The 24th entry in the James Bond film franchise, Oscar-winning “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes’s “Spectre,” tops “Casino Royale” (2006) and “Quantum of Solace” (2008), but it doesn’t surpass “Skyfall” (2012).
Ultimately, despite a variety of problems, this globe-trotting 007 outing boasts enough good stuff to offset the bad. If picturesque settings, strong performances, sumptuous production values, and a mind-blowing $250 million plus budget constituted the bottom line for a cinematic blockbuster, “Spectre” would rank as the best ever Bond. Unfortunately, several factors undercut “Spectre” (*** OUT OF ****), among them Sam Smith’s mellow theme song, sophomoric scripting, a lackluster showdown between Bond and his arch enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and a sluggish 148 minute running time. The above-average but formulaic screenplay by “Gladiator’s” John Logan, regular Bond scribes Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, and “Edge of Tomorrow’s” Jez Butterworth generates occasional spontaneity. The scenes involving a helicopter and later an aircraft crash-landing qualify as exciting milestones for the series. The cruise-control car chase is routine, and the fistfight above the train is more noisy than dangerous. Furthermore, the basic plot recalls the Tom Cruise espionage epic “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” where the CIA sought to disband the IMF. One of Bond’s secondary opponents dreams and schemes about dismantling the double-O section, putting our protagonist out to pasture, and relying on a global satellite surveillance network to thwart terrorism. Despite these drawbacks and letdowns, “Spectre” benefits from an incomparable supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes distinguishes himself as Bond’s new boss, M, while Ben Whishaw as Bond’s quartermaster extraordinaire, Q, has more time to display his skills. Former wrestler David Bautista has a field day as Blofeld’s chief thug, while Jesper Christensen is left over from “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” If you’re a Bond fan, you’ll appreciate the homages to “From Russia with Love,” “You Only Live Twice,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “License to Kill.” Naturally, Daniel Craig returns as pugnacious 007, and he guns down a score of hooligans, beds a couple of sexy damsels, and swaps blows with the biggest hulk of a henchman since Roger Moore’s Bond grappled with Richard Kiel’s humongous Jaws.
“Spectre” unfolds in Mexico City during the annual Day of the Dead festivities. James Bond has been shadowing Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona of “Malèna”), and he discovers that Sciarra and his cronies plan to explode a bomb in a nearby crowded stadium. Mind you, the new M (Ralph Fiennes of “Skyfall”) didn’t send Bond to pursue this dastard. Instead, 007 received a posthumous video from the former M (Judi Dench of “GoldenEye”) after her death. In the event of her death, M wants Bond to kill Sciarra and attend his funeral. Bond tails Sciarra to Mexico City, eavesdrops on a conversation before Sciarra’s conspirators spot him. A harrowing shoot-out ensues. One of Bond’s bullets ignites the bomb, and the explosion collapses half of a city block, with 007 narrowly escaping death. Predictably, M is furious about the international incident. Of course, Bond says little about his reasons for killing Sciarra. Later, Bond sneaks off to Rome against orders to confabulate with Sciarra’s widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci of “Shoot’em Up”), and he gate crashes a gangster summit. He runs afoul of the nefarious Mr. Hinx (David Bautista of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) who pursues him. Simultaneously, M tangles with the new head of the Joint Intelligence Service, smarmy Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott of the BBC’s “Sherlock”), who has merged MI5 and MI6. Denbigh wants to scrap the double-0 section and replace it with a Babel-like global satellite surveillance system nicknamed “Nine Eyes.” Although Denbigh has the ear of the Home Secretary, something about the mysterious conglomeration of private backers who financed his project agitates M. Meantime, Bond races off to rescue another damsel, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux of “Blue Is the Warmest Color”), who identifies the criminal organization that Bond has been investigating as ‘Spectre.’
If you haven’t seen Daniel Craig’s earlier James Bond escapades, you may be baffled by some of the characters and events. Not only does “Spectre” bring a sense of closure to Craig’s previous three Bonds, but it also reunites our redoubtable hero with his career nemesis—Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For the record, James Bond has been contending with Blofeld since the original Sean Connery 007 epics in the 1960s. Although we didn’t see Blofeld in the first Bond movie “Dr. No,” we caught glimpses of him with his white cat in “From Russia with Love” and “Thunderball.” Finally, Blofeld appeared in plain sight in “You Only Live Twice,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and later “Never Say Never Again.” We got a glimpse of him again in “For Your Eyes Only,” but “Spectre” represents the first time since “Never Say Never Again” that Blofeld has stepped into the limelight. Oscar-winning character actor Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds” comes out of the shadows and confronts Bond late in the third quarter of “Spectre.” Waltz makes a challenging villain, and Mendes and his writers have reinvented 007’s tragic childhood with a surprise that takes into account the intervention of Blofeld’s father. If this weren’t enough, Blofeld’s final infamy sends Bond scrambling frantically in search of the plucky heroine at a building poised to be blown to smithereens. This ticking time bomb scene recalls the “Expendables 3” finale. Sadly, unlike a traditional James Bond movie, “Spectre” equips 007 with no ingenious gadgets. He is reduced to wearing a wristwatch that comes with an alarm clock bomb. Most of Blofeld’s staff consists of executives or clerical staff, and Blofeld’s gunmen are appalling marksmen. It is only when the end credits roll that we learn the name of Blofeld’s chief henchman that David Bautista portrays. Mr. Hinx should have lasted longer than he does. Indeed, he should have shown up for the finale, so he could stop Bond from easily escaping with heroine.
Altogether, “Spectre” lacks sufficient spectacle to overshadow “Skyfall.”
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts