A friend once theorized to me that it takes every James Bond actor three movies to “become” Bond, which is largely why Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Skyfall were the respective best of Connery’s, Moore’s, and Craig’s (so far) turns in the tux. (Brosnan was the only one to hit it out of the park his very first time with GoldenEye, but then he’d already spent five seasons practicing on Remington Steele.)
Of course, as strong as those entries in the series were, they were each followed by movies that tried so hard to be bigger and better they ultimately took on too much. Thunderball was at least a half-hour too long, Moonraker remains a low-point of the 53-year-old franchise, and even the above-average Tomorrow Never Dies remains the most forgettable entry of the Brosnan years.
The question was never whether Spectre would be worse than 2012’s Skyfall, arguably the very best in the everlasting series; it was how close to those same lofty heights Spectre could reach. Thanks to the return of director Sam Mendes, some gripping action sequences, and a perfectly pitched performance from Christoph Waltz, the answer is: pretty damned close.
In one of the most ambitious narrative moves the Bond series has attempted, Spectre sets out to tie together all of the Daniel Craig films, with Casino Royale’s, Quantum of Solace’s, and Skyfall’s villains and henchmen all turning out to be cogs in a machine operated by the evil organization SPECTRE and the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Waltz).
In the wake of the passing of Judi Dench’s M, Ralph Fiennes has now taken on the initial, just in time for MI6 and the Double-O Division to be placed under fire by the smarmy new MI5 head, C (Andrew Scott), who believes the antiquated program can be cheaply and more reliably replaced by surveillance tech and drones. M, Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) work on keeping MI6 alive while 007 is globetrotting after SPECTRE with Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), daughter of Casino Royale‘s Mr. White.
Spectre is the longest movie yet in the 24-film series based on Ian Fleming’s secret agent, but it doesn’t feel as long as Casino Royale or Skyfall did upon their initial viewings. Beginning with a breathtaking opening sequence set amidst Dia de Muertos celebrations, the movie remains entertaining throughout, with enough kinetic energy to keep the slower scenes from ever dragging.
A casualty of our modern age of instant information is that plot twists and character reveals are often exposed months before movies ever hit the big screen, to the point writers and directors are now having to go to exaggerated lengths to lie about character identities. (See: J.J. Abrams’ insistence that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing “John Harrison” in Star Trek Into Darkness.)
If you’ve read anything online about people’s thoughts on Oberhauser’s true identity, or if you know anything at all about previous Bond villains, you already know where Spectre is heading, but I’ll refrain from spoiling it for those who don’t know their Persian cats from their Nehru jackets.
While the character reveal works successfully, a twist of the plot in the third act doesn’t play off as well. It covers territory bizarrely similar to a moment in one of the Austin Powers movies, which here comes off as both narratively unnecessary and a distractingly odd choice for the series to make.
That said, most everything else about Spectre is top-notch. Craig is in as fine form here as he was in Skyfall, and the same can be said for Mendes’ spectacular direction. Like Christophers Lee and Walken before him, Waltz was born to play a Bond villain, and perfectly walks the line here between unmemorable and over-the-top. While the screenplay does try to pack too much in, it remains engaging throughout.
It rolls the dice so many times that eventually a few of its choices don’t quite work and keep it from true brilliance, but were it following anything other than Skyfall, it’d be heralded as a strong return to form for 007. Spectre may not be as good as Skyfall, but there’s no shame in being probably the second-best Bond movie of the past 20 years.