Ever since last year's Sony hack revealed concerns about Spectre's budget, screenplay and purportedly future Bond casting, the follow-up to Skyfall, the 50th anniversary Bond film and biggest British film in history, has been a marked movie. Doubts about its late-starting production, some edgy remarks about the role from star Daniel Craig, and a surprising round of some slagging reviews preceded its November 6th North American launch. (It opened in the UK and some other nations a week earlier.)
But surveys of actual film-going audiences gave high ratings to the film -- which, on balance, is terrific though not as good as Skyfall -- and Spectre has proved to be another huge hit, as well as a very entertaining and satisfying film experience. Coming out of Thanksgiving weekend, Spectre has taken in $750 million at the box office worldwide, easily moving it into profit no matter which estimate of the costs of making and marketing the film is correct.
Since Spectre will continue to play through New Year's and beyond, it should end up in the vicinity of $900 million if not more. That's short of Skyfall's $1.1 billion-plus, a high for the venerable Bond franchise, but easily in the top echelon of global cinema blockbusters.
The full trailer for Spectre.
Spectre will end up bigger than all the Marvel movies except the two Avengers films and Iron Man 3. It's already easily blown past the two biggest non-Bond spy films of all time, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Jason Bourne and the Bourne series? Not even within hailing distance.
With Spectre's very strong performance, the Bond franchise is now third among movie franchises. Only the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Harry Potter films are higher, though I have a feeling that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to begin to change that as the revived series unfolds. (With inflation adjustment, Bond easily shoots past the Harry Potter films. After all, Goldfinger and Thunderball were Skyfall-sized blockbusters if not more in the '60s.)
Bond is clearly going to remain the top film franchise focused on a single character. Though I suppose Tony Stark could make an argument based on one of his three films. And Tony Stark/Iron Man, as essayed by the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr., may well be the coolest and most relevant of contemporary silver screen icons. But that's another column.
Whether or not Bond is cooler than the problematic Mr. Stark, he's plenty cool enough in the highly effective Spectre. Which as directed again by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is a sumptuously beautiful, mostly very well-cast film filled with action and incident, much of it consequential.
In Spectre, Craig's rather tortured take on the role, while retaining the grit of the actor's canny interpretation of Ian Fleming's literary conception, relaxes a bit into a suaver sort of self-confidence. He even exhibits a newfound compassion and sense of proportion.
Some slight spoilers ensue, though little you can't figure out from the promotion.
Spectre is both the direct sequel to Skyfall and the film that ties together all four of the films of the Daniel Craig era, from Casino Royale through Quantum of Solace and Skyfall.
Following the death of M, who as portrayed by the great Dame Judi Dench was a virtual co-lead in Skyfall, Bond has tracked someone who popped up on the late MI6 director's radar. He finds him in Mexico City where, during a spectacular "Day of the Dead" festival sequence which rivals Skyfall's classic Istanbul chase opening, the agent does what he does best. Featuring a brilliant long tracking shot, it's spectacularly photographed by Interstellar's Hoyte van Hoytema, replacing Skyfall's Oscar-nominated Roger Deakins. Thomas Newman provides another evocative modern Bond score, here blending slinky Bondian thematic material with Tambuco's brilliantly flavorful ethnic percussion.
This time the opening has results less dire to Bond, who was accidentally shot and presumed dead in Skyfall. Here he flies his commandeered helicopter across the beautiful Mexico City skyline, the negative repercussion being merely his suspension by Ralph Fiennes's more than capable new M after 007 decides not to confide in him.
But not to worry. With covert help from Naomie Harris's adorably effective new Moneypenny, in whom Bond does confide, and Ben Whishaw's tremblingly brave new Q -- while Rory Kennear's chief of staff Bill Tanner obligingly looks the other way -- Bond is soon off and running again on the second phase of his mysterious secret mission.
"You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond." The first teaser trailer for Spectre set an ominously intriguing tone.
He goes to Rome. Actually, one of several nods by the filmmakers to old-school Bond films, for which suspension of disbelief was de rigueur, he drives to Rome. In the spectacular new made-for-the-film Aston Martin DB 10.
Now, in real life, an agent on a tight time leash would hardly drive all the way from London to Rome. But since, also in real life, there aren't many more enjoyable things than driving a beautiful car into a beautiful city to see a beautiful woman, Bond's drive makes perfect aesthetic sense. And so we get the gorgeous spectacle of Bond in the Aston topping the rise to see, laid before him, the panorama of Rome. Where he will meet Italian screen goddess Monica Bellucci.
Bellucci, widely noted as the first "Bond Girl" older than Bond, doesn't have a lengthy part but it is pivotal. A sumptuous vision in widow's weeds, beset by harbingers of death on all sides, she provides both a powerful encounter for Bond and the linkages which drive the story onward.
That Bond is to learn important truths about his past, that he is to understand the Quantum organization he was dealing with in Casino and Quantum is part of something bigger, that he is to meet again someone who is "the author of all your pain" can be derived from the trailers.
That the overarching evil, a transnational alliance of crime lords, bent intel bosses, and assorted financiers and influence peddlers, is called SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as in most of the '60s Bond films), can be deduced from the film's title.
Two-time Oscar winner Christophe Waltz is effective as usual as Spectre's chief, though I must say his "Goodbye James Bond' line reading late in the going could have been redone.
Spectre, which I've seen, ah, a couple times, works extremely well up to around the one hour, 48 minute mark when Bond and his intriguing new ally/companion Dr. Madeline Swann at last confront Waltz's character. There the revelation that, to the surprise of no knowledgeable Bond aficionado, he is Blofeld doesn't quite come off. There are a few other things over about a 20-minute period that seem a little off, a reminder that this film was made quite rapidly for such a huge production.
But the lengthy closing sequences are top-notch, and not what you would expect from the other Craig Bonds.
The traditionally lone wolf super-agent gets by with more than a little help from his friends, including M who, on another track of the storyline had long been suspicious of an initiative to downgrade human intelligence and covert operatives in favor of surveillance state and drone war expansion. (Not unlike last year's smash hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)
The liberal Guardian newspaper, which Craig took pains to identify as his daily reading back when he got the role in 2005, went so far in its rave review as to call Spectre "pro-Snowden." It's not so much that as anti-you-know-what.
Among other major players, Andrew Scott is fine as always as the highly-connected new head of the new Joint Security Service. Though his well-known role as Moriarty in the BBC's fabulous Sherlock productions may load the dice. And Dave Bautista, who scored well as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, makes a most formidable henchman and new antagonist for Bond. He's an awfully good driver, too, in what has become the now standard bad guys' Jaguar.
The Bond Girls are now the women of the Bond films.
And then there is Lea Seydoux. Saving the best for last? I think so. The French actress is a frequent Cesar nominee and scored as an assassin in Tom Cruise's big Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Very attractive, naturally, though not a classic beauty like my fave rave Olga Kurylenko in Quantum of Solace or Eva Green in Casino Royale, Seydoux is one of those women who becomes more attractive and appealing, not to mention challenging, in motion or conversation.
Her Dr. Madeline Swann, and I won't spoil her origin, is a very intriguing match for Craig's Bond, one that works even better than Casino Royale's Vesper Lind or even, and this may be heresy for true Bond aficionados, On Her Majesty's Secret Service's Tracy di Vicenzo (played by the great Diana Rigg).
I quite like Spectre's ending, which is quite unlike that of most Bond films. The series can go in any number of directions from here.
If Craig, who said a few spiky things about the role in a few interviews after the grueling production, really does want to leave, the ending of Spectre provides an elegant send-off. If he wants to stay, and he has another film on his contract, the ending also provides multiple options.
My guess is he will stay. He's in even greater command of Bond, arguably Sean Connery's equal and better than all the rest. And, however grueling the production was, he has not only a new sense of ease as Bond but a likely even bigger Bond payday after another smashing success.
So, how good is Spectre? Damn good. Better than this year's Marvel movies, which I liked very much. Not great, not Skyfall, but easily one of the best Bonds. Better than all the Roger Moores and Timothy Daltons and most of the Sean Connerys and Pierce Brosnans.
Why the reviews were off -- in the US, not in the UK -- is curious, a matter for another time.
In the meantime, the film plays on through the holidays, only truly overshadowed by a certain Buddhist space opera.
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