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Bond Is Back; So Is His Oldest Enemy

In 'Spectre,' 007 Softens Up — a Bit

(Video) 'Spectre' Movie Trailer: A cryptic message from Bond's past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 28 minutes

Stars: Monica Bellucci, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw

Director: Sam Mendes

The first 10 minutes of Spectre, the 24th James Bond film, constitute the best action movie of the year: It's a single-shot masterpiece in which the camera tracks our hero as he follows a mysterious man in white through the streets of Mexico City. The place teems with people celebrating — what else? — the Day of the Dead.

Those 10 minutes include a macabre parade, a tense elevator ride, a failed seduction, a rooftop scramble, a suspenseful moment in a sniper's perch, a spectacular explosion and a block of collapsing buildings.

So much happens so fast, in fact, that viewers may start to fret the movie still has another 2 hours and 18 minutes to go. Can director Sam Mendes and his star Daniel Craig keep this up? If so, can you kindly direct me to the nearest defibrillator?

In their second 007 collaboration, Mendes and Craig lighten the tone considerably, particularly given the moodiness that permeated their previous installment, Skyfall. Here at last, we sense, the two are actually having fun with a franchise that originally found success, after all, as equal parts adventure, romance and spoof.


Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures

Daniel Craig stars as Ian Fleming's James '007' Bond in 'Spectre'

This time around our boy and his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), must confront a fresh adversary: the Modern Age. With the new head of British Intelligence (Andrew Scott) pushing a strategy centered on drones and satellites, the blokes in the 00 division face possible obsolescence. No surprise there — Bond's superiors have bemoaned his medieval tactics ever since Sean Connery teamed up with the archetypal M, Bernard Lee, in Dr. No. But this time something extra sinister has been added to the mix, and Bond means to get to the bottom of it. And that, of course, demands visits to postcard locales in Mexico, Rome, Morocco and Austria, all looking splendid indeed through the lens of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar).

As a guy who likes to sip his martinis one at a time, I was shaken to learn in the course of Spectre that the four Bond films starring Craig have pursued a continuing narrative, one that deals with 007's shadowy past. How I managed to miss that is beyond me; may I plead immersion in the films' terrific set pieces? Whatever the cause, now that Spectre has resolved all those questions, I'm just as happy to have been oblivious. Do we truly want to learn Bond's personal history? Haven't his inscrutable demeanor and apparent lack of human ties always magnified his appeal? No one is curious about the Terminator's life as a baby robot, and Star Wars was a lot more fun before George Lucas subjected us to Darth Vader's backstory as a cute widdle kid.

As always, Bond stands astride this film like the Colossus of Rhodes, the other characters skittering about his feet like so many sailboats. But Fiennes is cool as M, and young Ben Whishaw — so unforgettably brilliant as Freddie Lyon in the BBC series The Hour — is refreshing as 007's gadget concocter, Q.

Much has been made of Matrix star Monica Bellucci being the oldest Bond girl ever (imagine an actress with the nerve to turn 50!), but her brief appearance as the vulnerable widow of a bad guy could easily have been cut from the film's excessive length without notice. Bond's real flame in the film is played by 30-year-old Léa Seydoux, who captures the superspy's eye — and heart. That usually spells danger for the damsel in question, so expect Bond's affection for her to figure in the villain's ultimate diabolical challenge.

Which brings us to Spectre's evil overlord, played by Christoph Waltz. He's the film's most emphatic nod to Bond's 53-year reign over movie screens: The character first appeared in 1963's From Russia With Love (even his Persian cat makes a cameo here), and in the ensuing years the uber-baddie has been played by a gallery of delightfully malign actors: Donald Pleasence, Max von Sydow and Telly Savalas, for starters.

Waltz seems undersized for a villain dubbed (cue German name, please) Oberhauser. Though he specializes in playing wild-eyed, vaguely threatening eccentrics (Water for Elephants, Big Eyes), he can't measure up to dead-eyed Craig. During one face-off between the two, I found myself wondering: Why doesn't Bond simply slap this guy into the next franchise?

But as I've confessed, the moment I emerge from a Bond film, everything falls away except those signature action scenes. You'll find them aplenty in Spectre: There's a spectacular airplane-SUV chase, some crackerjack fisticuffs in a railroad car, a race against time in a booby-trapped building and the soul-satisfying demolition of a bad guy's secret lair.

For those of us who've been privy to James Bond's half-century crusade to save the world — and the tuxedo — those are the moments worth waiting for.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.