The Daniel Craig cycle of Bond films has produced a gritty, much-needed reboot (Casino Royale), an uncharacteristically sober-sided follow-up (Quantum of Solace), and a gorgeous techno-thriller in Skyfall. One of the more daring innovations of the first two films was their determination to give Bond a measure of melancholy and personal pain to underpin his implacable exterior. Even Skyfall, which returned Bond to his wisecracking ways, found time to explore his relationship with the one female constant in his life, M.
Spectre—the 24th film in the series—tries to tie Bond’s losses in a neat little bow by attributing them to a single enemy. But this time, the emotionalism doesn’t feel organic. Spectre has the same director (Sam Mendes) and writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan) as Skyfall, but there isn’t a single idea in this film that can match the simple yet oddly moving decision that closes out that film, of sending Bond back to his childhood home. Instead, old hits are rehashed: the international crime ring, a surveillance state gone militant, the Bond-has-gone-rogue routine.
We begin in Mexico City, where the film’s one memorable action sequence unfolds against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead carnival. A long, unbroken take takes Bond, in a skull mask and with a pretty woman on his arm, from the teeming streets, up an elevator and into a hotel room. Pleasure will have to wait, though, while Bond foils a stadium bombing, blows up a building himself, and grapples with an assassin called Sciarra in a helicopter. Sciarra’s octopus-emblazoned ring then leads him to Rome, to a meeting of an international crime syndicate called SPECTRE, which, we’re later informed, included Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva—the villains of the previous three films.
No effort is made to substantiate this bizarre twist—nor is the impact what the makers might have hoped for. We’re not even sure why SPECTRE does what it does, except that its head, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), holds an ancient grudge against Bond. Cut off by M, who’s embroiled in a paper-thin parallel plot involving a new intelligence service and the scrapping of the 00 programme, Bond spends the rest of the film hunting down Oberhauser, picking up a fellow-traveller along the way: Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former adversary, whom he swears to protect.
Madeleine’s reasons for being in the film aren’t particularly convincing, but in this instance it’s easy to forgive the writers, for it allows us to spend some time in the company of Seydoux, who has a whale of a time. Her line readings are a touch over the top—deliberately so, I think—which is how Bond ought to be treated, with a wink. Watching her go to sleep drunkenly muttering, “To liars and killers everywhere,” one realizes how badly the rest of the film could have done with this sort of pulp lyricism.
Apart from Seydoux, Ben Whishaw as Q, and the ever-watchful, watchable Craig, nothing works as it should. Ralph Fiennes, taking over from Judi Dench, is a nervy M, while Christoph Waltz’s mincing villain isn’t a patch on the adversaries essayed by Javier Bardem and Mads Mikkelsen in previous films. The action sequences are splashy, but—Mexico City apart—uninventive and visually drab. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema can’t provide anything near the visual excitement Roger Deakins brought to Skyfall. Most crippling, though, is the lack of wit. There was a time when a Bond screenplay would consist solely of wisecracks. Now, you get twist upon unconvincing twist when all you want is a good joke.
Casino Royale and Skyfall suggested there were still ways left to tell a Bond story that weren’t archaic or rehashed. Spectre is a reminder of how straight-jacketed most Bond films usually are. Studio logic might dictate that it’s time for another reboot. But how many times can something be rebooted before the batteries give up the ghost?