At its best, the Daniel Craig era of James Bond has been all about reinvention. ‘Casino Royale’ kicked things off with an origin story that allowed the Bond conventions to be twisted through the character’s inexperience. In ‘Skyfall’, Sam Mendes reverently deconstructed and toyed with the iconic images and elements of the series. (‘Quantum of Solace’ did whatever the hell it was supposed to do… poorly.) In ‘Spectre’, the goal seems to have been to take the newfangled Bond mythology and apply it to a traditional Bondian world-domination plot.
Fair enough. The character is fairly thin, so there wasn’t really any more wiggle room to pull him apart further. The trouble is that the somber tone and commitment to continuity of the Craig era keeps dragging ‘Spectre’ down whenever it attempts to soar into glorious pulp. It’s tough to offer fleeting fun when you’re burdened with backstory and po-faced drama.
Things kick off rather wonderfully with a spectacular cold open action sequence that involves a massive tracking shot through the streets of Mexico on the Day of the Dead and a hair-raising helicopter sequence. Just when you think the movie might find a way to match the excellence of ‘Skyfall’, one of the laughably worst songs and opening credit sequences in the history of the series stinks up the screen, and it’s clear the machine won’t run quite so smoothly this time.
That awkward seesaw between Bond brilliance and mishandled tedium continues throughout the butt-numbing 148-minute running time. Thankfully, the film scores more wins than losses by the time it stumbles into the end credits. At the same time, the whole endeavor feels like a victory lap. ‘Casino Royale’ was a perfect jump start for the never-ending series and ‘Skyfall’ was an ideal extension with welcome sprinklings of self-awareness. Apparently, returning director Mendes did everything he could do with the series last time. It’s a perfectly acceptable entry to be sure, but by the end even the most devoted Bond fans might find themselves pleased by Craig’s recent media tour that suggested he may done with the character.
This time, good old Bond (as in James) uncovers a secret dastardly organization known as SPECTRE, but MI-6 seems curiously disinterested in finding out what that evil group is all about. The new M (Ralph Fiennes, amusingly more direct that Judi Dench’s character) has his hands tied by a new Agent C (Andrew Scott), who’s pushing the agency to focus more on surveillance than a creaky old network of womanizing, alcoholic spies with full passports and licences to kill.
So, Bond is forced to go rogue (as he tends to do these days) and figure out the whole SPECTRE mess himself. Helping him in secret are Ben Whishaw’s deadpan hilarious Q and Naomie Harris’ delightfully active Moneypenny. Sharing Bond’s bed are Monica Bellucci’s tragic widow (end of characterization) and Lea Seydoux’s absurdly named Madeleine Swann (who serves up more romantic tragedy for the Craig-era Bond girls). Causing trouble are Christoph Waltz’s mysterious villain (well, unless you know basic Bond history) and his henchman played by Dave Bautista with a pair of long thumbnails (used exactly as you’d hope).
Where Sam Mendes and his gang succeed most are in the incredible action set-pieces. Arriving every 20 minutes or so with due diligence, Mendes serves up some old-fashioned massive Bond destruction in exotic locales that will raise pulses and help the popcorn go down smoothly. The interactions between Bond and the reinvented sidekicks created in ‘Skyfall’ also delights with snappy witticisms that replace the stale one-liners of the old days. The movie certainly looks gorgeous and expensive as well, so no one will feel as though their inflated ticket prices were wasted. However, where things fall apart is in the storytelling.
Ultimately, ‘Spectre’ is a very simple and conventional Bond narrative: Evil man wants to control world, Bond must stop him. But the telling is hopelessly drawn-out and sluggish. The film has too many subplots competing for screen time, since the side characters now require more depth than a token jokey scene or two. Attempts to tie the villain’s plot into contemporary global surveillance concerns are tiresome – and quite frankly, explored far better in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. The same can be said for the script’s weary attempts to pull together all of the movies of the Daniel Craig Bond era, which never feels like more than a token effort rather than a master plan long held secret.
Perhaps saddest of all, an ideally cast Christoph Waltz feels wasted in an overly simplistic role. The man who was seemingly born to deliver a Bond villain speech with smiling panache is stuck with a perfunctory villain character and nowhere near the depth of Javier Bardem’s perverse scene-stealer from ‘Skyfall’.
There’s an odd sense of anticlimax to ‘Spectre’. In theory, it’s the film that should finally pull all the threads together from the recent Bond era and deliver a conclusion that shoves the somber series back into the goofy 1960s theatrics that made this the longest-running film franchise of all time. It was a nice goal, but perhaps one that was simultaneously too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Sure, going back-to-basics qualifies as a pleasant surprise, but the dramatic stakes were raised so high over the past few flicks that the filmmakers simply can’t reconcile the old Bond with the new.
Despite that conceptual failure, the movie still offers plenty of classy thrills and eye-candy. Bond’s history has far lower lows than ‘Spectre’, even in the recent batch of movies. (Here’s looking at you, ‘Quantum of Solace’.) This is still very much a massively expensive blockbuster worth experiencing. Maybe the struggles will lead to another much-needed reboot. The Daniel Craig era has been nice, but ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service‘ succeeded far better at delivering a traditional yet modern cartoonish Bond romp earlier this year. Perhaps it’s time for a new Bond and a new tone for the franchise, just with some supporting players and lessons retained from the Craig regime. It’s been fun, but not even diamonds are forever in this franchise.