License to Chill
by Glenn Lovell
It sounds a tad redundant, I know, but James Bond, who has always been very much his own man, goes rogue in “Spectre,” the 24th installment in the wildly popular spy franchise. (We’re not counting the 1967 farce “Casino Royale” or that thinly veiled 1983 remake of “Thunderball,” “Never Say Never Again.”) That 007, again played by the steely-eyed Daniel Craig (in his fourth outing), should turn his back on Her Majesty’s Secret Service makes perfect sense after the doings at Skyfall, his ancestral home in Scotland. His boss-surrogate mother, M (Judi Dench), died protecting her favorite operative and long-suppressed memories from little Jimmy’s childhood came swirling back.
If things got personal in “Skyfall,” they’re even more so in this overlong (at almost 2½ hours) continuation as Bond again matches wits with the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), head of an international network of spies. S.P.E.C.T.R.E., introduced by author Ian Fleming in “Thunderball,” is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Whew! Talk about redundant.
Taking a leaf from the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” franchises, this Bond cooks up a sinister familial connection between hero and archfiend. Forget about those ideological Cold War differences, they don’t hold a candle to long-simmering sibling rivalries.
At times, “Spectre,” directed by England’s Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” Skyfall”), feels like a Best of Bond compilation. The intricately orchestrated Day of the Dead pre-credit sequence, a patchwork of tracking shots, is reminiscent of the voodoo ceremonies in “Live and Let Die.” The marathon fight aboard a speeding train feels like an attempt to outdo Bond’s bruising encounter with Robert Shaw’s Grant in “From Russia with Love.” The riverside chase, between Bond’s modified (but not road-ready) Aston Martin and a stealth-like Jaguar, is meant to one-up the car chases in “Goldfinger.” And Blofeld’s crater citadel brings to mind the Mt. Fuji stronghold in “You Only Live Twice.”
Living up to his reputation as globe-trotter extraordinaire, Bond ricochets, like a fancy pinball, from Mexico City to London to Rome to Tokyo … to Austria … to Morocco … to a desert stronghold … and then back again to London for a noisy but anticlimactic showdown with Blofeld.
Yes, at times this Bond feels like it’s desperately attempting to out-Bond all the Bonds. Which explains why, after that lively pre-credit sequence, it soon goes from exhilarating to enervating … to, finally, exasperating. (For what it’s worth, no one can accuse Sam Smith of attempting anything with his lackluster theme song, “Writing on the Wall.”)
Ralph Fiennes is back as M’s phlegmatic replacement, this time threatened with “the biggest shakeup in the history of British intelligence.” Seems the global surveillance initiative Nine Eyes, fronted by an arrogant SOB called C (Andrew Scott), finds the old cloak-and-dagger routine terribly Old School, so is mounting a hostile takeover of MI6, leaving the independent-minded 007 out in the cold. Also returning are Naomi Harris as the more invested Eve Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as the more peripatetic gadget guru Q. Dench’s M has a posthumous cameo via a taped “last directive.”
Waltz, in “Dr. No”-inspired Nehru jacket, isn’t nearly as quirky an adversary as Javier Bardem’s Silva in “Skyfall,” but he may be the best (read most intimidating) Bond villain since Gert Fröbe’s Goldfinger. Lèa Seydoux plays the daughter of a fallen-away colleague who tags along on the circuitous quest. Appropriately, she’s more gal pal than romantic interest. Italy’s Monica Bellucci (“Irreversible,” “Malèna”) plays a widow who grieves for her Mafioso husband, right up the moment the handsome spy appears in her boudoir.
Many of us complained bitterly when Roger Moore came aboard as Bond in the 1970s, and the series went from edgy and sophisticated to farcical, like a Road Runner cartoon with real-life pyrotechnics. We longed for the brooding charisma of Sean Connery’s Bond. Pierce Brosnan, for a spell, seemed an inspired replacement. Craig, who took over in “Casino Royale,” was even better. Sexy and dangerous, he was the answer to every aficionado’s wet dream.
Unfortunately, Craig, who has very publicly dissed the franchise, is more somnambulant than superspy in this outing. His is a singularly one-note hero, a granite slab not quite corseted by Savile Row threads. Gone are the cruel, contemptuous smiles and memorable quips. Even the signature lines — “Bond. James Bond” and “Vodka martini, shaken no stirred” — fall flat. Bluenoses who once complained of Bond’s indiscriminate bed-hopping need not worry. It’s all this Bond can do to suppress a yawn mid-seduction. That is, when isn’t admiring himself in the mirror.
Still, I’m guessing, the Bond faithful won’t go away disappointed. This slick, at times almost dreamlike installment has more than its fair share of chases, narrow escapes, cool gadgets (smart-blood tracker, exploding wristwatch, retro ejector seat), spectacular scenery, and sinister greetings, such as Blofeld’s memorable “I’m the author of all your pain.”
SPECTRE ✮✮✮ With Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw. Directed by Sam Mendes; scripted by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth. 148 min. PG-13 (for nonstop over-the-top violence, torture, mild seduction sequences)
Lovell is a longtime film critic, who has written for Variety, HR, L.A. Times and San Jose Mercury News. He is the author of “Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org