Midway through Spectre, the new James Bond movie, there's a fight scene in the storeroom of a moving train. Bond has managed to wind a thick rope around the neck of the beefy villain who has been trying to push him out the boxcar's open door and somehow that rope is attached to a series of metal beer kegs that are held together by a wire cable. As the opponents thrash about, one of the barrels topples over and rolls out the door, soon pulling the next one after it. And so a perfect domino effect unfolds until, with satisfying inevitability, the big bad guy is swept from the train.
A Bond movie is all about delivering on expectations: to enjoy it you have to be pleased rather than frustrated by its predictability. In that regard, Spectre, Daniel Craig's fourth outing as Bond and the second directed by Sam Mendes, can be deemed a solid success: not as darkly stylish as Skyfall but not as stupidly grim as Quantum of Solace either. Craig, whose Bond-for-grown-ups has thoroughly reinvigorated the franchise, brings a shade more softness to his suffering spy this time out, while Mendes repeats much of what he achieved in Skyfall, correctly balancing hoary old formula and contemporary updates – if also relying on a rather similar plot that once again turns on personal revenge and traitors inside British Intelligence.
This time, MI6, now run by Ralph Fiennes's increasingly downtrodden M, is facing a hostile takeover by MI5. It's run by C (the suitably obnoxious Andrew Scott), a grasping young bureaucrat who is convinced that global digital surveillance from headquarters, rather than the human agent in the field, is the way of the future. Supported by the very welcome return of Ben Whishaw's nerdy Q and Naomie Harris's bold Moneypenny, Fiennes and the crew at headquarters have this contemporary angle nicely in hand.
Over on the old-fashioned side, Bond is busy fulfilling a posthumous assignment from the former M – you'll remember that was Judi Dench; appearing briefly here on a video – assassinating an Italian crime boss in the movie's brilliant opening sequence set in the middle of a garish Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.
C closes the 007 program and calls Bond back to headquarters but, instead, the agent goes off the radar (or in this instance gets Q to ignore the signals from a nifty new tracking device he can introduce directly into an agent's blood). He follows the dead man's widow to Rome and the annual general meeting of an international crime syndicate – the Spectre of the title. That somehow leads him to a dying turncoat in Austria who sends him to his equally endangered daughter, a doctor whose idea of a great hiding place is a ritzy private clinic located in a glass box on top of a mountain. When the bad guys follow Bond there, a furious Alpine chase scene featuring a plane and several SUVs ensues.
Of course, Bond pairs off with the beautiful Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and the two eventually confront the mastermind behind the crime syndicate in his hideaway reached by a train ride through the Sahara. Played with admirable restraint by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, he turns out to be a new and improved version of a character familiar to Bond fans, and a man equally convinced that government surveillance will ensure security – or insecurity – the world over. But who needs Edward Snowden when you have Bond?
None of this makes much sense and a backstory about the villain's long personal connection to Bond is particularly weak, but when did the global takeover plans of any megalomaniacal Bond enemy make sense? If Fiennes's grimly defeated M or Craig's subtly compassionate Bond hint at a deeper emotional universe, the multiple writers credited on this script are largely unacquainted with its existence. There's only so much updating you can do.
On that score, don't give Mendes much credit for casting the 51-year-old Monica Bellucci as the crime boss's widow; she may be an age-appropriate interest for Bond but she is only onscreen for a few minutes and his sexual approach to her, as though the only way he can talk to any woman is with his lips but centimetres from hers, comes across mainly as creepy. Neither Moneypenny – there's a boyfriend in her bed when Bond calls – nor Dr. Swann, whose skepticism is strongly rendered by Seydoux, are running to meet those lips, which is a smarter way to bury the franchise's notorious sexism.
In the film's final moments, it appears that Bond is even ready to give up his licence to kill to keep this intriguing new love interest. That's bad news for her if you consider that Craig is signed for a fifth Bond flick: the good Dr. Swann will have to be disappeared some time between now and the first few minutes of the next movie.
Bond retiring from MI6 to take up security consulting while raising a couple of kids with his doctor wife in a garden suburb? That's not the way the barrels roll.