Maybe there’s just a limit as to how far any individual James Bond can go. The most enduring film franchise of them all, the one that basically invented the concept of the gentle reboot as a means to greater longevity, has had a commercial and (by most assessments) artistic resurgence in recent years, ever since Daniel Craig was tapped to take on the role of Special Agent 007. There have been loud rumblings that Spectre is the last spin with Her Majesty’s Secret Service for this particular agent, and the film is heavy with finality, even without the power of that suggestion seeping elegy into otherwise innocuous scenes. This is in part because Spectre is burdened by the past, not just the heavy duty, long arc fictional history that rattled the prior film, Skyfall, but through a strained effort to make all the films since Casino Royale (Craig’s first outing) lock together like one great big conglomeration of arch spycraft storytelling. This crack at tying together four films that were clearly crafted with little to no conception of interconnectivity isn’t convincing, and that sense of wanly conceived and indifferently implemented material is characteristic of the film as a whole.
The globe-trotting film begins in Mexico. Bond slips away from a tryst in order to track down and assassinate a terrorist agent, a mission that’s revealed to be unauthorized. The worrisome cratering of storytelling acumen begins here, with an extended sequence involving a collapsing building and a kinetic ultimate fighting match inside a careening helicopter. It never fully engages. The situation has been kept so cryptic that no emotional investment in the danger is possible. It’s a bland set piece that’s awkwardly staged. Sam Mendes is in an encore outing as Bond director, having helmed Skyfall to startling peaks for the decades-old film series. Last time out, the task of crafting coherent action scenes enlivened him, eliminating the overly fussy shot construction that dogged his earlier work. In Spectre, he seems content with slapdash assemblages of thudding stuntwork, presented with a notable lack of energy.
Blandness pervades the film, with the bloated two-and-a-half hour runtime compounding the problem. The screenplay (credited to the same trio that penned Skyfall, along with Jez Butterworth) layers in stacks upon stacks of details and sidebars, including a subplot about increased surveillance in response to terrorist threats and more leaden backstory from Bond’s life, the latter intended to lend greater gravity to the film’s main villain, played by Christoph Waltz (meaning they’ve gone from a one-time Oscar winner in Skyfall’s antagonist, Javier Bardem, to a two-time Oscar winner; presumably only Nicholson, Streep, or Day-Lewis will be satisfactory next time out). None of it ever gels, in part because nothing feels like it truly matters. Some of that can be laid at the expensive shoes of Craig, whose performance as Bond has degenerated from a gruff, myopic thug closer to Fleming’s conception of the character than any of his predecessors in the role to a plodding, perpetually unmoved warrior with all the emotive range of a chain link fence. But it’s not just him. The entirety of the film feels tossed away, as if actually trying to make a feature that’s engaging, inventive, and witty is no longer a mandate now that the ability of Bond to slay the box office has been fully revived. Spectre is sadly rote. Bring on the next reboot.