James Bond’s biggest problem has always been James Bond. That is, the entire series of films centered around fiction’s original globe trotting super-spy is forever chasing the changing tastes of contemporary audiences in an effort to remain evergreen. In the 60’s, Sean Connery’s Bond was masculine, chauvinistic and glib. In the 70’s, Roger Moore’s Bond is suave, sophisticated and arch– appealing to a post-revolution culture craving escapism.
Later Bonds Timothy Dalton and Peirce Brosnan follow suit. The perpetual recasting of Bond is a recasting of the series, catching it in its current glamour and ejecting any baggage that a Bond actor has accumulated. The series reboot in 2006 with Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” brought Daniel Craig to the series as a Bond for the 2000s– a brutal, sociopathic, linebacker just barely contained in a bespoke suit, yet portraying a new sense of vulnerability. Craig was much needed breath of fresh air for the series. Now, in the fourth film of Craig’s Bond era, “Spectre” feels once again as if it is ready to molt, transforming for a new era.
The plot of “Spectre” opens with Bond engaged in some nasty, off-books work in Mexico during Día de Muertos. Meanwhile the British spy agency, M16, is in danger of being shuttered– bureaucratic liaison Max “C” Denbigh (Andrew Scott) is working to merge the spy divisions M15 and M16, as Parliament has determined the latter spy agency has been made redundant by drones and digital surveillance.
“We’re going to bring M16 out of the dark ages and into the light,” Denbigh tells a grimacing “M” (Ralph Fiennes).
Bond, meanwhile, operating under orders of the deceased former “M” (Judi Dench) is tracking down a mysterious organization, Spectre, that seems to be at the heart of an at best ambiguously evil globo-terrorist plot. That the two issues are not mutually exclusive will come as a shock to no one, except of course Bond and his now merger-redundant cohorts.
Director Sam Mendes still has an eye for composition and style, and received much acclaim for his preceding Bond title, “Skyfall” (2012). However there’s little here for his Bond to do other than lurk in the shadows and romance the widows of men he has assassinated. The lush action Mendes is known for feels routine this time out, somehow beholden in nodding to past entries in the series– a low stakes car chase in the streets of Rome, and a fist fight on a train speeding across Tangiers– both with the curiously mute Mr. Hinx (the criminally underutilized Dave Bautista) as a stand-in for the dialogue bereft goons of yesteryear. What is on display is pleasant to the eye, but missing any narrative verve. Much like “Skyfall” there is a central question at the heart of the film– Just what is Spectre? Unlike the former film however it is a non-starter– even indifferent audiences will have honed in on the right answer long before our hero does.
There are a few items to like in “Spectre.” Mendes’ direction is solid, and Thomas Newman’s score is engaging. ‘Bond-girl’ newcomer Léa Seydoux gives a warm, albeit thin, performance as Dr. Madeleine Swann. Similarly Christoph Waltz delights as the central villain, but is missing any meaningful screen time.
“Spectre” is a film that seems lacking in self-confidence. It does not return to the more action-oriented kineticism of “Casino Royale,” generate suspense like “Skyfall” or continue to give the audience a good reason to care about who James Bond is as a man, beyond the martinis, tuxedos, gadgets, tiny pistols and ju-jitsu. It also seems curiously invested in dredging up past narratives, attempting to tether the plot of the four Daniel Craig films together with a villain ex-machina that is woefully undercooked and mercifully brief. Even sillier is a nod to the campy aspects of the series’ deep past, as if to indicate this deliberately realistic, vulnerable anti-hero era Bond has been moving in this direction all along, eager to return to preposterously dressed super-villains stroking white Persian cats who plot dubiously to subjugate the world.
As Sam Smith tenderly croons in the film’s opening theme, “The writing’s on the wall…”
Running time: 148 Minutes
Availability: Playing in theaters now.