Bond. James Bond. The superspy creation of Ian Fleming’s has had a life on the silver screen that has lasted over 50 years though 23 films and six different actors portraying Bond. Naturally, there are plenty of ups and downs in such a long-standing, sprawling franchise. The last installment in the Bond saga, 2012’s Skyfall, was among one of the recent peaks, a critical and commercial hit. Hoping to capitalize on the success of Skyfall, director Sam Mendes returns with Daniel Craig as 007 in Spectre, a film that could only be categorized as a disappointment following its effective predecessor. Spectre is a globe-trotting adventure, sure, but it lacks a captivating villain and any narrative clarity for much of its bloated running time.
Before the disappointing elements of Spectre can kick in, the film actually dazzles with a wonderful opening sequence. During a massive parade in Mexico City for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Bond (Craig) and a female companion navigate through the packed crowd before Bond takes leave of her to get to work; it’s a long impressive shot that kicks things off, though there may have been a few edits snuck in there. The sequence features impressive action filmmaking and crazy stunt work, all of which work best when not employing blatant CGI. Bond achieves his goal in preventing a bombing and assassinating his target, but 007 wasn’t on official business and creates a firestorm back in England that may very well end the 00 program. From this point onward, Spectre has a few impressive moments but is mired in plotting that is more confusing and underwhelming than exciting.
The head of Bond’s unit, M (Ralph Fiennes), is facing political pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a bureaucrat who aims to replace superspies with modern technology of drones and digital surveillance, which leaves Bond officially grounded as an agent. But James Bond isn’t the kind of person to sit on the sidelines and is able to get assistance from Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), who direct him to a number of rendezvous in Italy and Austria. In Italy, Bond is able to coerce information from Lucia (Monica Bellucci) about the shadowy organization he’s trying to undermine. Infiltrating this group isn’t as easy as it seems, and Bond soon draws the attention of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and the muscle-bound baddie Hinx (Dave Bautista). In Austria, Bond learns that he’ll need the help of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former nemesis, in order to unravel the multiple tentacles of the organization of Spectre. This attempt at a brief synopsis has left a number of ineffective twists and reveals, and is likely clearer in conveying what’s happening in the film better than film itself.
After the excellent opening, the bad omens really begin with the laughably awful theme song “The Writing’s On the Wall,” featuring Sam Smith’s out of place falsetto. As the film builds, you’re willing to go along with it as it features a few nice action sequences, though how they play out in relation to the story remains obscured. But after a while, Spectre begins to wear thin, painfully thin. Mendes and four credited writers (John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) bet so heavily on the film’s major reveals they forgot to put in the necessary details to make these reveals have any actual impact. In many regards, the reveal concerning Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser bring to mind the Khan reveal in Star Trek Into Darkness – it makes no sense to the characters in the film and only exists as a bit of half-baked fan service. Even worse, Waltz’s character has quite possibly the most ludicrous motivations for his life of villainy.
The writing isn’t all that shortchanges Christoph Waltz in Spectre. For unfathomable reasons, the charismatic two-time Oscar winning actor is relegated to a handful of scenes (roughly three). Nor is Waltz the only underutilized cast member of the film. Monica Bellucci is criminally wasted in two scenes, one of which being her seduction. As the other Bond girl, Léa Seydoux has more screen time, but her Madeleine Swann is a character written with deep contradictions – a characteristic in a previous scene could be whisked away in a moment’s notice. Seydoux and Daniel Craig don’t have a strong chemistry on screen, rendering their romantic subplot feeling incredibly forced. Having proved himself a capable actor as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s shame that Dave Bautista is handed a mostly silent role, uttering maybe three words, but he does get in some of the film’s best action.
The spectacle of Spectre is easy on the eyes, but it never has the story or the characters to make you actually care what’s happening, if you can figure out what’s happening. It’s interesting how fairly major plot details aren’t entirely clear until much later in the film. Spectre is a mystery that keeps withholding information, keeping the audience at a distance when it should be giving us tidbits to pull us further in. At nearly two and a half hours, Spectre never justifies its length. In a year where we’ve had a number of exciting spy movies, the latest James Bond adventure ranks at the rear of the pack, beaten by Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spy, Kingsman, and even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Bond sets the bar for the rest of the genre, and sometimes even he can’t reach it.