James Bond’s latest cinematic outing opens with an unbroken tracking shot through Mexico’s famed Day of The Dead parade, a death’s head 007 weaving through the crowd with lethal menace and purpose. Spectre fails to deliver on that promise and instead goes downhill quickly, eschewing the careful world-building of Daniel Craig’s previous three films for an odd mix of camp and deadly seriousness that never coalesces into anything more than some loosely connected scenes of varying quality.
The formula wasn’t broke, so it’s strange that the returning duo of Craig’s Bond and Skyfall director Sam Mandes would arrive at Spectre – a movie that’s alternately sluggish and baffling in equal measure. Perhaps it’s the four credited screenwriters that couldn’t come to a consensus. Wildly mixing franchise elements like Roger Moore’s quips and Sean Connery’s epic villains with the muddled action of Pierce Brosnan’s later entries, Spectre is a movie at war with itself. Supposedly fun-loving (Craig’s Bond is the lightest he’s been ever been in the role) but sorely lacking in spectacular set pieces or just general cohesiveness, Spectre is a misfire of epic proportions.
Casting Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain is a choice so obvious it’s surprising it took four films to get to it, but the movie withholds his “Oberhauser” character for most of the first half as Bond chases a trail of breadcrumbs left by behind by a beyond-the-grave M (Judi Dench). Meanwhile, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) tries to keep MI6’s double-oh program from obsolescence in the face of a proposed intelligence merger headed by the smarmy C (Andrew Scott). There’s lots of talk about drones taking the place of field agents, a concept supported by Bond’s continued property destruction on a global scale, but the movie never really dives deeper into its examination of how modern intelligence agencies actually operate (for all its faults, TV’s Homeland does this far better).
As he’s wont to do, Bond goes rogue against M’s wishes, languidly criss-crossing the globe to track down a conspiracy that seeks to tie together the disparate threads of the previous three movies. It’s nice that both Moneypenny and Q have more active roles (even M gets in on the action late in the film), but we don’t see any other double-oh agents beyond Bond, making a supposedly grand story feel small and isolated.
Worse still, the action scenes that tie together what could charitably called a plot are often listless, only occasionally taking flight. A night time chase between impossibly expensive cars in a gorgeously shot Rome is a highlight, as Bond demolishes another of Q’s carefully crafted rides in service of escaping the clutches of a Spectre goon. That goon is Hinx (Guardians of The Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista), a Jaws-like assassin relentlessly pursuing James. Bautista is physically imposing and fun in the role, a clear callback to fan-favourite Jaws right down to his ambiguous fate. They even get to have a brutal brawl in a train car, a la the excellent From Russia With Love.
Unfortunately Waltz’s Oberhauser is less successful. His big scenes are monologues in the classic Bond tradition, but his motives and methods make little sense. Longtime Bond fans can probably guess at his real identity, but the eventual reveal is more akin to the execrable Star Trek Into Darkness, sucking the air out of the room in a moment that should be chilling. And not content to merely be a bad movie, Spectre tries its darnedest to ruin Craig’s previous entries with some clunky franchise ret-conning that simply put betrays what’s come before.
Much was made of the casting of eternally gorgeous Monica Belluci as a Bond love interest, but unfortunately she’s given short shrift too, appearing only briefly and – in keeping with the movie’s modus operandi – nonsensically. Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swan has more screentime but is also ill-served by the jumbled script. For a while, it seems as though Spectre wants to be a modern take on Moore’s best film The Spy Who Loved Me, invoking desert imagery and a villain’s grand base of operations. The capable Dr. Swan could serve as an accomplice to Bond’s journey, but she’s sidelined at the end following a truly cringe-worthy declaration of love.
After Skyfall had successfully hit the reboot button and secured long-time Bond mainstays like Moneypenny and Q in place, the next film was perfectly situated to again carefully cherry-pick the best of Bond and marry those elements into a modern tale. Instead we get Spectre – a movie that has numerous nods to the past but utterly fails to recognize what makes Bond’s exploits entertaining.
Yes, it’s the suits and the cars and the women, but more than that Bond’s a character that can be alternately suave and deadly – a man women want and men want to be. Believable seduction and pulse-pounding action are key to this well-worn formula, but instead Spectre is a joyless, bloodless death march full of lengthy scenes and misplaced humour. If this is to be Craig’s last film (which is unlikely as he’s contracted for one more), then at least he’ll share an ignoble distinction with former Bonds Connery, Moore and Brosnan – they all ended on a low note.
(Click here for a full ranking of all the Bond movies and to find out how Spectre stacks up.)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Runtime: 148 minutes