Sam Mendes really knows how to make a James Bond film. It's as if he sits down with a checklist during the planning stages (and it's perfectly possible that he does) and ticks off all the essential elements: exotic locations, thrilling chases, cool gadgets and beautiful women. Against such criteria Spectre – the director's latest Bond offering, out this week – certainly doesn't disappoint. In fact at times it's like an homage to the series' 60s and 70s heyday, adding in classic cars, a mysterious super-base and even an update on the Goldfinger laser for good measure. After all the searching character questions and superior drama of previous movie Skyfall, Mendes has now made much more of a 'classic' Bond movie – right down to the introduction's whiney Sam Smith theme music and its psychedelic-erotica accompaniment.
Having spent so much of his previous adventure bogged down with angst about being a dinosaur in the world of modern espionage, Spectre sees Bond much more comfortable in his evolving skin. As lead actor Daniel Craig corrected a journalist recently, his character is even seen falling for a woman his own age (rather than, as the interviewer put it, an 'older woman'), while the lone wolf with whom we've become so familiar has begun to rely at last on a wider team, a little like Ethan Hunt in the competing Mission Impossible franchise. While he's still given a few moments of pause and reflection though, this is the return of the all-action Bond; a man who leaps from stunt to chase to explosion, barely stopping to sip a dirty martini.
Those action set pieces are at times breathtaking, even in a cinematic age where awe and wonder are getting ever harder to generate. The opening sequence, set in Mexico City during the 'Day of the Dead' festival, ranks among some of the great visual spectacles in Bond history. And somehow Mendes manages to make the various chases interesting, even when it seems every convention of the genre has been exhausted. The helicopter sequences in particular manage to pull off stunts and tricks that we've genuinely never seen anywhere else; a pretty impressive feat in itself.
While Spectre is enormous fun however, it's not really about very much. It doesn't need to be of course; it's a spectacle and a highly entertaining one. It's no Skyfall, but thankfully it doesn't ever try to be. By the end, you feel like you've eaten a really good hamburger rather than a first-class steak; the film is hugely enjoyable, but not particularly thought-provoking.
Apart, that is, from the scenes involving the film's dastardly villain, the always-superb Christoph Waltz. As the trailer reveals, his character is a kind of evil kingpin beyond all other evil; as he tells Bond memorably at one point, "the author of all your pain." There's an interesting idea at play here – that behind the worst evil you can imagine, there's one figure drawing it all together, in his own way even more evil than the rest. This is the one point at which the film interlaces with Christian theology; that's also the Biblical worldview – that behind the worst things in our world there's a super villain somehow pulling the strings.
If that idea resonates with us, so does the need for a hero. James Bond is no Jesus, but he gives us an indestructible hero we can believe in; someone to fight even the greatest evil imaginable and still come back victorious and alive. I wonder if it's a coincidence that when Waltz makes his first appearance (albeit with his back to us), a giant crucifix dominates the back of the shot.
These reflective touches are light however. For the most part, Spectre is about giving audiences what Bond movies are supposed to. As an all-action thrill ride with a pace that defies its expansive running time, Spectre delivers, and then some.