The 24th installment in the official 007 canon, "Spectre" is the sequel to "Skyfall," which gave the seminal spy-thriller series a pleasingly smart and sophisticated makeover
after the dismal "Quantum of Solace." This classy upgrade paid off with box office receipts of $1.1 billion, the most profitable Bond vehicle to date.
So it is no surprise that "Spectre" reunites the same core creative team including director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with additional work by the award-winning British stage dramatist Jez Butterworth. "Skyfall" lightly gentrified the Bond property, refreshing its peeling paintwork with arty touches and dramatic gravitas, rebooting 007's origin story much like Christopher Nolan did for Batman — indeed, Nolan was reportedly a front-runner to direct this latest chapter before Mendes agreed to return.
"Spectre" is the most expensive 007 movie to date, with a budget rumored to be well north of $250 million. At 148 minutes, it is also the longest, which becomes evident in the bloated second half.
But Mendes kicks off in the same impressive mode as "Skyfall," deepening Bond's back story while self-consciously borrowing from the franchise's classic Sixties heritage. The first act is great, full of dark portent and bravura film-making flourishes. However, the final hour disappoints, with too many off-the-peg plot twists and too many characters conforming to type.
While its commercial prospects seem bulletproof, "Spectre" ultimately feels like a lesser film than "Skyfall," falling back on cliche and convention.
Filmed in downtown Mexico City during the riotous Day of the Dead festivities, the stupendous pre-credits sequence opens with an extended tracking shot that would make Orson Welles jealous
. After a spectacular demolition and helicopter fight leaves a trail of carnage, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is grounded by his jittery bosses. But he defies their orders as he races to Rome, the Austrian Alps and the Moroccan desert in search of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the shadowy mastermind behind an all-powerful criminal cartel called Spectre, reviving an iconic piece of 007 folklore dating back to the Sean Connery era.
Meanwhile, back in London, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are fighting for survival against an ambitious government mandarin called C (Andrew Scott) with plans to shut down the 00 agent program and replace it with his own sinister high-tech surveillance network. If all this sounds a little familiar, it is pretty much the same plot as the latest "Mission: Impossible" movie "Rogue Nation,"
right down to using Morocco and Austria as exotic locations. But at least "Spectre" boasts a little more visual finesse, courtesy of "Interstellar" cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.
Contracted for five films, but reportedly sick of the role, this is Craig's fourth outing playing the ruthless imperial assassin that even author Ian Fleming called "ironical, brutal and cold." With his chiseled physique and icy intensity, Craig arguably embodies that image of a sociopathic sadist more than any previous 007. He is a tuxedo-clad Terminator, a weapon of mass seduction, the pathological narcissist who came in from the cold.
But during Craig's stewardship of the role, Bond has also acquired an emotional hinterland that saved the character from being just an anachronistic, misogynistic Cold Warrior. "Skyfall" added intriguing psychological depths to his character, hinting at deep childhood wounds and hidden homoerotic leanings. His close attachment to Judi Dench's matriarchal spymaster M also pointed to major unresolved Mummy Issues, the ultimate military-industrial Oedipus complex. The name's Freud. Sigmund Freud.
"Spectre" adds a few more shades of post-Freudian angst to Bond's psyche, dropping some teasing clues about family traumas and ancient grudges. Cleverly referencing events and reviving characters from all three of Craig's previous 007 films, the script initially riffs on notions of memory and nostalgia. The character played by French female lead Lea Seydoux is even called Madeleine Swann, a name whose Proustian double resonance can only be deliberate.
But Craig's lack of humor or warmth remains problematic. His two main seduction scenes, first with a fleetingly featured Monica Bellucci, then with Seydoux, have a forced and jarring quality. The ingrained chauvinism of the Bond universe is a given, of course, and can be enjoyed in an ironic Austin Powers manner. But "Spectre" seems confused in its token nods to feminism, with Madeleine initially scorning Bond's irresistible charms, only to melt helplessly into his arms a few scenes later. Still, at least no women are callously murdered purely as punishment for sleeping with James Bond, as happened in all three of Craig's previous 007 films.
We can normally measure a Bond film by the quality of its villain, and Austrian double Oscar-winner Waltz certainly gives good evil, spritzing up Oberhauser with a light fizz of mirth and mischief. But he is hampered by a script which fails to make his long-standing grudge against Bond plausible, and provides zero motives for his power-hungry schemes. His big revelation in the final half hour will come as no great shock to anyone even vaguely familiar with the early 007 films. It feels like the filmmakers have been bluffing a great poker hand for two hours before throwing down a pair of threes.
In pure action adventure terms, "Spectre" delivers the goods, with plenty of revved-up supercar porn and several kinetic high-speed chase sequences on road, river and snowy mountain slope. Thomas Newman's busy score amps up the pulse-racing bombast, smartly invoking operatic melodrama in Rome and sinewy Arabic folk music in Morocco. Sam Smith's flimsy theme song is a weak entry in the canon of 007 classics, but admittedly it sounds better blasting out of huge cinematic speakers as Daniel Kleinman's gorgeous, gothic title credits billow across the screen. "Spectre" contains enough dazzle and derring-do to keep the Bond brand afloat, but not enough to make it a game-changing reboot in the manner of "Skyfall." Two steps forward, one step back.