Imagine two and a half long hours of tease, followed by frustration, followed by more tease and lots more frustration, finally ending in an unsatisfied whimper. That’s about how it goes watching Spectre, the 24th installment of the 007 franchise.
At least the whole thing starts well in an opening sequence that is spectacularly conceived, written, directed, shot, and edited as the camera prowls endlessly among an extravagantly costumed throng during Dia De Los Muertos parade festivities in Mexico City. Bond (Daniel Craig) has been urged by a posthumous video from “M” (Judi Dench making a welcome cameo appearance) to kill a powerful Italian mobster named Sciarra and attend his funeral.
Things don’t go quite as they should, leading to the world’s favorite secret agent to flee the explosive collapse of an historic building, make his escape via rooftops, defend himself in a fistfight aboard a careening helicopter dive-bombing panicked crowds below in Zócalo Square. Things settle down a bit when he hunkers down for heated tryst with the assassinated mobster’s not-so-grieving widow, the spectacular and age appropriate Monica Belluci, who is pretty much wasted in a cameo. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have pulled off one hell of a gorgeous, promising opening that puts Bond on the hunt for that shadowy, Sean Connery Bond-era organization called Spectre.
Unfortunately, things get much more dull from there. Bond gets reprimanded by the cranky, fussy new M (Ralph Fiennes, who should never be asked to run on camera again), who benches him for causing havoc in Mexico. Then there’s twitchy, obviously evil C, M’s superior, played by the usually wonderful Andrew Scott (Sherlock), who announces his plans to shut down MI6 and the 007 program in favor of drones and a worldwide surveillance system network that watches everybody everywhere all the time.
What choice does Bond have but to go rogue, zipping of to Rome, Tangier, and Austria to decipher the mystery of a silver ring engraved with the likeness of an octopus, a rather attention-getting thing worn by members of a so-called top secret organization like Spectre, right? Anyway, Bond must fight off a nicely-dressed killing machine called Hinx (Dave Bautista, who gets to utter one single line of dialogue) and gets sidelined in a love affair with the very lovely Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux of Blue is the Warmest Color), a doctor whose medical expertise is never once called on but whose ability to shoot, run, and pretend to fall hopelessly in love with the hero for no real reason are the only reasons she exists.
Then there’s the purring, epicene villainy of global plunderer Franz Oberhauser, played by Christoph Waltz who gets to spout dialogue to Bond about being “the author of all your pain,” the architect of all that happened in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (but who’d want to take credit for that?) and Skyfall. That’s a nifty and elegant idea. But Waltz, instead of emerging as a classic Craig-era Bond villain, comes off more like a disgruntled, puny bureaucrat than a monster from the hero’s childhood.
Sure, the action sequences – a fight aboard a train, a wingless plane that goes skiing down a mountain – are thrilling. But the emotional intensity and gravitas of Skyfall are missing, and that makes the movie feel more like a string of highlights than a satisfying whole. As expected, Daniel Craig is pouty, snarly, fit, and remote throughout. The actor has publicly announced that after his four Bond outings he’s become so bored that he’s done.
At its worst, Spectre feels so tired, so strained in its seriousness, so forced in its dozens of Easter eggs and nostalgic references that we won’t blame Craig if he calls it quits. It’s time for reinvention before audiences, too, call it quits on 007.