenEye.

Spectre stays in the intellectual shallows, not that we should expect any differently from a film series that includes characters named Pussy Galore and Xenia Onatopp. However, its title is fitting for a film preoccupied with Bond’s memories of the dead. (For those keeping track, the recently deceased have included his darling Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and his mommy figure M in Skyfall.)Even the name of Bond’s love interest in Spectre, Madeleine Swann, is a nice double nod to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

Still more aptly, Spectre’sdashing opening sequence is set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. Surrounded by celebrants clad in skeletal garb and wearing skull masks, Bond is fulfilling a final mission bestowed upon him by the late M, as played by Judi Dench in the seven preceding Bond films. In a video message received following her death, M instructed Bond to track down an assassin who will lead him to an even bigger criminal mastermind.

After a thrilling pursuit culminating in a fight on a careening helicopter, Bond is left with a ring bearing the mysterious octopus symbol of SPECTRE. A hunt for this shadow organization’s supervillain will take Bond through several other beautifully rendered destinations: London, Rome, the Austrian Alps, and North Africa.

Meanwhile, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is peeved by Bond’s unauthorized Latin American adventure and grounds him indefinitely. M has his own set of troubles, since an up and coming intelligence bureaucrat is looking to put the Double-O business out of commission for good.

This newcomer is codenamed C, shorthand apparently for cocky and cold. Andrew Scott, best known for his sinister turn as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, gleefully portrays this Grinch-hearted functionary. Cleverly referencing recent Snowden- and Assange-themed headlines, C also aims to replace agents with drones and universal surveillance.

Bond’s and M’s travails are decently synergized in Spectre’s overall story and climax. In many ways, this latest film is a pleasing blend of Bond old and new. Hijinks aboard a plane and train are reminiscent of Brosnan’s adventures. At one point, Craig is strapped down and facing a torturous death, just like Sean Connery of decades past.

Yet the screenwriters manage to throw some new twists into Spectre. Bond’s request for a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred” at an organic juice bar results in one of the movie’s funniest moments. In her role as Madeleine Swann, Lea Seydoux’s classic beauty, hairstyle, and evening gowns recall leading ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, yet her self-sufficiency and assertion clamp down on the throwaway misogyny of earlier Bond movies.

Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, in "Spectre"
Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, in “Spectre”

Unavoidably, though, there is an occasional “been there, done that” feel to Spectre. Recycled villains and locales, not to mention action hero tropes that crop up everywhere from Bond to Batman, play the tune of nostalgia but start to come across as unoriginal and derivative. And the manner in which Bond is connected to Christoph Waltz’s villain verges on silliness, akin to the way in which everyone in Star Wars is blood-related to everybody else.

The name of Waltz’s character would constitute a spoiler, by the way (so don’t go looking it up on IMDb!). To be honest, his most vigorous scenery munching here resembles overly closely the flamboyant cruelty of Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. Even so, this is the best use of a topflight actor for a Bond villain since GoldenEye’s employment of Sean Bean as 006/Janus.

Christoph Waltz, welcoming James Bond to his supervillain hideout
Christoph Waltz, welcoming Bond to his supervillain hideout

After squandering the skills of Javier Bardem and Mathieu Amalric as the main baddies in the two previous movies, this is one key factor that makes this rise to the top of the Craig-era Bond movie catalog. Daniel Craig remains a stony presence as 007, but it’s also nice to see ripples of empathy under that tough guy exterior. It’s gratifying, too, that director Sam Mendes (back again after Skyfall) gives his supporting actors more to do here. It would indeed be villainous, if not supervillainous, to fritter away the talents of gifted actors like Fiennes, Naomie Harris (stalwart Moneypenny), and Ben Whislaw (jittery yet resourceful Q).

One way – really the only way – in which Spectre is a letdown after Skyfall is in the cinematography department. Roger Deakins is best known for his magnificent work as the Coen Brothers’ go-to guy, but his efforts in Skyfall were just as jaw-droppingly splendid.

Spectre’s cinematographer worked on two of my favorite recent films, Her and Interstellar, both of which were exceedingly imaginative in their visuals. Hoyte Van Hoytema displays solid craftsmanship here, too. I especially liked his casting of Waltz in darkness for his first onscreen appearances, and his lensing of Rome and London makes me want to hop on the next transatlantic flight. Still, none of Spectre’s visuals stack up to Deakins’ lighting of a nighttime Shanghai fight scene in Skyfall, hands down the best thing in that movie.

Overall, though, Spectre’s propulsive momentum and (mostly) happy nostalgia made this a fun movie outing. Itcan’t compare to Mad Max: Fury Road, easily this year’s best action film, but it’ll do until the fourth part of the Hunger Games trilogy and the seventh Star Wars installment land in our multiplexes.

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide: Spectre is rated PG-13 for all of the usual 007 reasons.)

P.S. For anyone interested in a more in-depth look at the entire Bond film series, I commend Three Brothers Film to you. Their highly informed and lucid essays are the best writing on Bond that I’ve encountered.

SECULAR CINEPHILE Movies have been a lifelong consuming passion, with vivid childhood memories of staying up late for James Bond on TV and standing in line for the original Star Wars movie. I still...