The opening gambit of Spectre — the fourth outing in the reinvigorated-for-the-21st-century James Bond franchise — is absolutely spectacular. It begins with a long sequence in which the secret agent and a lady friend navigate the crowds of raucous Day of the Dead revelers in Mexico City, through streets heaving with partiers, into a fancy hotel (where the party continues), up to a room. They’re dressed for the mock morbid mood, gloomy yet merry, and we catch that “fun”-ereal contagion. And then it progresses to authentically thrilling — Bond leaps out the hotel window and across rooftops to do a Secret Agent Thing, and we’re powerfully in the moment as 007 goes to work.
There’s atmosphere to spare here, and humor, and action-movie grace. It’s exhilarating. If this is how Spectre begins, what amazing goodies does it have up its sleeve for the meat of the movie?
As it turns out, not much at all. Spectre never reaches that same pinnacle of movie-movie joy again; it’s like director Sam Mendes bows out once the opening unspools, leaving the rest of the movie to an understudy. The thin plot never catches fire, either. Underlying connections among all four films are laid out here … and Spectre only moves Bond backward. The earlier films actively worked to make room for a Cold War relic like James Bond in the new global paradigm, but now this one throws that all away.
In the immediate aftermath of the events of Skyfall, Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone rogue, chasing hints of a big bad guy around the globe, while back in London, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling with C (Andrew Scott), who’s about to launch a new blanket electronic surveillance scheme that will replace the Double Zed program: something about drone warfare being more efficient than spies with a licence to kill. It’s an idea that this movie doesn’t seem to know how to develop — Bond can be just as indiscriminate as a drone strike — but it does give 007 a literal ticking clock in his race against time.
Apart from occasional explosions of not-entirely-undiverting action — the plane-vs-SUV game of chicken is mildly amusing — Bond’s globetrotting and spycraft is dreary and perfunctory this time around: too little of the brains or verve of Casino Royale or Skyfall here. There’s nothing surprising or unexpected about anything Bond uncovers on his journeys. Are we meant to be startled by what he learns about the mysterious criminal organization called Spectre (we’re given no hint of what that name means) or its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz)? ’Cause we’re not.
FYI, according to Wikipedia, the crime syndicate is mentioned throughout Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (Thunderball, Dr. No) and it’s correctly called SPECTRE, which stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. In case you wanted to know.
“You are a kite dancing in a hurricane,” a bad guy tells Bond, which is a wonderfully, poetically sinister assessment, implying that Bond cannot hope to defeat the major menace he faces. But we never see a Spectre that lives up to that.
Everyone might have well been enacting a Bond puppet show, sometimes descending into ickiness, as in the sequence with Monica Bellucci, apparently the latest in a long line of Bond girls with names that sound almost clinical: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight, Eunice Grayson as Sylvia Trench, Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole, Françoise Therry as Chew Mee, Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead, and the memorable Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore.
Bellucci’s character, Lucia Sciarra, is superfluous except as someone for Bond to bed, as if as part of a box-ticking exercise for Essential Bond Scenes. They’ve just met, but right away engage in unsexy grappling, and then her character is forgotten.
Even the second-best section of the film, after Mexico City, eventually trips over itself with awkward Bondian self-consciousness. It starts out all desert romanticism, classy, smart and funny, as Bond and the daughter (Léa Seydoux) of one of his old enemies travel around Tangiers in search of Spectre’s HQ. Then the mood’s lost, with what may be meant to be a sort of punchline, but might as well be a placard that reads Insert Obligatory Sex Scene Here.
The coupling is as empty, bloodless and tween-friendly as the violence, which is a particular problem when there’s nothing but old-school Bond sex and violence. And yet little here works on the level of nostalgia, either. It feels trite and tired, which is a disappointment for a series that had, until now, avoided that trap.