What would happen if a James Bond movie didn't end in a countdown-to-doom conflagration? If squads of Uzi-spraying henchmen didn't go gunning for the famous 007? If the megalomaniacal villain bent on world domination, world destruction, or at the very least world discomfort, shelved his superweapon and sought out a therapist instead?
What if Bond and the glamorous Euro muse he's simultaneously protecting and putting in utmost jeopardy booked themselves into a sleepy Airbnb in the countryside and snuggled up with a few good books and a Scrabble board?
Would the franchise survive if the producers jettisoned a formula that has been working for them since JFK was in the White House - and reading Ian Fleming in his PJs?
We'll have to wait and see.
In Spectre, it's business as usual, even if that business is pulled off with brilliant precision, ingeniously choreographed action, and an itinerary boasting some of the most photogenic spots on Earth. The 24th official Bond caper (26th if you care to count the renegade 1967 farce, Casino Royale, and 1983's belated Sean Connery comeback, Never Say Never Again), sticks to the template - and pays homage to it, too.
Daniel Craig, the moody, sinewy Brit who was handed his license to kill with 2006's Casino Royale, is back - reportedly for the last time - as the MI6 spy. Trim, terse, and tough, he has proved himself the perfect Bond for the millennium, and he opens Spectre in virtuoso style, snaking through Mexico City crowds in the midst of the Day of the Dead celebration, in pursuit of a mysterious assassin.
Craig takes to the rooftops with the nimbleness of Astaire, and then takes his target down after a wild and woolly helicopter ride that sends thousands of Dia de Muertos revelers running for their lives beneath the gyring aircraft.
As is tradition, the propulsive prologue gives way to the main title sequence - in this case, a ridiculous ballet featuring a giant, groping octopus, a naked Craig on fire, and a bevy of Bond girls in silhouette, over which Sam Smith sings "The Writing's on the Wall."
By the time the film's climactic set piece comes around, the song has proved itself shockinglyly literal: Bond returns to London, after visits to Rome, Tangiers, and the alpine precincts of Austria, darting through the scorched remains of MI6's HQ (blown up in 2012's Skyfall) where he finds his name graffitied on the corridor walls, an arrow pointing the way to. . . .
It's hardly necessary to go into the labyrinthine and somewhat labored details of Spectre's plot, which comes from a screenplay with four names attached and which has been mounted with maestrolike dexterity by Sam Mendes.
Suffice to say Bond's Mexico City assassin now has a widow back in Rome. She is played, in black veil and a tear in her eye, by Monica Bellucci, who receives the man who killed her husband with harsh words - and the unzipping of her dress. (Bond has her up against a full-length mirror, and Mendes' last shot of the clinching couple is of Craig's back and broad shoulders. It looks as though the actor has pressed himself against the glass in a fit of narcissistic ecstasy. What's Mendes trying to say?)
Bond has gone rogue. There's a move afoot to shut down the double-O program. Worse, an unctuous, ambitious official, code name C (Andrew Scott), has plans to ally Her Majesty's intelligence agency with counterparts from eight other nations - a kind of pool approach to espionage. M (Ralph Fiennes) is reluctantly going along with the plan, while Q (Ben Whishaw), the agency's gizmo-and-gadget geek, and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), M's assistant, are quietly helping Bond as best they can.
And he needs help. He's after the head of SPECTRE, the many-tentacled criminal org of epic and evil design, and Bond thinks he has found his supervillain in the form of Franz Oberhauser, a man whose history, it turns out, dovetails with Bond's own. As portrayed in characteristic and increasingly caricaturish fashion by Christoph Waltz, Oberhauser is seen later in the game sporting a Nehru jacket and stroking a white, fluffy cat. Any similarities to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the ur-baddie introduced in 1963's From Russia with Love, are purely intentional.
At almost 21/2 hours, Spectre can drag, notably in scenes where it shouldn't, such as the big face-off between 007 and Blofeld in an elaborate desert complex. Bond is strapped to a torture chair while his companion, Dr. Madeleine Swan (Blue Is the Warmest Color's Léa Seydoux), looks on, understandably unsettled. She's a psychologist and the daughter of one of SPECTRE's lapsed masterminds. (Any parallels between Spectre's daughter-of-a-missing-genius-with-villainous-ties and Alicia Vikander's role in Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - yes, daughter-of-a-missing-genius-with-villainous-ties - is purely, um, unfortunate.)
Spectre gathers many of the strands from the previous three Bonds starring Craig, making sense, sort of, of the nefarious doings of Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Mathieu Amalric's land-grabbing madman in Quantum of Solace, and Javier Bardem's cyberterrorist in Skyfall. Craig - if he's good to his word - can now walk away from the role happy in the knowledge that things have come full circle, that all the car chases, shoot-outs, fireballs, fierce hand-to-hand combats, and amorous assignations have not been for naught.
They've been for double naught and seven.
Spectre *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sam Mendes. With Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText