By Jarrod Jones. If I had to put a point on the biggest problem the Daniel Craig Bond era ever had, it’s simply this: sequelitis. Forget the days when we could seamlessly dart from Connery to Lazenby back to Connery again with nary a spilt martini, these days our television-addled audience demands narrative progress, where every significant kill demands future consequences. Vesper Lynd had to die for our stalwart assassin to carry on, that’s what made the high-wire dramatics of Casino Royale stick. And yet for some peculiar reason it was decided that Bond must have his vengeance.
So it came to pass that the first time a Craig-era Bond film made me hike up an eyebrow was during the brisk and utterly forgettable Quantum of Solace, a trifle that was more an unwelcome epilogue to the vastly superior film that preceded it than anything else. And with SPECTRE, the twenty-fourth Bond film and implausibly the third sequel to Royale, we have Bond and his MI6 still cleaning up after the events of Skyfall while Sam Smith ineffectually coos in our ear, “the writing’s on the wall.” Well, now. You don’t say.
Don’t panic; there’s nothing exceptionally bad about SPECTRE. But you should know that Sam Mendes’ polished sophistication notwithstanding, it is easily the clumsiest, squirreliest Bond movie Craig has ever made. In his fourth outing, Daniel Craig’s globetrotting 00 is a touch more salty than seasoned, giving lip service out of the corner of his mouth to surveillance hound, C (Andrew Scott, Sherlock‘s Moriarty), and generally getting pushy in the bedroom with his latest target’s widow (Monica Bellucci). Craig’s as beefy as he’s ever been, bulging every which way out of his immaculately tailored suits, but his steely-blue eyes… well. They seem to be looking beyond Bond. (And if his passivity is any indicator of artistic disharmony, let this nip any doubt in the bud.)
That might have something to do with how rote SPECTRE can be. The film reaches so deep into previous installments that it feels like the final chapter to an overlong film series (just pre-dating that other overlong film series we’re all about to see), when it should feel like a proper installment to a crazy Bond outing. (All this heavy narrative baggage easily makes its closest spiritual cousin Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.) With the return of the acronymical syndicate to the franchise (it stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, though nobody ever says it out loud), we ought to expect the exhilarating heights of From Russia With Love. Problem is, SPECTRE isn’t up to the task of giving it a proper welcome.
The misty refinement of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is still here, and if anything, it looks even more exquisite this time around (that’s likely due to the addition of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark compositions). Mendes has grown more confident shooting action than in his prior effort — most sequences are reliably stupendous, not to mention coherent — but with over 148 minutes to fill, perhaps the director has grown too confident. (An early car chase sequence carries on way past the point of being okay.)
The most troubling part about SPECTRE is that Mendes doesn’t give Craig much to do this go around. Sure, there’s the requisite kiss kiss/bang bang (however you want to interpret that), but SPECTRE is missing the quiet moments that make Skyfall so indelible. There are no moments here where glimmers of doubt enter the stoic visage of Craig. This time, we have a fully realized 007 to contend with. Mendes’ superman takes the fallible secret agent of the last three installments and reverts the character — to say nothing of the entire franchise — right back into the chest-pumping machismo of the Connery era.
The nigh-arthouse flourishes Martin Campbell lent to Royale (and Mendes definitely provided Skyfall) are all but gone here, and the incisive wit of Paul Haggis (who helped pen the first two Craig outings) are woefully missing. That’s bad news considering we’ve finally given Christoph Waltz his day in the sun as Bond’s most indomitable nemesis (it was only going to happen, let’s be real about that). Here he lacks the suave pontification of Javier Bardem’s Silva, swapping out Mads Mikkelsen’s icy cunning for smirking in the shadows. No, the film’s screenplay, pumped up to an unwieldy bloat by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth, tries its damndest to give Waltz the casual menace he had in Inglorious Basterds to little effect. Waltz ought to have nailed this. But his director was far too busy playing to the back of the room.