Spectre, the latest James Bond film, begins with a blistering opening scene, the kind of action sequence that, when you stumble across the movie on TV years from now, you’ll stop what you’re doing and watch, even if you don’t stick around for the rest. Set in Mexico City during a massive Day of the Dead celebration, the international man of mystery tracks a target through the crowd of skull-mask clad revelers. Visually striking, intricately staged, and beginning with a soaring, uninterrupted take, it starts the movie out on a high note (though there’s a missed opportunity for a singularly James Bond moment at the end). The ensuing film, however, never quite measures up to this opening.
Spectre itself has to contend with inflated expectations after the last outing, 2012’s Skyfall, which is a bit of an unfair comparison. That film was nominated for multiple Oscars, winning one for Best Original Song, made more than a billion dollars at the global box office, and has been lauded by some as one of the best James Bond movies ever. It has a lot to live up to, but there have been high hopes because Spectre once again teams current Bond Daniel Craig with Skyfall director Sam Mendes.
But even for that formidable team, it’s hard to follow their last outing, and what audiences get here is a paint-by-number Bond film. The plot throws the iconic secret agent into the bed of the gorgeous widow of a gangster (Monica Bellucci); puts him in the crosshairs of a giant, nearly mute goon, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, who only says a single word); teams him up with an assassin’s daughter (Lea Seydoux); and, most importantly, pits him against a shadowy villain, Franz Oberhauser (a gleefully villainous Christoph Waltz), who may have ties to Bond’s own shadowy past.
All of the pieces are in place for this to be the kind of rollicking espionage adventure you expect from this character, complete with lovely ladies, cool gadgets that come in handy in a pinch, and a nefarious bad guy bent on world domination.
Though it hits all of the right plot points, Spectre never becomes anything more than a James Bond’s Greatest Hits album. There are no surprises to be found; if you’re familiar with the franchise, it’s easy to see where the narrative is headed. While the script purports to provide insight into his history — even the opening credits indicate that is the goal — there is little new information to be found, and not much more than images of people who have died, driving home that he’s lost quite a bit. As Spectre continues the incessant trend of psychoanalyzing James Bond, who most by now recognize as a bit of a sociopath and misogynist, any insights are surprisingly shallow and underdeveloped — these bits are easily the weakest link in the movie and where the pace stumbles the most.
The script has four credited screenwriters, and, bloated, overlong, and sagging, it could use a substantial rewrite and trim to tighten things up. Threads, like Bellucci’s widow, are dropped and never resolved, and there’s a tenuous “MI6 is in danger of being shut down” side story. In the middle it temporarily morphs into a noir-ish detective tale, which, while not bad on its own, causes the plot to flag and spin its wheels for a time when it should push forward. As there must be, there’s a romantic angle, and while Craig and Seydoux have a nice on screen chemistry, everything about their relationship is too quick and easy.
Filmed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who lensed the likes of Her and Interstellar, Spectre looks fantastic — and again, the opening is phenomenal. Wide aerial establishing shots are composed like paintings that highlight exotic locations, and the filmmakers play with long shadows, intricate framing, and depth of field to create a tense, moody atmosphere.
A few fantastic action sequences, including a car chase through picturesque Italian streets that features an homage to Grease (not kidding), are counterbalanced by others that simply don’t deliver the goods. One in particular plays as haphazard, random, and overly chaotic, like characters make it out alive by good fortune and happenstance alone, rather than due to any skill on Bond’s part.
As much as Spectre tries to connect to the larger franchise, borrowing numerous elements from earlier films — it really does play like an anthology — it also sets itself up as separate from the rest. This feels like the culminating chapter of Craig’s tenure as Bond, building on what came before in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. But there’s also a finality to the conclusion, and if you learned that Bond walks away, never to use his license to kill again, it wouldn’t come as a shock. Don’t worry, they also set up inevitable additions, and Daniel Craig is reportedly contracted for at least one more movie, so there’s that. And Bond has tried to leave the game behind before, which never works out.
Spectre is a movie with a lot of problems, both as a James Bond film and a standalone endeavor. It’s not bad, but there simply isn’t anything special or unique to be found. Still, for all of these issues, even a hugely overblown 148-minute run time, I enjoyed watching it in the theater. It’s not the best Bond film by far, not even the best Daniel Craig Bond film — I do maintain that it’s a cut above Quantum of Solace, which just doesn’t do it for me. Though it’s a standard “James Bond movie,” Spectre is still a James Bond movie, and as such it’s a pretty good time. [Grade: B-]