Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond has always been haunted by ghosts. In his 2006 debut in the role, Casino Royale, Craig had to contend with the ghosts of Bonds past, and each subsequent film (Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and now Spectre) has gotten weightier with the freight—mostly the corpses for which the licensed-to-kill MI6 agent can hold himself responsible—of the the film(s) to come before. Spectre especially makes this subtext textual, begining with its title, its opening title card ("The dead are alive"), and an opening sequence set in Mexico City during Dia de los Muertos, with Bond dressed as a skeleton and surrounded by thousands more.
As scripted by John Logan (Skyfall), Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (all the Craig Bonds, plus Die Another Day and The World Is Not Enough), and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), Spectre reteams Craig's Bond with director Sam Mendes for another classy, moderately thoughtful affair in the mold of Skyfall. Mendes allows elements of the old Bond glamour: there's no rumpling Craig in his fitted Tom Ford suits, quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) supplies tricked-out Aston Martins and the latest "alarming" Omega watch, the intrigue remains international (playing out in Rome, Tangier, and the Austrian Alps), and Bond beds the requisite trio of beautiful women. But the Craig Bonds also continue their modern streak of questioning the dark and destructive psychology of this masculine icon, this preternaturally skilled but insanely reckless secret agent—his greatest secrets being his own hurt and loss and loneliness.
What was explicit in Skyfall (the "how long can I do this?" aging of Bond and, by extension, Craig) lingers implicitly in Spectre's obsession with mortality, and Bond's potential obsolescence—an overarching theme since Judi Dench's debut as M twenty years ago—continues to play out here in the person of the head of the Joint Intelligence Service (Andrew Scott of Sherlock), who's witheringly referred to as "C" by an unwelcoming MI6 ("We know what "C" stands for," Bond teases). To C and, it turns out, to the criminal network known as Spectre, "Information is all," as gathered through ultra-invasive surveillance. Symbolically, surveillance offers the greatest threat to the emotionally stonewalling Bond, and this outing's villain, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), is an ostensible dead man who knows too much about Bond's long-ago and recent past.
Oberhauser becomes a vehicle not only to introduce Spectre, but to square it with the events of the previous three Bond films, striving to give Craig's run the appearance of being cumulative and even grand-design culminative (and should Spectre be valedictory for Craig—though I doubt it—it comes equipped with a fitting sendoff, complete with Monty Norman's immortal theme). All of the departed major players of those films return in ghostly form or allusion (the skull-laden opening titles, to the Sam Smith-performed "Writing's on the Wall," includes these characters' hazy head shots), and the pre-title sequence establishes a motif of explosions, rubble, and ashes, signifiers of Bond's ruinous life. Bond's second tryst in Spectre pairs him with the widow (Monica Bellucci) of a man he killed, and Bond's primary romantic interest here is the daughter (Léa Seydoux) of a man whose death Bond partly enables and unflinchingly witnesses.
For all this, Spectre proves overlong and a bit logy, a side effect of Mendes' unhurried attentions to thought and conversation, and his intention that we should palpably feel something of the weight Bond carries. The twenty-fourth James Bond film can be alluringly moody in this way, but its best moments tend to be those that most remind us of glories past, particularly the action scenes that raise us above the general dourness. In this sense, Spectre peaks early, its most thrilling action sequence being its first as Bond tails a target, chases him, and literally rises above the madding crowd in a frantically barrel-rolling helicopter. Plane, train, and automobile theatrics follow—and with its pinches of wit, the latest Bond isn't entirely humorless—but it's probably past time (record-breaking box office receipts notwithstanding) for the franchise to start erring more toward the series' traditional sense of fun.