It’s back to the future for 007 in “Spectre,” in which the new supporting cast provided for Daniel Craig’s James Bond in “Skyfall” is matched by the return of ancient enemies. The mixture of the old and the new will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Ian Fleming’s unflappable master spy, who are likely to wax nostalgic over the reminiscences to past adventures while savoring the film’s cutting-edge action-movie credentials. Less starry-eyed devotees of the long-running franchise might not be quite so enthusiastic, finding the result an episodic chain of high-octane set-pieces that gets increasingly winded as it drags on.
The picture begins well, with an elaborate tracking shot wending through the streets of Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations as Bond tracks Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), an Italian terrorist, to a conspiratorial meeting and literally brings down the house—or rather building. A foot chase follows, ending in a fight with Sciarra aboard a helicopter swooping dangerously above the vast crowd in the square below. This multi-part prologue is exceptionally well done, starting the picture on a high note that it doesn’t, unhappily, maintain.
Upon his return to MI5 headquarters in London, Bond is dressed down by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) for going rogue at a time when the entire 00 program is being threatened by new national security chief Max Denbigh, codenamed C (David Andrews), who considers it a dangerous dinosaur and wants to replace it with an international consortium of intelligence agencies sharing their product. He sends Bond off on vacation, which our hero uses to pursue an unsanctioned inquiry that will lead him, bit by bit, to the very organization he did battle with back when he was played by Sean Connery—Spectre, still seeking world domination but now under the headship of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a supposedly dead fellow with whom, as it turns out, Bond has something of a sad history. (To be precise, Bond’s been battling Spectre for some time without knowing it; only now is its involvement revealed.)
The route to the inevitable final showdown (showdowns, really—the movie often doubles up on its various elements, concluding with yet another helicopter stunt-show to bookend things) travels through familiar territory. Bond gets involved with not one but two women (three if you count the Mexican beauty briefly played by Stephanie Sigman in the prologue)—the beautiful Lucia (Monica Bellucci), Sciarra’s widow, whom he briefly beds, and far more seriously Madeleine White (Lea Seydoux), the real Bond girl in this installment, who becomes the agent’s sidekick for much of the picture’s later pursuit of Oberhauser. She’s actually the daughter of a disaffected Spectre bigwig (Jesper Christensen, from Craig’s earlier adventures), who informs the agent that she’s the key to the location of Oberhauser’s lair. Naturally Bond must rescue her from the clutches of the villain’s chief henchman Hinx (former WWE bruiser Dave Bautista, who proves a far less interesting version of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob) in a prolonged chase featuring SUVs and a plane, and there will also be a lengthy hand-to-hand fight involving the three aboard a train as well. Earlier Bond and Hinx had engaged in the sort of protracted car chase that’s practically obligatory in any action movie nowadays.
The predictable culmination of all the plot turns, of course, is the confrontation between Bond and Oberhauser, complete with a torture sequence as inevitable as Franz’s revelation of his new identity. It was apparently the belief of director Sam Mendes, who along with his craft crew—including cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith and production designer Dennis Gassner—has handled things up to that point in an efficient if mostly uninspired fashion, that Waltz would enliven this last section of the picture (two sections, really—yet another duplication, one in Africa and another in London) with his idiosyncratic delivery. Unfortunately, the Austrian actor doesn’t manage to make Oberhauser very distinctive. His prim, cutting persona is amusing enough at first, but the film drags his act on too long, and Waltz certainly isn’t helped by the revelation of the rationale behind Oberhauser’s animus against Bond—a bit of babble that wouldn’t pass muster in an introductory college psych course.
It can’t be denied that as pure product “Spectre” has been expertly manufactured: the action sequences are all carefully crafted (if often overlong—at 148 minutes, it exceeds the superior “Skyfall” by five), and except for the music (a banal score by Thomas Newman and an anemic credits song by Sam Smith) the behind-the-camera contributions are all superb. Among the supporting cast, Fiennes and Ben Whishaw, as the new Q, who’s much more involved in the narrative than usual, come off nicely, and Naomie Harris’ new Moneypenny is fine as well, though she gets less opportunity to shine. Seydoux is certainly pretty, though not one of the more memorable females in Bond history, and the damsel-of-distress turn the plot takes at the close does her no favors. And while Christensen, as Madeleine’s father, makes a strong impression in his single scene, Scott comes across as a drably single-note little schnook.
And then, of course, there’s Craig. He’s made no secret of his disinclination to continue playing Bond, even though he’s contractually committed to one more installment, and it’s easy to understand why. Except for the purely physical aspects, the role isn’t a demanding one, and any decent actor—as Craig is—would quickly tire of a part that requires not much more than smooth surface intensity and the ability to deliver a slight smile and the occasional witty quip. Craig pulls the act off as well as anybody has, but doing so repeatedly must get boring after awhile.
In the end comparisons aren’t helpful to “Spectre”—not just the comparison to “Skyfall,” one of the best Bonds, but to other series that have followed the Bond formula. Consider the most recent “Mission Impossible” film, for instance. That franchise is basically an American variant of the Fleming prototype, and “Rogue Nation” in effect foreshadowed this picture’s narrative arc pretty closely.
And the truth is that, even if you don’t think that Tom Cruise is Craig’s equal, it was the better movie.