REVIEW: 'Spectre' reflects on Bonds of the past - for better and worse

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If movies were judged solely on their opening shots, Spectre would vault near the top of the list. A camera drone sweeps us in an unbroken hover through the streets and into the buildings of Mexico City, as we watch James Bond (Daniel Craig) tail a suspect during a Day of the Dead festival. It’s an experience that encompasses everything we want from a Bond film in a single take: a colourful exotic locale, well-tailored suits, beautiful women, a hint of espionage and a wry sense of humour.

Oddly, as soon as the first cut occurs and the scene transitions into its first action sequence, the tone of the film changes. Bond tumbles – quite literally – into an improbably comfortable spot, and the sequence becomes an inadvertent visual metaphor for the rest of the movie.

Over and over in the film, director Sam Mendes tries out concepts meant to keep the Bond series feeling fresh, a strategy that paid off extremely well in his previous outing with the franchise, Skyfall. But it seems 007 will only accept a certain amount of innovation, and it’s as though the film fights to work in familiar ideas from days gone by – not just from Craig’s earlier appearances as the character, but from Bond films as early as 1963’s From Russia With Love. While some of these callbacks are welcome, others are not, and it holds Spectre back from being the triumph it could have been.

The film opens with a stunning shot set in Mexico City

The Mexico City opener thrusts us back into the persistent mystery that has dogged Craig’s Bond since his debut in Casino Royale: the truth behind the organization that produced his greatest enemies and caused the death of the only woman he really loved, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

In spite of the appearance of a snarky government official (Andrew Scott) seeking to replace the 00 program with surveillance drones, Bond gets a lead on the organization’s leader, a childhood rival named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond soon discovers that stopping Oberhauser may not simply be necessary for his own sanity, but may be the key to halting a particularly nasty plot for world domination.

The fact that the three previous Bond films all flow their narratives into this one is one of the most obvious attempts at redefining the franchise since Craig took over. Until Casino Royale, the most connective tissue these films could hope for was that Bond’s archnemesis, Blofeld, had a knack for staying alive, even as other actors moved on from playing 007. And I’m always excited to see a long-running franchise take a shot at serialized storytelling, which grants so many opportunities for character development.

Unfortunately, by turning Craig’s Bond movies into a sort of long-form TV show, it means Spectre ends up including second-hand versions of sequences from the three earlier films. We find an intelligent Bond girl (played by Léa Seydoux) who tries to emotionally dissect Bond during a train journey – as Vesper does in Casino Royale - only to turn into putty in his arms at the drop of a hat. There’s a lengthy detour and explosive fight in a desert, all too reminiscent of Quantum of Solace. And then we have Waltz’s villain, who like Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall, tries to control the world by manipulating data, but whose world-domination method is actually something Silva makes fun of in Skyfall.

Christoph Waltz makes a play for world domination as Oberhauser

Despite these nagging issues, Spectre still includes plenty of what I wanted from a new Bond film. It uses its globe-trotting locations to great effect, and Bond actually gets to use more of his gadgets and his vehicle than he has in the past – the one Bond component I’ve always felt has been too limited during the Craig years. It also brings back another piece of the universe that we’ve lacked since 2006: a truly formidable henchman with a signature weapon, rendered here as Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who wields ridiculous double-barrelled pistol. It’s the little things, you know?

Herein may lie the core problem with Spectre: it does too much of what I wanted. In trying to be a worthwhile successor to Skyfall, it doubles down on Bond tropes, while simultaneously trying to continue the overarching narrative that began in Casino Royale and dig ever deeper into Bond’s psyche. All of these things work well in specific amounts, which is what helped make Skyfall so good. Push them too far, and the movie risks tipping into exactly what Casino Royale was designed to correct: a cartoon version of a beloved series.

And yet, though Spectre has all these issues, the material is presented so well that I still have to recommend it, and even let it live somewhere in my top 10 Bond films. It’s not the disappointment that some will say it is – instead, it’s a case of the Bond franchise getting a little too cocky after its success in 2012. Here’s hoping the director who steps in after Mendes brings some clarity back into the series, much like a tougher-than-normal thug goading 007 into a stylish new stunt. There may be a lot of film history riding on one character’s impeccably dressed shoulders, but it doesn’t mean he has to use all of it – especially the crocodile submarine.

Spectre gets two and a half stars out of four.

Two and a Half Stars

What did you think about the twenty-fourth film in the Bond series? Where does it rank for you with Craig’s other outings as the character? Do you want to see the actor return for another (possibly final) appearance? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!