There are so many things to like about the new Bond film: the gorgeous, flame-spewing Aston Martin DB10, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s exquisitely smooth and elaborate single-take tour through the crowds and rooftops of Mexico City (just one of several beautifully rendered locales), and of course, Daniel Craig as 007. Craig became my favorite Bond the instant I laid eyes on Martin Campbell’s franchise reboot “Casino Royale”, a pitch-perfect flick that set the foundation for a new era of the world’s most iconic super spy. I walked out of its “sequel”, 2008’s half-baked “Quantum of Solace”, with even more respect for the actor’s edgy take on the character, despite the underwhelming storyline. So it’s too bad that “Spectre” — Craig’s fourth outing and the second consecutive installment directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes — isn’t nearly as good as it should be.
While Craig really hit his stride in the last film, Mendes’ “Skyfall”, which delved into the origins of the enigmatic agent, he’s become a casualty of a predictable, intermittently silly screenplay (by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) in “Spectre”. The film continues the expansion of a back story that exploits Bond’s weaknesses, but to ill effect. If we’re meant to be viewing Bond more as an actual person with actual feelings that had an actual childhood, then perhaps the bad guys should be proportionately written, not designed like the villains of the ’60s who insist on divulging their master plan before placing Bond in some elaborate but poorly devised contraption.
“Spectre” picks up where “Skyfall” left off, and things are going to hell for British Intelligence. As the film gears up for the big showdown with Bond’s arch nemesis (played by an underutilized Christoph Waltz), “M” (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to keep the MI6 program from being dissolved in the wake of his predecessor’s (Judi Dench) death. The organization helmed by Waltz’s character, Spectre, which has had its tentacles in the franchise since the days of Connery, is intent on world domination, as usual. So now that Bond has been thoroughly reinvented, how does one revive this sinister, omnipresent entity for the new millennium?
Since most of my gripes will lead to spoilers (outside the atrocious opening credits sequence, a sexy/cephalopod-themed calamity set to Sam Smith’s sleepy falsetto ballad “Writing’s On the Wall”), I’ll just pose this: what do we expect from a James Bond film these days?
If it’s simply high-speed chases, explosions and fabulous stunts, then “Spectre” is the “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” of the 007 franchise. A fight sequence in a loop-de-looping helicopter above thousands of people celebrating Día de Muertos caps off the most impressive pre-credit sequence of recent memory. Later, in pursuit of one of the series’ most plot-critical Bond girls (Léa Seydoux), the super spy repurposes a prop plane as a toboggan. And, of course, the Aston Martin gets a rigorous workout — much to the chagrin of “Q” (Ben Whishaw) — as Bond is pursued by Dave Bautista’s head-crushing Oddjob analog through the narrow corridors of Rome. These two will meet again on a train, where Bond, decked out in a white tux, will get the biggest beating of his career, though he emerges curiously unmarred.
As with all Bond films, the scenery plays a vital role. The gifted Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) makes it all look spectacular, from his descent into hordes of people in Mexico City to the majestic slopes of Austria, where 007 first encounters Seydoux, who plays the daughter of Jesper Christensen’s elusive Mr. White. (Ever wonder what happened to Mr. White? That guy in the trunk of Bond’s Aston Martin in “Quantum of Solace”?)
While it remains strictly flirtatious with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who is more operative than secretary in this incarnation, Craig doesn’t restrain his machismo with a bevy of dames, including a brief rendezvous with bombshell Monica Bellucci, who plays the endangered wife of a bad guy that Bond executes at the beginning of the film. He does so based on a message left him by his prior boss (Fiennes is fine, but boy I miss Dench), that eventually leads him to the inner sanctum of the titular syndicate, an evil UN of sorts that we might expect to sprout fangs based on their selection of dark, gothic meeting spaces.
“Spectre” is by no means Craig’s “Moonraker”, though bouts of abject silliness, an indecisive tone and an utterly flaccid conclusion (which is an even bigger disappointment than “Quantum”), makes it the weakest of his four. But, while the movie leaves much to be desired, I still have faith in Daniel Craig, the most charismatic and ruggedly charming of the Bonds. One thing the film does guarantee: Bond will be back.
— Michael Parsons