Quality-wise, the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise has been a fascinating game of tug-of-war for the past nine years. First we had Casino Royale, a fantastic revitalization of the Bond character that ranks among the very best films in the series. Then came Quantum of Solace, a befuddling and bombastic misfire that may be my least favorite Bond movie ever. Skyfall, which continued to build upon the winning themes of Casino Royale, opened four years later to overwhelming critical and financial success. Now we have Spectre, which is certainly not as poor as Quantum but nevertheless feels like a step backwards for Bond.
We begin in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead parade, where Bond is on unofficial assignment to take out two terrorists plotting to bomb a local football stadium. Upon traveling to Rome to attend the funereal of one of his victims, he also sneaks into a meeting for the shadowy organization SPECTRE, whose leader (played by Christoph Waltz) seems to have a close personal history with Bond. After a rendezvous in Austria to protect the daughter of a fellow assassin (played by Léa Seydoux), the two track down the organization’s covert headquarters and plan to shut down their nefarious plot to utilize mass surveillance for global domination.
What’s troubling about Spectre is just how hollow and obligatory the whole thing feels. There is evidence of some worthwhile ideas that were likely hatched early in the planning stages but instead of seeing these through, we’re instead given an almost insultingly rote series of action setpieces and dramatic “reveals”. On paper, this has all of the elements of a solid Bond movie but director Sam Mendes can’t seem to make things congeal the way that he did so effectively in Skyfall. Even the same screenwriting crew has been held over from that film (with the addition of one Jez Butterworth, whose name itself is too good not to mention) but it’s clear that something got lost in the mix.
Basic story elements like character motivation and relative realism remain stubbornly murky throughout most of the film but all of that seems to stem from the filmmakers’ modern conceptualization of Bond. It’s clear to me that they’ve lost their way in trying to figure out what this character is all about and more importantly, where they want him to go from here. He seems to be on “dark and brooding” auto-pilot since Quantum of Solace and this lack of depth in characterization is starting cast a dour shadow on the kinds of stories that can be written around him.
There are some worthy attempts at levity during this leaden story — a killer one-liner from Ralph Fiennes’ M in the third act being a highlight — but try as it might, this film will never have the kind of fun that the Mission Impossible series has been able to conjure up with its two most recent entries. Still, Bond has the opportunity to do what those films can’t do: to explore the psyche of a trained killer in a more serious and dramatically compelling way. That’s where Spectre should have had its focus but instead, it hedges its bets and leaves us with a mulligan of a movie.