Spectre, the 24th installment in the interminable James Bond franchise, is, I’m sorry to say, one of the least interesting and most preposterous chapters in 007 history. Daniel Craig, who joined the series in Casino Royale, is back in the driver’s seat of the old Aston-Martin and Sam Mendes takes up the directorial reigns again where his billion-dollar box office bonanza Skyfall left off, promising new gimmicks, girls, glossy global locations, exploding watches, overhauled high-speed chases, backbone-paralyzing overtime (almost two and a half hours), and mobs of sinister, ruthless killers hell-bent on destroying the world’s most indestructible secret agent. The trouble is, we’ve seen it all before. Despite a plot trajectory that changes so often they seem to be making it up as they go along, everyone on and off the screen seems to be doing it by the numbers.
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
It opens during the lavish carnival celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, with Bond stealing across roof tops above the street of skeletons while an entire building collapses beneath him, killing everyone south of the border except the drug cartels. Bond escapes in a helicopter with no pilot, but never fear—007 can do anything. He just takes over the controls and flies it himself. Next stop is Rome, followed by the Austrian Alps, Morocco and a satellite in the middle of a meteorite crater in the Sahara called “Spectre” (last encountered in Diamonds Are Forever) that is home to a criminal surveillance network dedicated to controlling the world in the digital age. Nothing in the cheesy plot makes any sense, but it serves as an elaborate way to introduce a new psychopathic villain named Franz Oberhauser, played with cunning relish by the great scene-stealer Christoph Walz. Stroking a white cat while his robot torture machine drives hypodermic needles through Bond’s brain, Mr. Walz, as the latest in a lethal line of memorable wackos, some of whom return for a second go-around here, is a fawning visionary who commands the kind of questionable attention that distracts from Mr. Craig’s stoicism. When he enters the picture, the plot thickens and the momentum picks up, but this doesn’t happen until the last half-hour, following too much tedium to stay awake.
With none of Sean Connery’s humorous dialogue or Roger Moore’s self-amused winks at the camera, he remains poker faced from start to finish, his beefcake days emerging from the surf in an X-rated black Speedo gone with the rest of the fun. Gone, too, is his bad-boy image, leaving Daniel Craig looking as bored in the digital age as all of the other technology nerds you see everywhere these days, stupidly thumbing their devices in the direction of oblivion.
Judi Dench’s M is dead, robbing the series of badly needed emotional brio, and Ralph Fiennes is a poor replacement. Ben Whishaw is wasted as the computer-savvy Q. Miss Moneypenny is now a pretty office worker (Naomie Harris) who resists the 007 charm without leaving her desk. The frisky Bond ladies no longer disrobe, leaving luscious Monica Bellucci and brainy Lea Seydoux reduced to the status of walk-ons. Worst of all, what is a James Bond film without a wrenching, stirring and memorable theme song? This one features a rotten nightmare screeched in an ugly falsetto by Sam Smith called “Writing’s On the Wall,” which might ironically, if this series does not improve, serve as a prediction of the future.
In all fairness, Mr. Mendes stages a few supersonic chases on water, snow and in the empty streets of Rome where nothing moves, resulting in a “been there, seen that” effect. Rome without motorcycles and gas fumes should tell you something about how much Ian Fleming’s popular Bond stories have degenerated into little more than contrived, formulaic fairy tales. The only thing pedestrian you see in Spectre is the script.