The Daniel Craig era of Bond movies has been something of a mixed bag so far. "Casino Royale" got things off to a strong start nine years ago — a classy, surprisingly emotional picture that truly delivered a 007 for the new millennium. But a script rushed by the writer’s strike and some poor direction led to follow-up "Quantum Of Solace" disappointing all but the most undemanding Bond fans. Then "Skyfall" rebooted anew, with some strong set pieces, a great villain, stellar reviews and a billion-dollar box office haul.
There were still complaints that Sam Mendes’ film didn’t quite feel like Bond in places, so it would be nice to report that his second movie in the franchise, "Spectre," will please both the hardcore and the more casual fan. Unfortunately, the new film, the 24th in the long-running series, feels more like a successor to ‘Quantum,’ or to one of the ropier Roger Moore films, than to its Oscar-winning predecessor. (It won for best Best Original Song and Best Sound Editing).
Things get off to an impressive start, technically speaking. An extended tracking shot (Bond goes “Birdman!”) follows Bond (wearing a "Live & Let Die"-ish skeleton outfit) through a Day Of The Dead parade in Mexico City, up to a hotel with a beautiful woman, out onto the balcony as he leaves her, and up onto the roof, where he proceeds to blow up the building across the road containing terrorists that were plotting an attack on a stadium. But an Italian hitman survives, leading to a chase on foot, then a fistfight in a helicopter above a crowded square, before 007 gets his man, plucking a ring with an octopus symbol off his finger.
As it turns out, the operation was a final assignment from Judi Dench’s now-deceased M. As it also turns out, this mission wasn’t approved by MI6 and M’s successor (Ralph Fiennes), and it’s come at the worst possible time, as the intelligence services are being overhauled and merged under ambitious bureaucrat C (Andrew Scott — Moriarty in “Sherlock”). Bond is grounded, but with the semi-reluctant help of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), he goes rogue, on a quest that will take him to the hitman’s widow (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of an old enemy (Lea Seydoux) and an organization led by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), that ties everything, including the previous movies, together.
READ MORE: Watch: Monica Bellucci Stars In A New Clip From ‘Spectre’; Daniel Craig Says He Originally Expected To Pass On 007
As with "Skyfall," Mendes (and writers John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, here joined by “Edge Of Tomorrow” and “Black Mass” co-writer Jez Butterworth) are pushing forward a more serialized, backstory-heavy Bond for the modern super-franchise era, while also paying homage to classic 007 entries. We don’t just have the return of the arch-nemesis organization of the title, but also an homage to the car flip from “The Man With The Golden Gun,” a “From Russia With Love”-style train fight, a downhill mountain chase a la multiple Bond pictures, the return of gadgets to the franchise, and a rather lighter tone than the previous entries, with more quips and gags than in any Craig-led Bond film to date (the best of which belong to Fiennes’ M).
In places, it works well. The two and a half hour runtime is indulgent, but Mendes does at least make "Spectre" move quickly. Craig’s clearly having fun with a slightly looser, less grim-faced Bond, while pulling off the action with his usual crunchy aplomb. “Guardians Of The Galaxy” star Dave Bautista has a ton of screen presence as an exquisitely tailored, near-mute henchman fashioned after Oddjob or Jaws, and his big throwdown with Bond on a North African train is easily the best set piece in the film. And Lea Seydoux is easily the film’s highlight, taking her place alongside Eva Green as the best of the modern-era female leads in the franchise. Compared to Vesper Lyn, her Madeleine Swann is underwritten, but Seydoux does a lot to flesh her out, and has tons of chemistry with Craig, even if she’s served a duff hand by the film’s climax.
But elsewhere, "Spectre" feels like it’s going over old ground in uninspiring ways, and that train fight aside, none of the action feels particularly engaging, especially when put against the opening sequence of “Skyfall.” Much of the same team is in place, and the budget’s even bigger, but a car chase in Rome feels empty and linear, the Alpine sequence is a bunch of stunts in search of some momentum to tie it together, and the big opening helicopter stunt is botched by some awful green-screen and baffling editing choices (if you’re making your chopper do corkscrews in mid-air, don’t cut away just as it flips).
But the massive, movie-breaking problem? Story. Plot holes might be forgivable in a Bond movie (even ones of the gaping, you-could-drive-a-truck-through-it size we get here), but they stand out more when you’re mistaking mystery for actual story, with Bond on a quest that jumps from set piece to set piece rather than building up to something more compelling. By the time Waltz enters the game late in the third act (spoiler: he’s giving the same performance he always does), you keep waiting for some kind of unexpected twist, reversal, or even a moment that makes you feel any kind of suspense. But while press has been asked to keep the film’s surprises under wraps ahead of release, the biggest surprise to me, was that there weren’t any. In general, this feels like a film patched together out of endless hastily-drafted script rewrites rather than a cohesive vision.
It looks handsome enough, though DP Hoyte Van Hoytema doesn’t make the compositions transcend your expectations the way that Roger Deakins did with “Skyfall.” And those looking for a film with all the classic Bond ingredients may find something to like here. But those of us hoping that Mendes might again be able to take those ingredients and make something more than the sum of those parts will be left bitterly disappointed. [C-]