Do we need James Bond in 2015? After 2013’s incredible “Skyfall”, the answer was absolutely yes. It was first off unheard of that an action movie, as shot by Roger Deakins, could look that good. But Bond also felt like a human relief in a world of superheroes, wizards and teenagers fighting in dystopian universes. Give me a hard drinking and vengeful Bond with a tortured past, casual misogyny and all, and let him take on a contemporary computer hacker and show why there’s still a place for an analog assassin.
With Sam Mendes back at the helm and Daniel Craig giving 007 another go, “Spectre” seemed to be right in line with “Skyfall”. Bond’s here to stay… or that was until another movie this summer, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, had more memorable fun with the same concept of an outdated agent in a surveillance state of drones and technology.
“Rogue Nation” took the best parts of the previous four films and reminded everyone why “Mission: Impossible” is a bankable franchise for the 21st Century. The whole point of the Bond reboot starting with “Casino Royale” has been to adapt Bond in a similar fashion, making him darker, grittier and more ruthless. Since then they’ve been building to this, a movie that could bring the Bond mythology back into the modern fold.
But Mendes bungles the merger, relying too heavily on callbacks not just to past classics (the rebranding of a classic villain, a brawl on a moving train, a wintery car chase on alpine slopes), but also attempts to trace plot threads to each of the three previous films, perhaps most notably “Quantum of Solace”, for whoever honestly remembers that film. It’s a Bond movie that’s far too dense in its Easter eggs without ever getting to the meat of the backstory or the themes at hand, and like “Quantum of Solace”, it’s one of the less memorable films in the franchise.
After one more rogue mission in Mexico City against MI6’s orders, Bond is indefinitely suspended by M (Ralph Fiennes) just as a new defense minister, C (Andrew Scott), is threatening to shut down the 00 program entirely. Bond’s agenda however is to track down a secret organization after a tip from the old, deceased M (Judi Dench). He stumbles across Spectre, as led by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who uncovers that he is “the author of all of your pain”.
That Oberhauser is indirectly responsible for the deaths of all the women in Bond’s life is a detail we have to take for granted. Even if the seeds had been planted in previous films for this to be possible, his motivation in the present is murky. But then this is a Bond movie; what more do we need to know than surveillance is bad, and he’s an evil overlord who controls everything?
Plot aside, the presence of Deakins as Mendes’s cinematographer is sorely missed here. One early car chase through tiny Roman corridors is clunky and needlessly spiced up with bad humor on the other side of a phone from Moneypenny. And once the new Bond girl Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) gets involved, it seems almost repetitive to stage yet another chase, this time in another globe trotting location with a character we don’t yet care about.
“Spectre” is still good for some campy, cathartic fun. Craig is as good a Bond since Connery, his rugged detachment saying more than his dialogue ever could. And after a thrilling fight with the hulking Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) aboard a train, Mendes cues up a perfectly timed sex scene that brings the house down. Little else is as surprisingly memorable as anything in “Skyfall” or “Casino Royale” however. The cranial torture gizmos Oberhauser uses on Bond pale compared to Bond’s simple nude torture in “Casino Royale”. And Waltz, perhaps the most exciting casting in the franchise in some time, is sorely under-utilized.
“Skyfall” was a gem, but “Spectre” has leveled the playing field back to typical popcorn action movie status. It’s not that Bond is getting old, he’s just getting outdone.
2 1/2 stars