At the close of 2012's Skyfall, the big fiftieth anniversary installment of the James Bond film series, we'd come to the natural conclusion of a de facto "Becoming Bond" trilogy for current 007 Daniel Craig. Beginning with the 2006 reboot Casino Royale, and continuing through 2008's Quantum of Solace, we'd seen Bond's first mission, his first true love, his first betrayal, and learned of the childhood trauma that shaped him into the international man of mystery that we all know and love.
With a newly-introduced, newly-youthified Q (Ben Whishaw), a brand-new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Ralph Fiennes as a freshly-installed M to give Bond his marching orders, it sure looked like the pump was primed for the kind of traditional heightened reality 007 escapades that audiences had been thrilling to right up to the beginning of Craig's tenure. But not quite. With Spectre, number 24 in the infinitely enduring franchise (and at 150 minutes this one really is an exercise in infinite endurance), there's yet more origin to unfurl.
Continuing the Craig-era trend of each sequel picking up on continuity and plot points from the previous one, Spectre (again directed by Sam Mendes, marking the first time a director has done back-to-back Bonds since John Glen's record five consecutive entries during the '80s) finds Our Man in Mexico, tracking down and eliminating some terrorists before their plan to inflict mass casualties can be carried out. Following this crackerjack pre-credit sequence, we learn that Bond was actually carrying out the final wishes of the previous M (Judi Dench, who exited last time).
Of course, the timing for this little international incident couldn't be more inopportune. In a plot development that feels like it's been mimeographed from Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation just a few short months ago, MI6's "Double-O" program -- which gives Bond his famed "license to kill -- is on the chopping block in favor of a new international surveillance apparatus. Like Rogue Nation, it falls to our hero and his small band of loyalists, cut off from traditional support structures, to defeat the baddies and prove why there's no substitute for the good old-fashioned "kiss kiss, bang bang" brand of spycraft.
To that end, Bond follows the terrorism breadcrumbs and ends up in Rome, learning that a whole host of seemingly disparate terrorist acts are all the work of one organization, the ominously named Spectre. Now, longtime fans of these flicks and their particular iconography will immediately recognize that name as belonging to a group that bedeviled 007 for the most of the earlier films (identified by the very first Bond villain, 1962's Dr. No, as the SPecial Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).
When the question of who created SPECTRE (whether Bond author Ian Fleming or his one-time collaborator Kevin McClory) presented a legal roadblock, the organization quietly disappeared from the films. The last time they had a substantial effect on the action was in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. Mind you, that was seventeen movies and forty-four years ago, so clearly the series managed just fine without them. If anything, the concept of SPECTRE was well and truly ruined when Austin Powers used it as the basis for Mike Myers' comical Dr. Evil.
For the new, rebooted Spectre, they've dispensed with the acronym, but kept the cloak-and-dagger methodology. The organization's enigmatic leader Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz, whose true identity probably won't come as a surprise to anyone following the series for awhile, but since the creatives are intent on doing the J.J. Abrams "mystery box" thing a la Star Trek Into Darkness, I won't reveal that here. Waltz is an interesting choice, though he comes off more spritely than sinister, and an attempt to give his character depth by tying him into Bond's backstory mostly falls flat due to our unfamiliarity with both the character and the backstory.
In fact, that's kind of the biggest problem with Spectre. The script (by Skyfall returnees Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan) leans heavily on audience familiarity with Bond tropes to make some of its narrative feints feel more impactful than they actually are, weaving in characters who come and go too swiftly to leave much of a mark (Monica Bellucci in a glorified cameo as a grieving widow who succumbs to Bond's charms, Dave Bautista as one of the franchise's trademark invincible henchmen). At the same time, it relies on the fact that none of the series' history before Casino Royale "matters" anymore to be able to blaze its own trail.
Now, Skyfall did something similar as well, but there was a deftness to its touch that helped make this rather glaring contradiction seem less pronounced. What Spectre attempts is to tie together several plot threads that we didn't even know had been left dangling in each entry since Casino Royale, and make it feel like the filmmakers have been building up to some grand reveal. Unfortunately, that reveal doesn't really hang together as well as it could, and kind of falls apart in the execution (as does the forced romance between Bond and Lea Seydoux's Dr. Madeleine Swann, which I guarantee will elicit unprompted guffaws).
Spectre isn't the worst Bond movie, nor is it the best. It's a little too long, a little too indulgent, and a little too scattered to be top tier 007, but it nonetheless benefits from solid action sequences and the sizable reservoir of audience goodwill for this franchise. In his fourth go-round as Ian Fleming's immortal creation, Daniel Craig lacks none of the charm and physicality that's made him the best actor to assume the role since Sean Connery. However, with some question as to whether Craig will be back for a fifth go, I'm starting to wonder if we could end up with a situation where an actor comes and goes from the role without ever having done a "traditional" Bond picture the whole way through. B-
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