If there is such a thing as "James Bond's Greatest Hits," then Spectre is it. The 25th movie about the British MI6 agent with a license to kill is party time for Bond fans, a fierce, funny, gorgeously produced valentine to the longest-running franchise in movies. Bond freaks will be orgasmic playing spot-the-reference to the series that began in 1962 with Dr. No.
Non-freaks still have Daniel Craig to feast on. In a photo finish with Sean Connery as the best of the six movie Bonds, Craig comes out blazing. He's a blunt instrument in a creamy Tom Ford tux, alive with danger and sexual swagger. This is Craig's fourth time as 007. After the abysmal Quantum of Solace, he rallied with Skyfall, the biggest boffo Bond ($1.1 billion worldwide). Craig's stated goal was to make Spectre "better than Skyfall." Not quite. Casino Royale, Craig's first go-round, remains his peak, the film that caught Bond in the act of inventing himself.
Spectre carries on Craig's reinvention of Bond, blowing a reported $250 million budget on spectacular action without losing what's personal. Skyfall director Sam Mendes is back to keep things real, but the plot cooked up by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth is a 148-minute minefield of distractions.
Ah, but what distractions. Apologies to The Spy Who Loved Me, but the Bond series has never had a more drop-dead dazzler of an opener than this one, set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. With Bond leaping across rooftops to take out the evil Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and winding up in a dizzying chopper battle above the crowds in Zocolo Square, the scene is a visual triumph for Dutch camera whiz Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) and a new peak in the art of eye-popping.
Then Bond is off to Rome, chasing bad guys in a custom Aston Martin DB10 and having sex with Sciarra's widow (Monica Bellucci, still wowza at 51). The widow is Bond's entree to Spectre, a secret society of global terrorists led by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a mystery man from Bond's orphan past. "I'm the author of all your pain," says Franz, whose ID is easy to guess. No spoilers, except to say that Waltz, purring with lethal charm, is perfection.
Back at MI6, Bond and the new M (Ralph Fiennes) face a new enemy, C, short for Max Denbigh (a smarmy Andrew Scott). He's a bureaucrat who wants to refit British intelligence for the digital era: drones in place of agents and the end of the 00 program, which made spycraft hands-on. So it's Bond, M, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and gadget-master Q (a wonderful Ben Whisaw) against the cyber-Nazis on one side, Spectre on the other.
Spectre even offers a fresh take on the Bond girl. She's Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a French doctor with a name out of Proust and no patience for Bond's swinging, macho lifestyle. She puts the randy spy in touch with his feminist side and, just maybe, lasting love.
Not buying it? Too candy-ass? I see your point. But Bond's train fight with a hulk called Hinx (Dave Bautista) recalls the brutal choo-choo classic in From Russia With Love. Craig puts heat and heart into Spectre, as if he's taken Bond as far he can. The movie is a fever dream of all the Bond villains and all of Bond's efforts to see a life past them. An exhausted Craig has said he'd rather "slash my wrists" than play Bond again. There's still one more film in his contract, but to quote Sam Smith's Bond song, "The writing's on the wall." If so, Spectre is a stirring, way-cool valedictory. Craig does himself proud.