Spectre is stylish and sleek and a dud. The movie kicks off with the best (or at least the biggest) prologue of all the 007 pictures: A fight aboard a helicopter doing barrel rolls above the crowd at a Day of the Dead procession in Mexico City. The sequence starts with a showstopping five-minute shot following James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he walks through the street and into a hotel, climbs out a balcony and scampers along rooftops to carry out an assassination. Then the real craziness starts.
The opening is exciting, outrageous and a cheeky showcase of cinematic craftsmanship. So why is the rest of the movie so dull? Spectre, which is rumored to be Craig’s last outing as Bond (this is his fourth time playing the character, and the weariness shows), has an aura of finality to it, as well as a perfunctory, let’s-get-this-over-with feel. The story is tangled and complicated, but not in a clever or revelatory way: It’s needlessly obtuse, like a first draft in dire need of tightening.
The opening credits, which are accompanied by Sam Smith’s alley-cat caterwauling, feature visual callbacks to the previous three pictures (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall), the first indication that Spectre is going to tie into all of Craig’s Bonds. But the connections turn out to be meaningless — you could have excised them from the movie and not lost a thing. The first half of the bloated running time (148 minutes) is wasted on needlessly prolonged scenes and extraneous characters (Monica Bellucci pops up briefly as a widow whose name could have been Sultry Exposition). Here is a Bond movie that makes you long for the cheesy, preposterous pleasures of the crummy Moonraker: Yes, it was stupid, but it was also irreverent and fun, two things Spectre is not.
The movie has its moments. A brutal fistfight between Bond and a hulking baddie (pro wrestler Dave Bautista) aboard a speeding train is amusing and cleverly staged, and a well-edited car chase through the streets of Rome conveys a sense of speed and a tactile realism that were absent in Furious 7. The chase embodies the kinetic appeal of action movies done right.
After shooting Skyfall digitally, returning director Sam Mendes opted to go back to 35mm film, and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) gives the images a beautiful warm, amber glow. There is also a whopper of an explosion that flattens an entire facility with one big boom that once again proves CGI fireballs will never be as cool as the real thing.
But even though Spectre’s technical aspects are impeccable, they’re at the service of a tired movie that succumbs to the usual formulas, which is particularly disappointing after Skyfall’s shattering of the traditional 007 template. We’re back to a Bond girl (Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Léa Seydoux, surprisingly drab here) who exists primarily to be rescued; a cackling, maniacal villain hellbent on world domination (Christoph Waltz, still channeling his Oscar-winning Inglourious Basterds shtick); a scene in which a captured Bond is tortured with an amusingly elaborate device that serves no other discernible purpose; and a random gadget, courtesy of the genial Q (Ben Whishaw), that turns out to be exactly the thing Bond needs to get out of a predicament.
Familiarity is not without its pleasures. But Spectre is so confused and inert that Craig can’t even sell the signature “Bond. James Bond” and “Shaken, not stirred” lines. Here, they come across as obligations, sops to the same hardcore fans who will savor the film’s shout-outs to previous entries in the franchise. By the time Spectre finally gets cooking, with Bond and his team (which includes Ralph Fiennes as M and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny leaving the office to join him in the field), the movie has worn out its welcome, and you’re itching to go home. So, apparently, is Craig. Thanks for the memories. Now bring on the next 007.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista.
Director: Sam Mendes.
Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth.
A Sony Pictures release. Running time: 148 minutes. Brief vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes.