These days, it's all about continuity and world-building. Why write one movie, the theory goes, when you can create a whole universe? Dozens of characters, billions in potential grosses. It's so easy! Except, of course, that it's very hard. It takes loads of time and skill, not to mention audience buy-in, to make that sort of magic happen. And even more so when you're trying to teach old dogs new tricks. For decades now, James Bond has bounced from movie to movie, the same characters but different actors, new women every time, and occasionally a villainous organization lurking behind every corner. But now that it's time for the Bond world to be tied up in a neat little package, it's no surprise that the effort falls well short of a masterpiece.
As the presumptive final Bond movie for Daniel Craig, unless his ol' pal money rears its ugly head, Spectre fancies itself as a fitting conclusion to his Bond tetralogy. We open with 007 going outside his jurisdiction once more, this time its to investigate a message from beyoooond the grave (left by Judi Dench's departed M) to look into a shadowy group that has provoked all of the world's tragedies for generations. Assisted by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), he travels from country to country looking for the proof, and the man, behind this mysterious band of influencers.Oh, and also there's some bullshit where the new M (Ralph Fiennes) argues with Moriarty from Sherlock about global espionage and data gathering.
An aside: It's jarring to see Fiennes playing a regular person. As James Corden noted on a recent episode of WTF, when it comes to actors there are humans and there are aliens. And Fiennes is definitely an alien.
The problem lies in how clumsily Spectre goes about this task of linking all the Craig installments, and how unfulfilling it is for the audience. Screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth (four is never a good sign) act as if "who is behind all of James Bond's many misfortunes?" is a question we walk around asking ourselves on a daily basis. "Is it Christoph Waltz," they assume we wonder, "and is he some sort of haunted familial relation to 007?" You bet he is. This is so telegraphed as to barely be a spoiler, and its as unsatisfying as the "reveal" in Steve Jobs that the Apple CEO's dad was some restaurateur.
Moments don't become fraught with tension just because there's swelling music and the announcement of a biological connection. You have to build to a satisfying conclusion, something Spectre never gets around to doing. Which is surprisingly, because it's 148 minutes long. There's time to travel to Mexico for a helicopter battle, Rome for a funeral, Austria for a plane break, and Morocco to punch holes in hotel walls, but only 20 minutes of Waltz chewing scenery as Hans Landa Lite.
As in Skyfall, director Sam Mendes captures the look and feel of a Bond movie with relatively ease. The helicopter battle, in particular, will induce sweaty palms in even the most tried-and-true action fan, and Bond's train battle with henchman Hinx (former WWE superstar Dave "The Animal" Bautista) is the kind of fun brutality we almost came to expect after Craig's first go-around. There's pretty scenery and sexy women and cool cars, but only hints of character development and the spindly presence of the aforementioned surveillance-is-bad theme.
And that's fine; that's what a James Bond movie is all about. There's a template that's been wildly successful and will continue to be for perhaps eternity. But when a movie openly states its intentions to wrap up its three previous installments—and the first in that group was the terrific, mold-busting Casino Royale—it's a bit depressing to see how far we've regressed.
In 2006, we got a fresh-faced James Bond who was inexperienced, physical, and likeable beyond being "the suave guy who gets all the girls." Now Craig is inhabiting the original, only without the wry smile and subtle wink of a Sean Connery. He's kind of a jerk, and we're only rooting for him because his name is James Bond and he's ostensibly taking on evil. He's a hero from another time, using modern technology to fight the same old battles. These days, that can only take you so far.