Spectre, the fourth installment in the Daniel Craig era of 007, plays like James Bond’s greatest hits. There’s a sequence set at an exclusive mental health retreat on a snowy mountaintop which pays homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a brutal one-on-one fight aboard a train echoing the Connery vs. Robert Shaw melee in From Russia With Love, and it marks the return of both Bond’s greatest nemesis (more on him later) as well as the tone and tenor of the aforementioned 007 ’60s classics.
Yes, after three films eschewing outlandish gadgets and double entendres for a grittier, more brutal Bond—a change many Bond movie purists lamented as an attempt to Bourne-ize the character—ridiculousness has been reintroduced to the franchise, along with the traditional status quo of Bond answering to a male M (Ralph Fiennes) in an office bedecked in rich mahogany, visiting Q for weaponry and taking advantage of his loyalty, flirting with Miss MoneyPenny (Naomie Harris), and, of course, sexing up any female with a pulse he happens to run across. (To be fair, this element has been consistent across the entire franchise.)
Spectre also continues the grand tradition of James being suspended for doing something reckless, then going rogue to carry out a personal vendetta – this time on a cadre of mysterious assassins and string-pullers the former M (Judi Dench) puts Bond onto via a secret for-his-eyes-only video recorded before her death. This wild goose chase first leads Bond to an encounter with the widow of the baddie he dispatches in the film’s incredible pre-credits scene, played by Monica Belucci, who is utterly wasted here as a vulnerable sexual conquest who exists only to look good in black stockings, and to provide Bond with the film’s MacGuffin – her late husband’s super secret evil class ring. I have no clue why the marketing machine for this film spotlighted Belucci so heavily, or hyped her role in the film as a realistic, age-appropriate romantic partner for Bond, because we never see her again after this scene. It’s shameful that an actress of her caliber is squandered on a cheap “hit it and quit it” scenario.
Eventually the ring grants James access to a spooky, Eyes Wide Shut-esque convening of sinister minds from around the world, who sit around a huge oak table reporting their various nefarious deeds to the creepy Franz Oberhauser (Cristophe Waltz), who sits completely shrouded in shadow and whispers into a microphone. Their grand scheme is committing terrorist acts around the world so that the victimized countries will approve the implementation of a global security and surveillance system, which coincidentally, is being spearheaded by “C” – M’s rival at MI-6 who is looking to shut down the double-O program for good in the film’s side-narrative. C is played by Sherlock‘s weaselly Moriarty Andrew Scott, so if you’ve seen that show (or have ever watched a spy movie in your life) you’ll instantly know where all of this is heading.
Though the introduction of Waltz’s character is haunting and loaded with atmosphere, he disappears from the narrative for over an hour, and the film makes no effort to unravel the mystery of the Spectre organization in a suspenseful or interesting way; squandering its run time with wheel-spinning jaunts from location to location as Bond tries to track down Oberhauser and protect a gorgeous young blonde (Lea Seydoux) from a hulking Spectre henchman named Hinx, played by a (mostly) mute Dave Bautista. The highlight of their back-and-forth battle is a bone-crunching, visceral rumble in close quarters aboard a speeding train in Tangiers. Bautista’s physicality, coupled with some truly fantastic sound design, helps to create a fight sequence that will have you cringing and wincing throughout.
While the action in Spectre is excellent, the screenwriting is not. In one of the absolute dumbest scenes in James Bond history, the crux of the storyline is resolved literally in seconds by Q (played wonderfully again by Ben Wishaw), who analyzes the Spectre ring on a laptop computer while riding in a cable car and discovers DNA, fingerprints, and evidence that the ring has changed hands among almost every supporting character from all of the previous Craig Bond movies. So, yeah, if you’re playing along, that means every narrative element and character arc we’ve seen in Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, and Skyfall, from Le Chiffre to Mr. White to Silva to Vesper Lynd, has been clumsily assimilated into the tapestry of Spectre. Even the Quantum organization, which was set up as a stand-in for Spectre due to a rights issue, turns out to be under the Spectre umbrella.
It’s an asinine turn of events, but it’s made even worse by the underwhelming reveal of the film’s “twist” – the relationship between Oberhauser and Bond, and the vlllain’s motives. What I’m about to get into is extra-spoilery, but if you’ve gotten this far into the review, or if you’ve paid any attention to the trailers, then it should come as no shock at all when I tell you that Oberhauser is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the granddaddy of all spy movie masterminds, replete with nehru jacket and a fan-servicey white kitty cat. If you thought the shoehorning in of all the events of the previous films into Spectre‘s storytelling was bad, just wait til you find out everything is a result of Blofeld’s Daddy issues! There’s some good psychological and physical torture (the latter in the form of a hideous head-drilling machine), and Waltz gives Blofeld just the right amount of menace with a touch of camp, but the revelations and the ensuing conflict between Bond and Blofeld falls flat. It’s remarkable how…well, unremarkable it all feels.
Plot-wise, all of this is like putting a piece of masking tape over a crack in your house’s foundation. Part of me thinks that’s an unfair critique, because Bond films always rely more on style, suspense, and character work over plot mechanics, but when this stuff is as egregious as it is in Spectre, it’s hard to overlook. You know how sometimes you’ll sit through a film, then hours later when you think about it, the plot just falls apart? Well, here it’s obvious just sitting through it that nothing really makes any sense at all. Usually, this kind of wacky, convenient, superspy fantasy stuff is easily forgiven, but here it butts up against the more grounded, realistic tone established in the previous Craig installments, and even in Spectre itself.
Ultimately, Spectre never lives up to its breathtaking opening sequence; a massive, crackling set piece in Mexico City during the Dia De Los Muertes celebration involving a tremendous one-take tracking shot, a tense chase through the parade of sugar skull-wearing revelers, and one of the best action beats in a helicopter I’ve ever seen. It’s followed up with an oddly-paced, mixed bag of old 007 clichés, some of clunkiest dialogue in the history of the franchise, a disappointing reveal, and a deeply flawed screenplay. While certainly not as awful as series low points like Die Another Day or Moonraker, Spectre is undoubtedly the worst installment of the Craig Bond films and with the rumored possibility of Craig cutting out on his last contracted Bond appearance, the future of the franchise is wrapped up in some pretty sticky tentacles.