Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux
3 (out of 5) Globes
The thing about the Bond movies is that most of them are just fine — spotty, often noticeably stupid bursts of incidental pleasures, coasting on a film franchise that’s now 53 years young. That’s where “Spectre” falls. We’ve been trained by the Daniel Craig era, and by the current blockbuster landscape in general, to expect extremes. They’ll either be one of the very best (“Casino Royale,” “Skyfall”) or one of the very worst (“Quantum of Solace”). “Spectre” may look and act like it’s another of the this-time-it’s-personal(-again) brooders, told with funereal heaviness by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes and featuring a minimum of quippage by its pissed-off (and, based on interviews, possibly actually unhappy) star. But at heart it’s another dopey Roger Moore outing, minus the dick jokes.
It wants to be more. Once again, 007 is on a rogue mission for himself — poor Ralph Fiennes, as the new M, looks like he just wants to rattle off a classic nonsensical assignment while Craig looks disinterested — this time to find out more about the shadowy criminal organization that may be behind the events of the last three films. He winds up stumbling upon SPECTRE, the super-baddie collective from the Connery era. This is 2015 so they’re not just ordering terrorist attacks. They’re also volleying to become Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare of the NSA, and they may have ties to England’s new intelligence administration, who wants to dissolve the 00-program entirely for being too “Dark Ages.” That means we’re once again treated to a thinly-veiled treatise on Why Bond Still Matters. (Though no one in the film posits that one reason is the films continue to make boatloads of cash.)
One explanation for why the Bond franchise still, and has always (more or less), mattered is it changes, sometimes desperately, with the times, all while sticking to the basics of the foundation. They’re at once modern and retro. So we get the iconic old school SPECTRE but also vogueish flourishes, like how it pulls a “Star Trek Into Darkness” and pointlessly plays coy about who the main bad guy, Christoph Waltz’s fearless leader Franz Oberhauser, really is. We’ve been assured, since the film’s inception, he’s definitely but definitely not Blofeld, Bond’s cat-fancying, Cold War-era nemesis. And yet here’s a mysterious head of SPECTRE played by a creepy ham who dresses in a collar-less, Communist-gray jacket. Maybe he’ll turn out to be Robert Davi from “License to Kill”?
The decision to play coy about Oberhauser’s true identity is “Spectre” at its most misjudged. He even gets some George Lucas-style backstory, which turns out to be as pointless as making young Anakin Skywalker be the dude who built C-3PO. But the rest is a mash-up of the classic and the new, sometimes incoherently. The Bond girl, Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann, is a feisty loner one minute then a damsel in distress the next. (Seydoux looks either lost or her usual grumpy self.) Mendes’ direction once again teems in musty lighting, glacial camera moves and bold frames. But the pageantry just makes it easier to notice how dumb and incoherent the story gets — a brainless spectacle directed like it was Mendes’ “American Beauty.”
Even with the heavy presentation, “Spectre” still qualifies as fine junk cinema — pricey, lovingly orchestrated mayhem amidst a globetrotting story you can half follow if you want to at all, just like the series before it started being treated like Ibsen. It even has jokes. Fiennes gets the best dry one-liners — including one super-blue one that still keeps things PG-13 — but Craig is, finally, not above a quip, even a couple smirks. A routine chase is lousy with gags — so many you start to ignore that it has fast cars driving fast. Other times it settles for intense, as in a slowly escalating Day of the Dead opener, a rock-’em-sock-’em smackdown with Dave Bautista and a funny/harrowing torture bit that plays like the rat-cage-mask from “1984” but with needles. Rather than transcend a wobbly franchise, “Spectre” will simply wind up fulfilling its destiny: becoming a fine way to kill a Thanksgiving day, when TNT crams it in between “Octopussy” and “You Only Live Twice.”