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Spectre is the fourth film since Casino Royale rebooted the franchise and the 24th Bond film overall, and it's littered with evidence that the producers of the series still haven't quite figured out what James Bond means in the 21st century (even though Royale itself pretty much got it right), as well as nagging indications that director Sam Mendes, returning from the previous entry Skyfall, looks at the property as something that he has to class up. The combination results in a film that seems to second-guess itself while it's playing, continually falling back on plot points already explored in the previous Craig outings, and other recent spy thrillers.
The film is notable for its re-introduction of Spectre (originally S.P.E.C.T.R.E.), a shadowy organization comprised of criminals and terrorists introduced in Thunderball, the use of which was long prevented by a rights issue with the estate of screenwriter Kevin McClory. Sadly, the movie hardly makes use of Spectre, which is practically relegated to the background in the form of anonymous business leaders and a couple of TV news reports. Instead, the movie focuses more on further developing details of Bond's childhood that were introduced in Skyfall, and worse, a tired subplot about an N.S.A.-like global oversight program, masterminded by Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), which would eliminate the need for old-school spies like Bond. Not only is the thread fairly dry and bureaucratic (mostly Ralph Fiennes' M sitting in the back of meetings), and old hat (a similar program was touched upon as far back as 2008's The Dark Knight), but the flipside of "timely" is "dated" -- concerns about an Orwellian tracking program aren't going to age as well as a good car chase or gunfight.
This conflict between the new and the old summarizes the franchise's problem. In its heydey, 007 had a monopoly on blockbuster spy cinema, but in 2015, properties like Mission: Impossible and Bourne are able to offer the same level of craftsmanship and spectacle. The current appeal of any one franchise compared to the others lies in the unique traits or flavors of each one. EON knows that the womanizing, gadget-happy Bond of old is dated in more ways than one, but the degree to which Mendes pushes the series' austerity is suffocating. With Casino Royale, best of the current iteration of the series, Goldeneye director Martin Campbell offered darkness and intensity without the film becoming stuffy, but Mendes, switching from Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins to Hoyte Van Hoytema, casts most of the movie in drab gray and sepia monotones that insist on their own sophistication. Tiny splashes of humor are often awkward, especially when attempting to wink at the series' trademarks. Even the action is weak. A couple of helicopter stunts in the movie's opening sequence recall movies like Crank and The A-Team, which did so first and with less obvious digital trickery, and Mendes does nothing to breathe new life into them. Only a fight scene with henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista) gets the pulse pumping, and even it's far too short.
Craig remains an excellent choice for Bond, able to cross over the line between edgy and suave and back again, but Spectre requires too much of the former and almost none of the latter. Even when he is turning on the charm, he hardly cracks a smile, and many of his slickest moves (straightening his cufflinks after an action beat) are repeats from Skyfall. Most of the supporting cast is wasted, except for Lea Seydoux as the only Bond girl since Eva Green to offer any smidgen of personality, by seeming more like an adult equal to Bond rather than someone he's trying to get something out of. Oh, and of course, there's Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser, a man from Bond's past. Since Quantum of Solace, the new Bond series has been set on creating a continuity, something to flesh out the character, but the way Spectre attempts to tie the last four films together feels simultaneously lazy, convoluted, and familiar. Oberhauser's motives and backstory are shrouded in mystery, a curtain that won't be pulled back in this review, but there's a sense that the filmmakers have erred so much on the side of caution in obscuring his character that it prevents Waltz from making much of an impression, limiting his performance, his character's impact, even his screen time in the movie. In the end, Oberhauser is no different from that opening shot: the viewer's desire to know his what and why have simply been assumed.
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