Starring: Daniel Craig, Christolph Waltz
Directed by: Sam Mendes
As Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig returned after the dizzying Bond bliss of “Skyfall,” fans were likely expecting a marginally better film than “Spectre.”
Craig, the durable center of the Bond canon since 2006, has left his mark on the franchise by applying his chiseled face to the character’s 21st-century incarnate. He has headed the most artistic and emotional films of the franchise — the all too necessary real-world reboot “Casino Royale” and the visually sumptuous “Skyfall.” However, the 24th entry in the longest running film franchise in history fails to honor the gravitas that Craig brings to the robotic, immortal role.
“Spectre” has everything needed to join the ranks of the aforementioned Bond classics, but the script severely undermines it with its numerous jarring intentions.
At 148 minutes, the $245 million “Spectre” is the longest and most expensive Bond film to date, but it is also an intrinsically conflicted film. Snagged between being the business-as-usual Bond and a narrative culmination of the entire Craig series, “Spectre” has issues larger than its insufferable theme song “Writing’s on the Wall.” Sam Smith does nothing but lend a phoned-in performance to soundtrack the film’s creepy, octopus-filled opening credits segment.
But whereas the superior “Skyfall” forged a new path for the franchise, “Spectre” is stuck in the past. The late M (Judi Dench, in the briefest of cameos), in the event of her death, gives Bond orders via prerecorded video to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), an anonymous target linked to the titular corporation, and attend his funeral. This assassination is the basis of the film’s exhilarating opening sequence — beginning with an ambitious tracking shot through a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City and completed with some typically awe-inspiring stunts.
Once Bond seduces Sciarra’s wife Lucia (Monica Bellucci) for information about her late husband’s career, he infiltrates a meeting of the ominous crime organization Spectre, headed by Franz Oberhauser (an underused Christoph Waltz).
Bond then traces a lead back to Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a minor villain from Craig’s first pair of films, whose daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), can help Bond locate the hub of Spectre’s main facility.
Mendes’ elegant portrayal of the contemporary action film, paired with the dazzling camerawork of Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Her”) — echoing the moody clarity of Roger Deakin’s work in “Skyfall” — makes “Spectre” an impeccable visual conception. A middle act sequence in Austria is one of the film’s scenic highlights.
The cinematography carries “Spectre” through what may be too little action for some, considering its generous runtime. But when the action hits, it’s brutal and grandiose — if also startlingly campy at times.
Take the Mexico sequence, in which Bond is saved from a long fall in a crumbling building by plopping comically on a couch, interrupting the otherwise epic action of the scene.
Similarly, in a hard-hitting fight with henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) — a possible throwback to the monstrous character Jaws of the Moore era — Bond vanquishes his foe in near-slapstick fashion.
Some humor really works, like Bond interrogating a rat at gunpoint after a few drinks in a seedy hotel in Morocco, “Who are you working for?” — but these goofier moments hinder the credibility of a film that wants us to take it seriously.
There is less homage to the classic Bond tropes in “Spectre” than there are pointless callbacks to the plots and characters of previous Craig entries.
Waltz, as the mastermind behind the past three films’ villains’ deeds, is easily the most egregious example. This lazy plot point not only reduces the impact and overall importance of Craig’s other films, but also “Spectre” itself, piggybacking on past emotions and stakes. It’s never given a chance to stand on its own feet.
If we learned anything from Craig’s superior films, it’s that Bond adventures are better when self-contained.
“Spectre” is not as disposable as the sorely ill-conceived “Quantum of Solace,” but it similarly lives in its predecessor’s shadow. The film banks on the goodwill of the newly inhabited roles of Q (Ben Whishaw), Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the new M (Ralph Fiennes) from the last installment, all of whom take on unremarkable subplots.
Perhaps the uniform excellence of “Skyfall” spoiled all of us into hoping that Mendes could produce another great Bond film, but it is a pity that the film’s potential, given the talent involved, is squandered by a substandard script. The uninspired writing alone robs “Spectre’s” potential for cinematic heights.
The project’s unfulfilled script is especially irritating because of the performances it eclipses. Craig is on fire — four Bond entries in, he wears the character’s bravado like a glove. Seydoux is easily the best Bond girl since Eva Green’s Vesper from “Casino,” portraying a complex character for a role that typically requires little more than talking eye candy. Though “Spectre” consistently stands in its own way, there are many flashes of Bond brilliance over its sprawling runtime.
The ending, thankfully, seems to tie up most loose ends for the series. Hopefully Craig’s last film, sans Mendes, will live and let a successful Bond carrer die — with dignity.