WASHINGTON — Bond fans are almost unanimous in declaring Daniel Craig’s tenure (2006-2015) a rousing success, returning the series to the heights of Sean Connery’s run before decades of George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan left the franchise as a caricature of itself.
Our post-9/11 version of 007 is decidedly darker, brooding and aching from the pains of lost love and fallen comrades after “Casino Royale” (2006), “Quantum of Solace” (2008) and “Skyfall” (2012).
In “Spectre,” Craig’s fourth installment, the conflict fittingly taps into society’s current concerns of intelligence gathering, as new face C (Andrew Scott) wants to merge all of the world’s national security agencies into one global intelligence agency. British chief M (Ralph Fiennes) fights to keep MI6 alive, but wants the risk-taking James Bond (Craig) to remain on the sidelines to avoid bad press.
Thus, 007 must work undercover with Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to pursue a nefarious individual named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), whom the previous M (Dench) ordered assassinated in a secretly-recorded message. As Bond continues to yank the strings of international evil, he uncovers a sinister terror organization named SPECTRE, orchestrated behind-the-scenes by a shadowy puppet master named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
“Skyfall” director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) returns with a brilliant pre-credits action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. It starts as a long single-take through the parade route, up an elevator, through a hotel room, out the balcony and across the rooftops. As Bond settles into his sniper scope, the single-take ends and the rapid-cutting begins, as we enter an expertly crafted helicopter fight that’s one of the most thrilling set pieces in the entire franchise.
Take note, fellow filmmakers: this is exactly how action sequences should be done.
From here, we dive into the always-anticipated opening credits. Rest assured, they do not disappoint. Following Adele’s Oscar-winning title song for “Skyfall,” this time we get Grammy champ Sam Smith singing “Writing’s on the Wall” as the camera dives into the octopus logo of a SPECTRE ring. Inside this dark dream world, gorgeous motion graphics splash onto the screen, mixing glimpses of Bond’s past with imagery of tentacles symbolizing the strings of SPECTRE’s malicious marionette.
It’s the first official appearance of SPECTRE in an Eon Production since Connery battled Ernst Stavro Blofeld in “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). The historic nature doesn’t go unnoticed, as Mendes packs as many Bond references as possible into Act 2. From the ski lifts of “Moonraker” (1979) to the train-car combat of “From Russia with Love” (1963), it’s all here for your nostalgic enjoyment.
On the downside, the plot meanders — especially for those who don’t get the references — as we bounce from the ancient ruins of Rome, to the snowy peaks of Austria, to the busy markets of Morocco, complete with a “Casablanca”-style dive that recalls Rick’s Cafe Americain. Along the way, Bond destroys a number of vehicles and encounters minor characters that fall by the wayside (i.e. Monica Bellucci’s Lucia Sciarra). By the time we reach a deserted train depot — recalling Cary Grant in “North By Northwest” (1959) — we’re thankful for the chance to catch our breath.
However, Act 2 deserves credit for introducing us to several memorable characters. Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) is a stellar Bond Girl, heart-stopping in a silver gown walking down the center aisle of a train, then proving skilled with a weapon after plenty of past training with firearms. She would have been better served without the ludicrous “I love you” to James that doesn’t feel earned.
Either way, she’s a welcome addition to the Bond myth. Seydoux has effectively caught the eye of our most famous filmmakers: Quentin Tarantino in “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), Ridley Scott in “Robin Hood” (2010), Woody Allen in “Midnight in Paris” (2011), Brad Bird in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (2012) and Abdellatif Kechiche in “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013), the French gem that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, it’s Mendes’ turn in “Spectre” (2015).
We’re also introduced to some bodacious baddies, including henchman Mr. Hinx, played by ex-WWE champ Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Boasting the silent-but-deadly mojo of Oddjob, but with a larger stature, Bautista is a believable enforcer to the cerebral mastermind Waltz, who we’ll forever buy as a villain after his Oscar-winning turn in the aforementioned “Basterds.”
It helps that we must wait a while to see Waltz, who’s painted in shadows by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who’s bound to win an Oscar soon after “Let the Right One In” (2008), “The Fighter” (2010), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), “Her” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014). His images will, at times, give you goose bumps when paired with the music of the prolific Thomas Newman, who takes the original 007 theme (Monty Norman and John Barry) and cooks it up into something epic.
The film’s Achilles heel is Act 3, which threatens to wipe out any good will we’ve built up. Despite its clever old-school callbacks — from quotes to gadgets to characters — the final act runs a half-hour too long with too many false finishes. At one point, Bond actually feels compelled to remind us, “It’s not over,” just in case we’re thinking — as the pacing suggests — that this wild ride is about to end.
Instead, the script insists on a cartoonish funhouse climax. Clearly, the filmmakers had too many cool ideas left over, like Bond’s name scrawled beneath a killed-in-action list, matching the title of Smith’s theme song “Writing’s on the Wall.” These images may have made for compelling clips in the action-packed trailer, but they feel narratively tacked on in this particular story. As more and more stuff blows up, the less we’re blown away down the stretch. As we walk out of the theater, we admire the various finely-crafted parts, but realize the sum of these parts is less than the disconnected whole.
Question: When will Bond Villains learn to simply kill 007 and be done with it? Why construct elaborate death devices? Didn’t they learn anything from Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers” (1997)?
SCOTT: Wait, aren’t you even going to watch them? They could get away!
DR. EVIL: No no no, I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying. I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Likewise: When will Bond learn to not leave the villain lying on the floor unattended? We all know what happens when we “assume.” Didn’t we learn from the late Wes Craven in “Scream” (1996)?
RANDY: This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life, for one last scare.
SIDNEY: [Billy jolts forward, as Sidney shoots] Not in my movie.
Perhaps we’re holding “Spectre” to an overly high standard. After all, this is a Bond Flick with a certain understood formula. As far as this franchise formula goes, Craig’s overall tenure has been rather remarkable. After reports that this is likely his final appearance in the role, some big picture respect is in order. If this is indeed Craig’s final Bond, let the hindsight record show: “Casino Royale” 4 stars, “Quantum of Solace” 2 1/2 stars, “Skyfall” 3 1/2 stars and “Spectre” 3 out of 4 stars.