Here, at long last, is the moment the Daniel Craig Bond films have been building to from the very beginning. When we first met this Bond in Casino Royale, he wasn't yet the polished, suave superspy (and cold-blooded killer) we all know so well. He was human and vulnerable, horrified at being forced to take a life and heartbroken when he lost the woman he loved. He dealt with the emotional and political fallout of that film in the admirably bitter (but too frequently bland) Quantum of Solace, and Sam Mendes' Skyfall forced the character to deal with yet another form of heartbreak (the death of Judi Dench's M) while re-shuffling the deck of key players at MI6. By the time Skyfall concluded, the stage was set for Craig to become the sort of James Bond that Sean Connery used to play. That's exactly what happens in Spectre (also directed by Mendes)... but that's not all that happens.
The film opens on a sensational note, as Bond tracks an unidentified target through the streets of Mexico City during Dia de Muertos. It's a quiet game of cat-and-mouse that (predictably enough) eventually transforms into a chaotic action sequence. Bond finally captures and kills his target, but there are consequences: it seems his visit to Mexico City was an unofficial one, and the assassination was unsanctioned by MI6. A justifiably grumpy M (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel) places Bond on suspension, which is about as effective as a justifiably grumpy police chief placing Dirty Harry on suspension. Bond determines to continue his secret mission on his own – well, okay, with a bit of assistance from Moneypenny (Naomi Harris, 28 Days Later) and Q (a thoroughly charming Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas). His target is a man named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), who heads up an organization called Spectre and may or may not be connected to a number of the villains Bond has dealt with over the past few years.
A minor spoiler: yes, Oberhauser is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which will not be a surprise to anyone who has watched the older Bond movies (and will not mean anything to those who haven't). I'm not sure why Mendes and co. felt a need to keep this a secret, just as I'm not sure why J.J. Abrams and co. felt a need to keep the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan a secret during the months leading up to Star Trek Into Darkness. At the very least, Spectre has the decency to offer the big revelation with the cinematic equivalent of a shrug, recognizing that “Blofeld” is just another name as far as 007 is concerned.
However, Waltz's Blofeld isn't just another cat-stroking megalomaniac with a penchant for world domination. No, he's got a far more intimate, personal vendetta against James Bond, and the story detailing this is simultaneously absurd and appropriate. On the one hand, the actual plot details are groan-inducingly unconvincing bits of narrative contrivance, often feeling like a strained attempt to force depth onto a pretty conventional hero/villain relationship. On the other hand, this is precisely the sort of uber-villain this incarnation of the Bond franchise demands: a psychologically and physically damaged misfit intent on finding a way to lash out at Bond in as personal a manner as possible (the film's most squirm-inducing sequence sees Blofeld attempting to penetrate Bond's mind in alarmingly literal fashion – an effective piece of body horror accompanied by an oh-so-clunky chunk of exposition). In many ways, he's the mirror image of Javier Bardem's colorful Silva, with anguished maternal issues replaced by paternal ones.
If a lot of Spectre feels weirdly-constructed in contrast to other Bond movies, it's because the whole thing has more or less been reverse-engineered to serve as a climax to the entire Craig run. On some occasions, this feels clumsy (Waltz can say things like, “I am the author of all your pain” all he wants, but the movie never really bothers to connect the dots very convincingly), but in other instances Mendes does fairly ingenious work. There are direct callbacks to the Bond movies of yesteryear (the opening riffs on visual cues from Live and Let Die, while the From Russia With Love train fight gets a decent remix), of course, but there are also callbacks to the other Craig movies (Casino Royale in particular). Surprisingly enough, these scenes aren't merely empty nostalgia, but purposeful illustrations of who this particular version of James Bond is: we see how he contrasts to Connery's Bond, and also how he contrasts to the early incarnation of Craig's Bond.
Craig is probably the most serious-minded version of Bond we've ever had (even moreso than Timothy Dalton), and he still seems a little uncomfortable with flirty banter and campy quips. Even so, he's done a fairly remarkable job of giving the character a real arc over the course of these movies, which is something no other Bond actor ever really attempted (you got the sense Brosnan wanted to, but the movies had no interest in following his lead). There's a fairly sharp difference between the character Craig was playing in Casino Royale and the character he's playing now, and he's been consistently compelling every step of the way. There are times when he almost single-handedly keeps Spectre afloat, redeeming ill-advised or clumsily-staged sequences with his subtle, commanding performance. There's still a human hiding beneath that steely, quippy surface, and Craig lets us see him just often enough to make us wonder if this man still has a soft spot left.
Admittedly, enjoying Spectre requires you to forgive a whole lot of missteps. Skyfall wasn't a perfect Bond film, but it was a much slicker, zippier entertainment than Spectre is. A handful of Mendes' action scenes are disappointingly generic, and too many stretches of the film opt for murky, drab visuals. The subplot involving the structural future of MI6 is a dull stab at political relevance weighed down by an irritating, whispery performance from Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as a bureaucratic figure known as “C.” The Bond girls are examples of decent performances undercut by weak writing, as Monica Belluci (The Passion of the Christ) is thrust into an unconvincingly-staged love scene and Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is alternately tasked with playing a self-confident action hero who scoffs at Bond's advances, a lustful mistress and a screaming damsel in distress. As for Waltz... I mean, the man is undeniably a charismatic actor, but it's hard to escape the feeling that we've seen just about everything in his bag of tricks.
That's a lot of stuff to excuse, and I can certainly understand if you feel it's too much. Still, I can't deny how effective the best parts of Spectre were for me. After a while, you begin to realize that Mendes and Craig are taking this character far more seriously than they really have to. Does this lead to moments of dour self-seriousness? Yes. But it also leads to a climactic revelation that feels startlingly honest for this series. I was reminded of the conclusion of Robert Altman's remarkable The Long Goodbye, in which another iconic character defies his source material for the sake of being honest with himself. This is a real ending for Craig's version of the character, and as profoundly flawed as Spectre is, it also attains a soulful power Bond movies rarely even attempt to find.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Year: 2015