Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in yet another entry to the never-ending franchise, which, like its hero, shows little sign of nearing retirement. Picking up not long after the events of Skyfall, the film opens with a marvelous sequence in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebration. Bond has arrived ostensibly for a little relaxation, but in reality seeks to kill a Mexican assassin at the behest of the now-deceased M (Judi Dench, in a brief cameo). Of course the agent gets more than he bargained for, and mayhem erupts in the streets. Sam Mendes, a director known for his thoughtful films which showcase great performances by actors, shocks once again as he did in Skyfall with a breathtaking helicopter chase which manages the preposterous feats the Bond series is known for, while at the same time giving a real, visceral feel to the action that somehow makes it credible. It’s a balancing act few directors can pull off.
From there, however, Spectre gets a bit muddled. Bond returns to London where the double-0 program is in danger of being shut down. He’s confronted by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) in what amounts to little more than a variation on the rogue cop/irritated boss scene where Bond arrogantly defends his actions, much to M’s ire. Familiar faces make their obligatory appearances, including Naomie Harris as Ms. Monneypenny and Ben Winshaw as Q before the movie introduces the nefarious C (Andrew Scott), who wants to replace MI6 with a super-surveillance system. Give the Bond films credit for trying to remain current, though if C’s true allegiances are ever meant to be in question, perhaps they should at least make an effort to make him seem less, well, slimy evil.
The first half of Spectre suffers from an over stuffing of too many half-explained plot points and underwritten characters as Bond seeks to avenge M’s death and find the truth behind the titular organization. Since this is a Bond film, it’s safe to assume SPECTRE wants world domination, but just how and why they go about trying to accomplish this master feat never quite becomes clear. The head of the organization is played by two time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and the details of his character I dare not discuss here, other than to say he must have a fantastic sense of smell, since he manages to spot Bond in a crowded boardroom in the dark from one floor below where Bond lays in wait.
Spectre pulls itself together in its second half, providing the same kind of style-porn, action and absurd intrigue that cemented the series as a staple of film. The movie introduces Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, a fine addition to the Bond girl repertoire as she and Bond traverse some of the world’s most beautiful vistas, including the mountains of Austria and the deserts of Tunisia. That any frame from the second half of the film could easily be a Ralph Lauren ad found in the pages of Vanity Fair isn’t exactly a compliment, but it’s nothing shameful either. The final action sequences are on par with anything the series has delivered in terms of spectacle, and the screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade delivers plenty of in-jokes and Easter egg references to amuse die-hard fans of 007. Moreover, as a closing performance to this reinvented Bond with Craig as its anchor, the movie does an outstanding job tying together the events and characters of the three previous entries to culminate in a satisfying and emotional conclusion.
Waltz brings the same sociopathic charm to his role that won him an Oscar for Inglorious Bastards, but in a way, that illustrates one of the movie’s biggest let-downs. When all is revealed about his character, I was left wondering why he had so little to do. At 150 minutes, the movie is more than long enough, but Waltz is curiously absent through the first two thirds. His scenes with Craig carry the kind of diabolical pleasure any good cinematic hero-villain relationship should, and boost the plot beyond the sort of generic spy idiom. Even more criminal: the utter waste of bombshell Monica Bellucci who puts in a brief appearance as a sultry widow (and who, ravishing and sexy as ever at 51, might qualify as the first cougar Bond Girl), and the aforementioned Harris, who projects the kind of intelligence, sexiness and grit that a great Bond heroine should, more so even than any other woman in the film. If the series wasted any opportunity, it’s the pairing of Harris and Craig. What a sexy adventure they might have enjoyed together!
Nevertheless, Spectre makes for fine, classy entertainment, and if this is the last outing for both Craig and Mendes as part of the Bond universe, it’s a good one, chock full of the tropes that make the series so much fun. In the context of 2015 at the movies, the action doesn’t come close to matching the inventive and hallucinatory visions of Mad Max: Fury Road, and somehow the scenery in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation had richer beauty. Still, for a series on it’s 24th entry, the Bond films still have more gravitas than the cartoons of the Marvel movies and less of the wear. No doubt James Bond will return yet again, though after the unexpected fun of Casino Royale, Skyfall and now Spectre, he’ll have some tough standards to live up to.