“The dead are alive” are the very first words printed onscreen in “Spectre,” the 24th and far-from-last James Bond adventure. It’s a statement that could be viewed as a pre-emptive spoiler, a sly double-bluff or a swaggering boast from a death-defying franchise that, following the soaring success of “Skyfall,” couldn’t be in ruder health. Sam Mendes’ second consecutive Bond outing again passes its physical with flying colors: Ricocheting from London to Rome to Morocco across action sequences of deliriously daft extravagance, the pic accumulates a veritable Pompeii of mighty, crumbling structures. What’s missing is the unexpected emotional urgency of “Skyfall,” as the film sustains its predecessor’s nostalgia kick with a less sentimental bent. A wealth of iconography — both incidental and integral — from the series’ founding chapters is revived here, making “Spectre” a particular treat for 007 nerds, and a businesslike blast for everyone else. Spectre-cular B.O. awaits, though it remains to be seen whether the “Skyfall” is the limit.
The series-crowning crossover success of “Skyfall” three years ago — yielding not just $1 billion worldwide but breathless reviews, two Oscars and even a BAFTA for best British film — places “Spectre” in a tricky returning position. The franchise may have been a consistent performer over 53 years, but never before has it been saddled with the prestige-pic expectations that the new film is now notionally expected to meet. With Mendes’ tony cachet once more in place (minus the co-piloting of revered d.p. Roger Deakins), and a hefty (if not entirely justified) runtime of 148 minutes, “Spectre” outwardly appears to be shooting for equivalently grandiose status.
Yet even before the opening credits are cued up (accompanied by Sam Smith’s dreary, melody-averse theme song, thankfully the least propulsive thing here), one senses that Mendes and producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have, somewhat paradoxically, set out to surprise by resetting the status quo — albeit with a few administrative complications. The death of Judi Dench’s M at the climax of “Skyfall” raised the personal stakes for the usually impermeable Bond in a fashion that can’t be automatically repeated one installment later.
The indefatigable agent’s solution, and in turn the film’s, is to get stoically back to work almost as if if nothing had happened, and let the baggage emerge where it may. And while Daniel Craig’s reputation as the series’ sternest Bond stands intact when the ride — rumored to be his last — is over, his half-smile count is higher than usual. A handful of wily quips, meanwhile, point to the addition of rough-and-tumble Brit playwright Jez Butterworth to the sturdy “Skyfall” writing team of John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.
Consequently, there’s a little more room in “Spectre” for Bond’s customary hobbies — globe-trotting, red-blooded lady-killing and cold-blooded not-lady-killing — than in the comparatively contemplative “Skyfall.” The tone is set by an enthrallingly, expensively ludicrous opening sequence, set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, that ranks among the great 007 intros. Weaving through the jubilant masses, Hoyte van Hoytema’s dust-veiled camera alights on Bond in masked skeleton costume, luring a local bombshell (“Miss Bala’s” Stephanie Sigman) back to his hotel room before the quickest of quick changes finds him suited, booted and planting a hit on venal Italian mafioso Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) from the rooftop. Cue explosions, architectural carnage and vertigo-inducing physical combat in a helicopter careering perilously over the city’s crowded Zocalo square.
The narrative takeaway from all this eye-popping activity turns out to be rather puny: In winning the fistfight, Bond secures his opponent’s ring, engraved with a telling insignia. It’s a typically circuitous outcome in a film that, certainly in its MacGuffin-stacked opening hour, feels somewhat underplotted: Large expanses of “Spectre” play as diverting but diversionary action travelogue, as one transitory character in an exotic locale leads our hero to another, in pursuit of opponents who don’t really get to bare their teeth until the halfway mark.
Back in London, Bond is grounded for his unauthorized Mexican hijinks by Ralph Fiennes’ exasperated replacement M. The new boss’s crankiness is forgivable, given other professional worries on his plate — most of them involving Brylcreem-slick new MI5 boss Max Denbigh (a splendid Andrew Scott), codenamed C, who is spearheading a reorganization of Britain’s intelligence departments that could see the entire 00 program shut down. Bond considerately stays out of his hair by flagrantly disregarding his orders, jetting off to Rome and, professional that he is, promptly seducing Sciarra’s not-so-grieving widow (an underused Monica Bellucci). While there, he also gains access to a secret meeting of a shady global cooperative, presided over with calmly lethal authority by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
With the assistance of his authority-flouting MI6 underlings Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), and via a brief catch-up with “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” antagonist White (Jesper Christensen), Bond ultimately makes contact in Austria with Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), a young doctor with a dark past who identifies Oberhauser’s operation as the powerful, terrorism-inclined SPECTRE. That confirms the title’s promised resurrection of a collective enemy that has featured in six previous 007 romps, though none since 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” (Bond buffs, meanwhile, will have been counting the visual nods of SPECTRE’s signature octopus logo up to this point, most of them in the tentacular credit sequence.)
Any further plot revelations would be hazardous. Suffice to say that the unveiling of SPECTRE cues a modern-day rewrite of classic Bond mythos, teasing the audience with wry winks to series-affiliated imagery and gimmickry dating back to the Sean Connery era, from white cats to ejector seats. (The 1960s revival isn’t even kept strictly inhouse: One of several breakneck car chases pays passing tribute to “The Italian Job.”) The film finally hits fifth gear when Waltz’s louche villain emerges from the shadows, though he’s not as eerily vivid or playful an opposing presence as Javier Bardem’s Silva in “Skyfall.” The Austrian actor brings his familiar streak of fruity menace to the role, though like much else in “Spectre,” he’s working to match comforting series archetypes rather than transcend them.
That goes equally for the pic’s unsurprisingly superb craft contributions, which admirably demonstrate how the franchise’s technical bar has been raised in the last decade, without sweating much blood on the innovation front. The honey-hued widescreen lensing doesn’t quite aim for the crystalline beauty of Deakins’ “Skyfall” images, but it’s immersive all the same — sometimes recalling the oily, deep-contrast shadows of van Hoytema’s work on last year’s “Interstellar.” Despite switching to 35mm from the previous film’s all-digital lensing, “Spectre” often looks the less refined, harder-textured work, in keeping with its protagonist’s restless, on-the-fly work ethic.
Dennis Gassner’s production design represents the pic’s rather old-fashioned good-versus-evil stance by contrasting oaky Olde English veneer with glassier, ’60s-leaning modernism; Jany Temime’s costume design is largely pragmatic, though an ivory Tom Ford tuxedo gives Craig what should be his most enduring Bond look across the four films, give or take a certain pair of snug swimming trunks. Robust sound design and effects work all keep the pic rattling along without drawing overt attention to themselves; Thomas Newman’s score, on the other hand, could probably stand a little more bombast. Lee Smith’s cutting, while taking some blame for the film’s initial narrative stalling, is crisp and fluid on a scene-to-scene basis.
As for the ensemble, relieved by the script of any impulse to reinvent, everyone on board appears to be having a good time — enjoyment infectious enough to make auds overlook the relative workaday nature of Bond’s final quest. (Bond’s working days are more exciting than most of ours, granted.) Given notably expanded duties this time is Whishaw’s Q (sadly not renamed In-Spectre Gadget for the purposes of this episode), who gets to venture beyond the equipment room with plucky good humor, while reminding the errant agent that not everyone can afford his recklessness: “I have a mortgage and two cats to feed,” he chides sensibly. With Harris and Fiennes also settling amiably into their new MI6 positions, the office seems in safe hands with or without Craig’s anchoring steel.