Spectre, the 24th film featuring British superspy James Bond and the fourth featuring Daniel Craig in the role, is about as close to a greatest hits album as a film can get. However, also like greatest hits albums, it’s repetitive, insubstantial and masturbatory. Instead of celebrating or playing with the classic Bond tropes introduced in director Sam Mendes’ previous, superior Bond film Skyfall, Spectre stumbles over them, clumsily stitching together the loose plot threads of Craig’s previous three films to make a haphazard narrative and emotionally-inconsistent character arcs.
The thinly-sketched plot is in place mostly to get Bond from one set piece to the next. Case in point, a posthumous video message from the deceased previous M (Judi Dench) inexplicably sends Bond on an unauthorized assassination mission in Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
When he is suspended by the current M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond goes rogue with the help of Ms. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to follow another chance lead to Rome where he infiltrates the nefarious meeting of a criminal organization called Spectre, led by a mysterious man from Bond’s past (Christoph Waltz). From there, he jumps from the Austria Alps to the Moroccan desert and back to London fighting Spectre’s agents (like former wrestler David Bautista) with the help of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) while M grapples with Max Denbigh a.k.a. “C” (Andrew Scott), a British bureaucrat looking to shutdown the MI6 and the 00 spy program.
The pre-credits sequence in Mexico is without a doubt the highlight of the film, especially a single unbroken shot following Bond weaving through the crowds and into a hotel. The title sequence is equally as Freudian as Skyfall‘s, albeit instead of blood and death themes, there’s tentacle porn and octopi galore. “Writing’s on the Wall,” the Sam Smith theme is melancholic, like Adele’s Oscar-winning song but without the catchiness. It grows upon repeated listens but still pales in comparison with the best Bond songs.
The film, reportedly one of if not the most expensive film every made at $300 million, follows the billion-dollar success of Skyfall. While producers pulled out all the stops to reassemble the team including director Mendes and screenwriter John Logan, it’s clear they buckled under the pressure. Sadly, because of the Sony hack in November 2014, we are privy to the script issues that persisted up until shooting began last December. There was hope they’d been fixed prior to production but alas, there they are on screen.
The biggest loser is Waltz as lead villain Franz Oberhauser who (SPOILERS) it should surprise no one is also known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s classic archnemesis. But the reveal is handled as badly as you’d hoped it wouldn’t. Did no one learn from the Benedict Cumberbatch/Khan debacle from 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness? The lesson is only reinforced here: reintroducing classic villains as a “surprise” is a non-starter in the Internet Age. Don’t do it.
As Ebert said, films are only as good as their villains and Bond films doubly so. Because their plots invariably revolve around Bond dismantling their evil schemes, the threat has to be real and credible. Minimally, their plans should make sense. As if bungling the Blofeld reveal wasn’t enough, screenwriters Logan, Bond veterans Robert Wade and Neal Purvis and newbie Jez Butterworth (FURTHER SPOILERS) added a backstory that Bond was adopted by Oberhauser’s father after his parents’ deaths, making James and Franz foster brothers. Fine, evil counterparts, foils, and all that, but the film leaps over logic’s edge by making the character’s motivation for killing his father, founding the global terrorist group Spectre and tormenting Bond over the years . . . jealousy over his dad liking James more as kids. *Wet Fart*.
Craig has nestled into the role and this time around takes the opportunity to inject more humor into his more stoic portrayal of libidinous spy. Lea Seydoux is a highly capable Bond girl despite the script letting her character down in places. Mendes wisely makes use of his superb MI6 supporting cast put in place by his previous film but their subplot is not particularly interesting. The film features the return of the reboot series’ only recurring villain, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) who after appearing in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, sat out Skyfall. However, his return is little more than a cameo to add continuity to the film. Most disappointingly, Monica Bellucci, at 51 the oldest Bond girl in the series, is utterly wasted in what’s essentially an extended cameo.
Craig’s four Bond films have a rhythm to them. Really, they’re two reboots, one which stripped away the Bond tropes (Casino Royale) and another which added them (Skyfall). Each followed by contested sequels with script issues concerning evil organizations (Quantum in Quantum of Solace and the titular Spectre here). In this film, Quantum is retconned as being a subdivision of Spectre all along and even Silva, Javier Bardem’s villain from the relatively standalone Skyfall is revealed to have worked for them. But the film egregiously never elaborates on these connections, other than to say they exist. It is its greatest failing.
A film that ultimately bit off more than it could chew, the result is a jumbled mishmash of classic Bond tropes and Daniel Craig era action. As an expensive spy thriller, it’s a fun time at the movies and ultimately entertaining. For Bond aficionados and those who were impressed by the prestige of Skyfall will be disappointed by this follow-up. Despite brouhaha over comments Craig made that he was done with the role on the recent press tour, the film promises James Bond will return and you can be sure Craig will return for a fifth and (probably) final turn as the quintessential British spy, if for no other reason than he is contractually obligated. Nonetheless, Spectre acts as a kind of summation of Craig’s tenure in the role, wrapping up plot threads and setting the series up yet again for a return to “classic Bond.”