The opening gambit of Spectre — the fourth outing for the 21st century’s James Bond — is absolutely spectacular. It begins with a long and apparently uncut sequence in which the secret agent and a lady friend wend their way through raucous Day of the Dead revelers in Mexico City, through streets heaving with partiers, into a fancy hotel (where the party continues), up to a room. They are dressed for the mock morbid mood, gloomy yet merry, and we catch that fun-ereal contagion: if soaking in this gruesome funk doesn’t make you want to instantly sign up for a Halloween trip to Mexico, you may actually be dead inside. And then it graduates to authentically thrilling, as Bond leaps out the hotel window and across rooftops to do a Secret Agent Thing; this is where I started to doubt if this had actually been shot in one take, because now we get camera perspectives that cannot be real (or would at least have been incredibly difficult to pull off). But it doesn’t matter. However this was crafted, we are powerfully in the moment with Bond as he goes to work.
There is atmosphere to spare here, and humor, and action-movie grace: the helicopter stunt bit with which the sequence climaxes is breathtaking. And it is exhilarating. If this is how Spectre begins, what amazing goodies does it have up its sleeve for the meat of the movie?
As it turns out, not much at all. Spectre never reaches that same pinnacle of movie-movie joy again; it’s like director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty) steps out once the opening has unspooled, and leaves the rest of the movie to his understudy. The thin plot never catches fire, either. After the brilliant previous installment, Skyfall (also directed by Mendes) I suspected that perhaps there was a grand unifying theory coming together to wrap all these new Bond adventures into one big tale, and a way to move a dated and unpleasantly retro franchise forward. And, indeed, underlying connections between all four films are laid out here… yet Spectre only moves Bond backward. The earlier films —Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and particularlySkyfall — hinted that there was a place for a Cold War relic like Bond in the new global paradigm, and actively worked to make room for him. But now Spectre throws that all away, even as it believes it is making its slam-dunk case for the likes of Bond today. It’s difficult to believe that the same minds behind Skyfall — screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, this time joined by Jez Butterworth — which seemed to have a smart grasp on the anxieties of our time, got it so wrong this time around. (They seem to think, for one, that it’s cartoonish supervillains who are instituting total-surveillance schemes, and that legitimate governments would oppose such measures. Adorable.)
In the immediate aftermath of the events of Skyfall, Bond (Daniel Craig: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn) has gone rogue, chasing hints of a big bad guy around the globe, while back in London, the new M (Ralph Fiennes: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Invisible Woman) is battling with C (Andrew Scott: Pride, Sherlock), who is about to launch a new blanket electronic surveillance scheme that will replace the 00 program: something something about drone warfare being more efficient than spies with a license to kill. It’s an idea that the movie doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with — Bond can be just as indiscriminate as a drone strike — but it does give 007 a literal ticking clock to race against.
It’s a dull race, however. Apart from occasional explosions of not entirely undiverting action — the plane-versus-SUV game of chicken is mildly amusing — Bond’s globetrotting and spycraft is dreary and perfunctory this time around: very little of the brains or verve of Casino Royale or Skyfall turn up here. There’s nothing in the least bit surprising or unexpected about anything Bond uncovers on his journeys: if we are meant to be startled by the things he learns about the mysterious criminal organization called Spectre (we are offered no hint of what that name means) or its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz: Horrible Bosses 2, Muppets Most Wanted), startlement fails to materialize. “You are a kite dancing in a hurricane,” a bad guy tells Bond, which is wonderfully poetically sinister, implying that Bond cannot hope to defeat the menace he is up against. But we never see a Spectre that lives up to that.
Everyone might as well be enacting a Bond puppet show, which sometimes descends into that unpleasantly retro ickiness, as in the sequence with Monica Bellucci (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Shoot ’Em Up). For all the astonished to-do over a Bond “girl” being an actual contemporary of Bond, instead of a woman young enough to be his daughter, Bellucci’s character is completely superfluous except as someone for Bond to mechanically bed, as if as part of a box-ticking exercise for Essential Bond Scenes: they’ve barely met before they are engaging in the unsexiest grappling imaginable, and then her character is completely forgotten, never spoken of or seen again, even though her tiny slice of the story suggests she won’t be, that Bond will have to circle back round to her. But the movie no longer has any use for her, even though it drags itself on for an unforgivably long two-and-a-half-hour slog.
Even the second-best section of the film, after Mexico City, eventually trips over itself with awkward Bondian self-consciousness. It starts out all desert romanticism, classy and smart and funny, as Bond and the daughter (Léa Seydoux: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blue Is the Warmest Color) of one of his old enemies travel in and around Tangiers in search of Spectre’s HQ. And then the mood is lost with the deployment of what is perhaps meant to be a sort of punchline, but might as well be a placard that reads Insert Obligatory Sex Scene Here. (Seydoux, at 17 years younger than Craig, is almost young enough to be his daughter.)
Of course the sex is as empty and as bloodless and as tween-friendly as the violence, which is a particular problem here when there’s nothing but old-school Bond sex and violence on offer. And yet little here works on the level of nostalgia, either. It just feels trite and tired. Which is a particular disappointment for a series that had, until now, avoided that trap.