Brash, muscular and operatic in scale, Spectre is a Bond film roaring with confidence, but masking some uncomfortable flaws that separate it from the character’s best.

An extraordinary opening sequence set during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebrations quickly establishes director Sam Mendes’ lofty ambitions. A long tracking shot follows a costumed Daniel Craig through the crowded streets, weaving past skeletons, up lifts and out onto the rooftops – and his target. It’s a stylish opening from DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, though beyond this initial gambit his lensing is more functional, and never hits the exquisite notes of beauty that Roger Deakins found nestled in Skyfall.

A quick foot chase and helicopter brawl later, and we’re into the credits, Sam Smith’s plaintive ‘Writing’s On the Wall’ soundtracking the octopus-obsessed sequence, hitting risqué notes that are eyebrow-raising even by Bond standards. You may never look at a cephalopod in quite the same way again. From there, the film whisks Bond off to Rome, the Austrian Alps and Morocco as he tracks down the secretive supervillain organisation SPECTRE, with a couple of detours in a drab, grey London.

If Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace saw franchise producers re-establishing Bond’s tough-guy credentials, and Skyfall grappled with the series’ complex legacy, Spectre is the first of Craig’s films to fully embrace old school Bond’s extravagant side, with supercars racing through Rome, secret bases and elaborate, global schemes precision-engineered to evoke ‘classic’ Bond. Even here, there is a line though – Mendes has the good sense to include an Alpine chase sequence without a single skiing henchman, for which we should all be grateful.

Craig himself once again makes a strong claim to being the best Bond yet, purring through half his lines, and offering a disgruntled, no-nonsense take on others. There are quips to be found, but they’re suitably blunt, as a villainous monologue about a historic, “unstoppable” meteorite is rebuffed: “Yes, but it did stop, didn’t it? Right here.”

That monologue comes, of course, from Christoph Waltz, SPECTRE’s shadow-y leader. It’s an enjoyable performance, and Waltz has mastered the supervillain leer, but it falls squarely inside the actor’s comfort zone, with more than a touch of Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa to it. He’s menacing enough, but feels slight and disappointing in the wake of Javier Bardem, who’s preening Silva provided so much of Skyfall’s sinister charm.

Monica Bellucci is mostly wasted on an all-too-brief appearance that serves little purpose beyond maneuvering her into some lingerie, while Léa Seydoux makes the most of an underwritten part as the sleuth’s main amour. Her character development is flaky at best, but Seydoux exudes a quiet confidence to match Craig’s own, even if the pair lack chemistry.

The other chief new addition is Dave Bautista, whose near-silent Mr. Hinx is drawn straight from the annals of Bond henchmen history. Bautista proved his comedy chops as Drax in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but cuts a more threatening figure here, delivering a spectacular, bone-crunching fistfight when he and Bond cross paths.

A saggy second half lets the tension drop, and the film’s best action is front-loaded, ultimately leaving the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime more frustrating than it is spectacular. Perhaps Mendes’ reach has exceeded his grasp after the relatively compact Skyfall, but there’s an unmistakable touch of bloat here. Murky motivations from the iconic villains don’t help matters, and it’s hard not to feel that as successful as Spectre is on the whole, it’s not so triumphant a return for SPECTRE itself.

This isn’t Bond at its best, but it’s another bold entry in a franchise still examining its relationship with its legacy, finding new ways to drag that history into the present. Bond will return, and even if Spectre is Craig’s Bond swansong, it’s a hell of a way to go out.

Words by Dominic Preston