Spectre (2015) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language
Running Time: 148 min.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Naomie Harris, Monica Belluci
Small role: Judi Dench
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Jon Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

Review published November 6, 2015

Spectre, the fourth film of the Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Cowboys & Aliens) era of James Bond and 24th overall, starts out on the congested streets of Mexico City in the midst of a bustling Dia de los Muertos parade, shot, for a good length of time, in a seamless, unbroken take as Bond walks the streets and building rooftops, and even fights for a helicopter over teeming crowds of celebrants, in order to get his man.  It's a scene of symbolism and foreshadowing -- a celebration of the dead coming back to life (the "Spectre" name suggests this even more)  -- no doubt in anticipation of MI6's most famous of enemies from the Sean Connery days, SPECTRE, and perhaps James Bond's most famous nemesis returning to the series, whose identity will come about as much of a surprise as who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing in Star Trek Into Darkness.  It's also unfortunate that the main course that follows can't match this tasty appetizer in terms of stellar design or exhilarating thrills.

M is none too thrilled with the events of Bond's Mexican excursion, especially as it makes the proposed merger between MI5 and the more top-secret MI6 a reality, which will threaten to take out the '00' series of spies in favor of using hi-tech surveillance equipment like satellites and drones.  This ends up resulting in a grounded 007 getting injected with a substance that allows his whereabouts to be tracked at all times so he doesn't go rogue again, which, of course, he's going to disregard.  However, Bond is on a mission, along with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Seydoux, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the daughter of a Bond villain who allies with him, seeking revenge for her father's death, leading him to have to infiltrate a massively powerful underground crime organization known as SPECTRE, run by the umbral Austrian criminal terrorist, Franz Oberhauser (Waltz, Big Eyes), who may have had a hand in all of the super-spy's most recent foibles.

Directed by Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Road to Perdition), returning from the critically acclaimed, billion-dollar earning, BAFTA-winning previous outing, Skyfall.  Not only are the star and director back, but also the screenwriters, with the notable addition of Jez Butterworth (Black Mass), who is known for finding pieces of humanity and levity within the course of some fairly heave dramatic thrillers. Lofty expectations will likely result in disappointment among modernist fans, especially as Spectre feels quite traditional in many respects to classic Bond tropes. As with that entry, Spectre continues to try to add to Bond's backstory, tying in the main villain's origin with that of Bond in a permanent, revisionist way.  Even with the new emphasis on maintaining continuity, which calls back repeatedly to the prior three films, many of the same formula staples we've come to expect from a Bond flick are re-introduced here, from the bedding of beautiful women, the driving of fancy cars, the wearing of expensive suits, the use of explosive gadgets, and the maniacal villains who seem to like to talk a little too much rather than just dispatching their enemies immediately.  Mendes and company assert that the way to push Bond forward is to go backward, allowing the very familiar to also catch up to the modern era, often to allow for a contrast to how the series has changed, as well as the world, since the time of 007's heyday during the Cold War.

Though the opening song by Sam Smith may go down as one of the more forgettable, the rest of the film is sumptuously scored by Thomas Newman (Bridge of Spies), with shadowy cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar), Spectre is a lushly dark and luxuriously oppressive take on a 007 adventure, maintaining the formula while still looking and feeling like its own thing aesthetically.  And yet, most of the admiration one can bestow upon Spectre will be for its surface pleasures, as Mendes and his quartet of screenwriters fail to get us completely on board to what's going on from a story perspective.  It's always watchable, of course, but at no point to we feel any sense of palpable danger or dread, with violence that would be shocking if it weren't so determinedly bloodless, sex scenes that feel more perfunctory than erotic, and any life-altering decisions on the part of Bond are something we feel will be rectified by the time of the next movie, if not by the time the credits roll in this one.

Problems with Spectre will be obvious to most who've seen it.  Most obviously, it's far too long and doesn't need to be given the lack of relative importance to the movie.  Yes, it re-introduces a classic, stylishly eccentric villain to the franchise, but he's barely in the movie until the end, and even with hyping up his mystique and making him a direct foil to James Bond in a way that suggests they've been adversaries from youth, as well as the puppet-master behind all of his toughest cases, it's too forced and unconvincing.  This determination to tie James Bond up with an origin, and to try to adopt, even tangentially, all of the mythos of the old entries, as well and provide continuity with the rest of the Craig Bonds, gives it quite the bit of overhead that most fans of the franchise aren't accustomed to.  Whereas you could practically watch any particular James Bond film out of order and get full enjoyment, Spectre assumes your intimate knowledge with what's come before, which makes it forever a Bond film you just don't watch unless you're already a well-versed Bond aficionado.

Under-plotted and overstretched as it may be, especially in comparison to Skyfall, Spectre is worth watching nevertheless for Bond fans for delivering the goods yet again.  The amazing and obscenely expensive opening action piece in Mexico City will surely rank among the finest in its category, and it truly is one of the more beautifully shot films, with some breathtaking moments of shadowy spectacle and major destruction, though even then, Skyfall's Roger Deakins cinematography perhaps set a bar too high for anyone, even a master like Hoytema, to hurdle.  Like the incorporeal title implies, Spectre may not be meaty enough to leave a lasting impression, but it certainly makes for an arresting diversion as it dances before your eyes.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo