A sequel that feels like a remake of a remake, SPECTRE starts strong before steadily losing momentum.
Whether through fiat by the producers — currently Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli — or not, the Bond films have accumulated a number of elements that must be honored, lest they incur the perceived wrath of audiences worldwide. That leaves the screenwriters to figure out how to include those old bones while implanting new connective tissue into an aging skeleton that is no longer as fresh and potent as it was when the series began in 1962 with Sean Connery in Dr. No.
Last time out, Skyfall made it personal, distinguishing itself with the viciousness of its vengeful intentions and the sprightly, highly colorful digital imagery of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. This time out, Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) takes over behind the camera. As it turns out, it was a bold choice but a poor match for the material; the film looks like a dark spy movie but plays like a rudimentary Hollywood blockbuster. (I’m not saying that Roger Deakins would have saved the movie, but I am saying he would have helped, and this movie needed all the help it could get.)
Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have worked on all four of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig, and have laid the patchy groundwork for the current version of the secret agent, in which he has little interest in Queen and Country. (John Logan and Jez Butterworth also receive credit for the screenplay while Logan shares credit with Purvis and Wade for the story.) SPECTRE acknowledges the previous three installments of the series, seeking to tie things together story-wise, presumably in the hopes of building toward a grander climax.
First, though, the movie must wade through the required elements. The opening action sequence, set in Mexico City, is the high point as director Sam Mendes creates a slick, absorbing set-piece, seemingly a single shot, following Bond as he seeks out a man he wants to kill. After he returns to London, it’s revealed that Bond was not on official business; nonetheless, under strong suspicion despite the lack of evidence, he is suspended from active duty by his superior, M (Ralph Fiennes), who is busy dealing with the merger of his agency with MI-5, led by an ambitious bureaucrat (Timothy Scott), derisively called “C” by Bond.
Naturally, Bond must see Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to establish that he’s still a charming rascal who can count on his subservient friends to care for his needs and cover up his plan to track down The Man Responsible. He journeys to Italy, where he beds down the newly-widowed Lucia, whose husband he killed in Mexico. Lucia is played, briefly, by Monica Bellucci, and for all that that was made of her appearance in the movie as an ‘appropriately-aged’ Bond woman, she’s treated like a Bond girl, and the role is a cameo, anyway.
Then it’s off to Switzerland, where Bond meets Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of another Bond opponent. The not-so-secret agent is bound to protect her, and so she comes along as another piece of eye candy. Beyond that, she gives him an excuse to explain the plot.
The movie creaks on from there, pitting Bond against the murderous, silent Hinx (Dave Bautista) more than once and incorporating lengthy, complex, and carefully choreographed and rehearsed action sequences that are burdened by their measured precision. Nothing in SPECTRE feels spontaneous or surprising, and the narrative never builds to much of any kind of suspenseful heights.
It’s an even-keeled, very safe sort of blockbuster. If I was 11 years old and only saw one movie annually in a theater, I’d probably be alright with SPECTRE. But I’m not, and I wasn’t.
The film opens wide in theaters throughout the area on Friday, November 6, with preview screenings in select theaters on Thursday, November. Check local listings for more information.