(Image courtesy of MGM Studios)


What Daniel Craig and company have accomplished with their modern reboot of James Bond since 2006's "Casino Royale" is nothing short of extraordinary.  The unified creative presence have taken the tongue out of the cheek to take what became a laughable caricature and turn it into the intense, heroic, and rightly lethal icon we have always deserved.  The continuous story thread woven and built across three films by the writing team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan peaked with 2012's billionaire blockbuster "Skyfall," the most successful film of the then 50-year-old franchise.  Raising the stakes and ramping up the character development, "Skyfall" was a game changer on multiple levels.

With the arrival of "Spectre" for Daniel Craig's fourth outing as 007 and the returning follow-up of Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes, questions arise to the notion of raised and renewed expectations.  How do you top "Skyfall?"  How do you improve or follow a game changer like that?  The first answer is you can't.  The best this film can do is continue the momentum and build to the next game changer.  "Spectre" stands as exactly that precise first step down from a summit on its way to find the next mountain and next great challenge.

Opening in a sprawling and macabre Mexico City during their Dia de los Muertos parades and festivities, James Bond is acting on his own to pursue Marco Sciarra, a final target the former M. (Judi Dench) assigned to him before her departure in "Skyfall."  In a thrilling pre-credits sequence, Bond gets his man but discovers he may be part of a bigger organization.  The biggest clue he has to go on is a ring with a black octopus symbol.  Hit the Sam Smith song and let's push on.

Returning to London after being off the reservation in Mexico City, the new M. (Ralph Fiennes) removes Bond from field duty upon bureaucratic pressure from the sweeping changes in British security and intelligence since Raoul Silva's terrorist bombing and attack on MI6 Headquarters in "Skyfall."  Under the leadership of Max Denbigh, designated as C. and played by Andrew Scott (best known as Moriarty from BBC's "Sherlock"), MI6 is being merged with MI5 and the Double-0 program is in jeopardy of being eliminated.  C. is also building a new multinational consortium called the "Nine Eyes" to further modernize the antiquated spy game where information gathering is paramount.

Amid the new power struggle created by Denbigh's oversight and M's slipping control, Bond defies orders to leave the country and follow his leads.  He starts in Rome with Sciarra's widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci) and learns that the symbol represents the SPECTRE organization and its shadowy presence in seemingly everything connected to terrorism, including Mr. White (a returning Jesper Christensen), an old foe from Bond's past since "Casino Royale."  Diving further into mystery with the assistance from Mr. White's daughter, Dr. Madeline Swann (French rising star Lea Seydoux), Bond pursues SPECTRE and the familiar face from his own unspoken past (two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) that appears to be their leader.

Circle back to examining solutions to the questions of raised expectations.  "Spectre" makes several risky moves.  One answer was length.  At 148 globe-trotting minutes, "Spectre" is the longest James Bond film ever made.  It feels every bit that long, making it ripe for trimming, condensing, and, unfortunately, a few yawns.  Another answer was throwing money at the problem.  Crossing the finish line over budget and costing between $300-350 million, "Spectre" is tied (with the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" debacle) as the second most expensive film of all-time.  To its credit, every penny shines on the screen with cars, explosions, suits, jewelry, stunts, and locations, as any good Bond film should.  Though counted as minor flaws, the twin excesses of money and time speak to both the commitment and the confidence that, thanks the push from "Skyfall," the property of James Bond is a money-making machine.  Sony Pictures is betting the farm that people will still come and, if the initial international numbers are any indication, they've got another billion dollars coming their way with ease.

The most crucial and effective answer "Spectre" provides to combat the ominous expectations before it is talent.  Smartly, much of the creative team from "Skyfall" returns both on-screen and off-screen.  Daniel Craig has not made another film since "Skyfall" and he was clearly more than ready to tighten his hold on the James Bond mantle.  With every cuff link adjustment and fight, he just gets better.  "Skyfall" installed a new M, Q, and Moneypenny to this modern treatment.  All three actors, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Naomie Harris, are granted rich opportunities to participate in the adventure, expand their appeal, and settle into their roles as mainstays beside Craig.  Whishaw is especially good.

The heroes are on the right track, but the same cannot be said for the villains.  True of all Bond films since Greek mythology, a hero is only as good as his villain.  Like Javier Bardem before him, Christoph Waltz brings a signature intelligence, dialogue delivery, menace, and Oscar pedigree resume to this stage.  He is a nice get and a fair fit for "Spectre," but he is not at the pantheon of Bond villain greats (yet).  Backing him up as SPECTRE's muscle is a word-less performance from professional wrestler and "Guardians of the Galaxy" star Dave Bautista as the brick house Mr. Hinx.  They need to exchange advice from Toby Keith's "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action."  Give Bautista some lines (he's got the power), trim Waltz's puppeteering/speechifying, and both would be improved.

Behind the camera, retaining Sam Mendes as the director was huge.  He brings legitimacy and maintains the character-driven focus that made "Skyfall" bigger than a collection of stunts and chase scenes.  His influence shines the most in the non-action scenes that expand the character-driven backbone from "Skyfall" to "Spectre."  His go-to composer Thomas Newman returns for another musical score that balances adequately between the introspective (his usual specialty) and the kinetic (not his strong suit).  The biggest creative loss was "Skyfall" cinematographer great Roger Deakins declining to return, but Hoyte van Hoytema ("Interstellar" and "Her") is a capable replacement, shooting on 35mm film stock and rightly favoring classical staged and crane shots over any handheld visual gibberish.  The overall look isn't as striking as the silhouette-filled glow from Deakins, but it holds up.

As it stands, "Spectre" is still wildly entertaining.  It is easily the sexiest and most seductive Bond film to date starring Daniel Craig.  Showcasing hot chemistry with Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci and exuding more confidence than torture this time around, Craig finds the "ladykiller" gear that his take on the character was missing compared to previous incarnations played by Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan.  That development is a big plus that propels "Spectre" forward from its flaws.  Sit back and enjoy this holiday season blockbuster.

LESSON #1: IT'S ALWAYS NICE WHEN A WELL-PLACED COUCH IS THERE TO BREAK YOUR FALL-- James Bond is a lucky SOB.  You'll never see him in a video of household epic fails.  

LESSON #2: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS-- James Bond, even with his many quips over the years, is a man of action.  Words are for promises and effect.  To be a man of his word, Bond backs it up with conviction, initiative, and dedication through his actions.  Putting action over words has been a primary area of creative improvement with Daniel Craig's Bond films.  It continues here in "Spectre."

LESSON #3: A LICENSE TO KILL COMES WITH A CHOICE-- When describing the need for agents like 007 to Max Denbigh, M. extols the importance in the spy game for capable killers to assassinate a target or threat.  Computers and information can't do that and drones are impersonal and take time.  The finality and efficiency of men like James Bond is something M. understands over C.  What cements that comprehension is the function of the famed "license to kill" as a choice.  It is both a clearance to kill and also not to kill.  The humans that pull the trigger are equally trained to execute the decision as well as the act itself.  There is a power of character and mettle in that choice.