A long and beautiful tracking shot welcomes back to the screen James Bond with vigor and excitement. Our agent is in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, an event offering suspense and spectacle as a chase leads Bond to a crowded plaza and a confrontation on a helicopter.
It’s a stirring start to a film following the acclaimed Skyfall, meeting anticipation with exhilaration. The previous entry was a most worthy one in the enduring franchise and arguably the most visually compelling and just as emotionally focused as Craig’s inaugural foray Casino Royale. Spectre enlists again director Sam Mendes and his group of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade from Skyfall and now Jez Butterworth) as they venture into the Bond literature to unearth a familiar foe. This the process, though, they also bring back camp, cliché, and convenience.
Spectre, that clandestine super-villain group that controls everything is sought out by Bond, while a tenuous connection is attempted to be made between this film and Craig’s previous three. But while reintroducing an iconic villain, along with a gorgeous Aston Martin, exotic locales, and a brutish henchman who almost never speaks (Dave Bautista), this Bond also features those old bits and pieces ripe for ridicule that often pushed the franchise into farce and absurdity.
Wit is supplied in ample amount by any permutation of M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Winshaw) Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Bond, who come to batten down the hatches, but so too lurks the head-shaking kind of laughter. “What do we do now?” asks Bond’s latest love interest, an under-utilized Lea Seydoux, following a brutal melee on a train. Cut to a scene where we bear witness to the comical answer, one that does not include tending to any wounds; it’s not hard to guess what they’re doing. In Casino Royale, Bond and Veser Lynd sat clothed in a shower, a mixture of affection, fear, and pain, following their first deadly entanglement; here, they get right done to it.
Seydoux is Madeleine Swann, the daughter of a notable evil operator (so perhaps she is more accustomed to death), and Bond uses her to get through to more evil doers. Spectre holds a meeting as if they are electing a Pope, and as if their leader is the most dangerous man on Earth. Played by Christoph Waltz (also under-used), he’s certainly maniacal, if cocky.
That’s because he seems to be in control, but as fated bad guys have done in the past, he takes to lecturing Bond on a nefarious plans while 007 is strapped to some torturous device. Perhaps the inevitable escape is somewhat credible, but that all too familiar and dated scenario is antithetical to the latest iteration of Bond that has triumphed raw action and smart storytelling. Spectre emulates Skyfall in some worthy ways, but digs up too much of the past that was silly and mocked. It only takes one shot for things to go boom.
There’s a strong core story, and it’s funny that the Spectre symbol – an octopus – is so frequently apparent. For Spectre fails to juggle multiple ideas and tangents; while Bond goes rogue – the notion that the Double O program is archaic is rehashed from Skyfall – M battles new bureaucracy and a rising security advisor that wants to consolidate surveillance around the world to battle terrorism. It’s a poorly chosen digression (security versus privacy issues abound lately in action movies), muddling a story that fails to establish Waltz’s singular malevolence, hoping instead to ride the actor’s previous successes as an antagonist.
The relationship he develops with Bond, as the one Swann does too, is forced and empty: great potential underdeveloped. With too much going on, Spectre spreads thin: Bond makes his way from London to Rome, from Austria to Tangier, but it’s only expert craftsmanship and strong acting that lends necessary credibility to unimpressive action sequences and a piecemeal plot.
As Bond lumbers towards a chaotic and out-of-character finale – indeed a sad goodbye if this is the end for Craig – he and the film seem a far removed from prologue. Bond was investigating Spectre, but along the way got stuck in the past. At least he looks great doing it.