Even with all the treats in cinemas this year, for many of us 2015 has only ever really been about two films, the spy and the space opera, and with them has come the through-the-seasons hope that the best would be kept 'til last.
Well, there's no doubt that the trust-themed and death-driven SPECTRE has some superb stuff in it, but the definitive Bond movie to go with all the hype? No. For two reasons Skyfall helmer Sam Mendes' return to the director's chair isn't all that it should have been.
SPECTRE opens with an epic sequence that sets a new standard for the Bond prologue. With 007 (Daniel Craig) down Mexico way on the Day of the Dead, we get a brilliant tracking shot, a nod to Live and Let Die (there are plenty more classy tributes to other favourites to come), a hat on a bed, and a stunt to get even the sternest of set-piece scholars salivating. It's everything that you could want, and a whole lot more, and primes us for a glorious first act that's just dripping with tension, menace and doom.
As progress and political chicanery sound the death knell for MI6's standalone supremacy, Bond is on an off-the-books mission after receiving a message from beyond the grave. His past and the global perils of the present are linked on a quest that takes him to Rome, the Alps and Tangier as he tries to put the pieces together.
Mendes' determination to make things as dark as possible pays off in spades - when was the last time fans were genuinely unnerved by a Bond movie? The introduction of Christoph Waltz as the evil mastermind and Dave Bautista as his say-nothing, spare no-one henchman is, by some distance, the most chilling in the series' history. Don't be surprised if the goosebumps are still going on the way home.
At this point, SPECTRE is primed to surpass Skyfall and, arguably, the rest of its forbears, but it's in the second act, with the introduction of Léa Seydoux as the love interest, that the film starts to fall down. Her first scene in a clinic up in the mountains suggests some On Her Majesty's Secret Service-style spice and smarts, but Seydoux is ultimately miscast in the role and the change from first to fifth gear in terms of romance is as jarring as the lack of chemistry with Craig. You're never emotionally invested in a relationship that becomes the be-all-and-end-all for Bond before you know it. Flimsy female characters are an age-old failing in these adventures, but the fact that Mendes captured interpersonal dynamics so well in American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and with Judi Dench in Skyfall makes SPECTRE's shortcomings here a real shock.
As is the fate of Waltz. Since Inglourious Basterds it has felt like big screen destiny for the Austrian actor to play a Bond villain and, true to form, he brings everything you could ever want to this character. The trouble is that he's not on screen half as much as he should be. Given that SPECTRE clocks in at 148 minutes, they really did have all the time in the world to get this right. And while the decision to once again give more time to supporting characters like M, Q and Moneypenny breathes new life into the Bond universe, it shouldn't come at the expense of a masterclass in meek and mild-masked menace.
The action is excellent (a to-die-for to-do on a train is all about bone-crunching brutality), the humour is as perfectly judged as it is sparse and the race against time at the finale is everything you would expect, without ever raising the heart rate like at the start. When the dust and debris settle it'll be interesting to see if opinions are revised on SPECTRE and whether, box office bonanza aside, it'll prompt another rethink, as with Quantum of Solace.
In his recent Empire interview, Craig gave as good as a mission statement for staying in the role. "These movies are rare, and they should be brilliant," he said. "That's the only thing that matters to me." And for a lot of us too. By that yardstick, SPECTRE doesn't quite measure up, but it's still a good night out.