Spectacular death defying set pieces do not a Bond movie make. Like his drink of choice, a 007 outing needs a good shaken mix of action, romance, thrilling storytelling and suspense set against a backdrop of exotically gorgeous locations. It’s a delicate balance so gracefully achieved in Craig’s previous outings Casino Royale and Skyfall that both films are heavily referenced here, haunting Spectre with their superiority. All of the elements have been assembled off the check-list but some are only half baked, failing to rise to the standard of what has gone before.
Opening to the beating dark heart of Mexico City and the Day of the Dead festival as ghouls in striking costumes pack the streets, an impeccably dressed Craig moves among them, about to unleash his own brand of havoc on the unsuspecting dead. It’s a jaw-dropping setting to a genuinely nail-biting opening action set piece. Sent a posthumous message from Dench (deeply missed here) to track and kill a suspected Spectre assassin in Mexico, Bond takes his private mission too far, ending up in hot water with the new M, a gaunt and drawn looking Ralph Fiennes. Clearly the pressures of the new post are taking its toll, as the British government plans to merge their MI6 with MI5, under the watchful eye of Max Denbigh, Irish actor and Sherlock alumni Andrew Scott, playing him as an oily usurper bringing some of his Moriarty menace in his exchanges with Fiennes.
Meanwhile Bond is on the trail of the mysterious Spectre following a rendez-vous with the window of his Mexico target, Lucia Sciarra, played by Monica Belluci. She makes the best of it but her role feels diminished, a grade two Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) from Tomorrow Never Dies and is used and set aside very quickly. Rome, however has rarely been so gloriously celebrated on screen, and director Sam Mendes along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, create an opulent canvas for our first look at Spectre in action, with a Dan Brown-esque meeting of the secret criminal syndicate. A resulting car chase through the city streets, right up to the doors of the Vatican is beautifully shot and orchestrated and the introduction of Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, last seen as Drax in Guardians of The Galaxy), a hulking foe to which Bond will inevitably end up in hand to hand combat, suggests a Roger Moore/Richard Kiel’s Jaws type meeting of fists and smarts.
The excellent Christoph Waltz, who brings spark to all his performances is criminally underused and the greatness witnessed in particular in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained is sadly missing here. Waltz’ primo baddie, as head of Spectre is underwritten with a ridiculous sub plot involving Bond’s childhood that goes nowhere and very little screen time in terms of villainy compared to Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. If the threat is not present, the film has no urgency and as the second half of the two hours eighteen minutes running time rolls in, any sense of pace and immediacy has been whisked away, sunken into the Tyber with MI6’s Aston Martin DB10.
With the introduction of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) the film becomes disarmingly inept. The romance between her and Bond is so clumsily handled that they are no more than caricatures playing out the usual Bond expectations. There is little or no chemistry between them making emotional outpourings at key moments seem superficial.
A finale which serves us up images of the past including Le Chiffre and Javier Bardem’s Silva are reminders of better films with superior plotting, thrills and execution. Spectre will no doubt please hard-core Bond fans who return for the very clichés the franchise present but after Skyfall the bar was raised and the expectation of the ultimate prestige picture lies before them. Unfortunately it’s a very slick commercial for Tom Ford’s gorgeous tailoring and numerous designer eyewear that shade Spectre from its glaring flaws.