Warning: Oblique spoilers.
An "average" James Bond movie can be described using three words: "satisfying but flawed." To the extent that's true, Spectre fills the mold. Overplotted and at least 20 minutes too long, the film opens big, slogs through its middle act, and recovers for a rousing conclusion. The fourth (and possibly last) outing for Daniel Craig as 007, this continues the "reboot" process begun in 2006's Casino Royale. For the first time, we see the producers' masterplan: not only to strip down and resurrect Bond (the character) for a new era but to meticulously re-introduce all the elements of his universe. Prior to its re-emergence here, Spectre (an acronym for "Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion"), the nefarious shadow organization that plagued the Connery Bond, has been absent for more than 40 years (largely because of copyright issues). By the end of Spectre, the pieces are (almost) all in place for the Bond production team to start re-making the early classics. Can a new Dr. No be far off?
Spectre is the most "traditional" of the Craig Bonds. Although a little light on gadgets, it has everything else, including (for the first time since Brosnan's unfortunate final outing) the opening iris. As the film starts, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are in the office and Q (Ben Whishaw) is in his lab. 007 is in Mexico City, tracking an assassin. His investigation, spurred on by a tip from his former boss (a Judi Dench cameo), sends him in pursuit of a new global threat: the organization Spectre, headed by Franz Oberhauser (Chistoph Waltz). Oberhauser has a close connection to Bond and is nursing a grudge. As M's group comes under fire as obsolete by a new British intelligence official, C (Andrew Scott, Sherlock's Moriarty), Bond must romance a couple of women (Monica Bellucci, Lea Seydoux), face off against Oberhauser's henchman, Hinx (Dave Bautista), and uncover the truth about Oberhauser (which won't surprise any long-time Bond fans).
If Spectre is disappointing, it's because Skyfall, its immediate predecessor (also directed by Sam Mendes), was so good. In fact, two of Craig's outings (Skyfall and Casino Royale) have represented the best Bond since Connery left. Spectre is more of a middling affair. Much of the London-based material, with M battling C over the value of "old-fashioned" field agents, belongs in a different movie. It's ultimately superfluous and serves primarily to fatten up an already bloated production. Also, Bond's romance with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) develops a little too slowly for an action thriller.
Hinx, played by Guardians of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista, is a pleasant addition to the 007 Rogues Gallery of Henchmen. Although not as memorable as Oddjob or Jaws, he can stand on his own. His fight scene with Bond aboard a moving train is reminiscent of Connery's battle with Robert Shaw's Grant in From Russia with Love - the similarities are undoubtedly intentional. As the man in the shadows, Christoph Waltz is underused. His cool, urbane approach is menacing but he's not as ferocious as Skyfall's Silva.
Spectre continues the recent trend of transforming the serial womanizer into more of a romantic hero. Bond's relationship with Madeleine has a depth seen only twice previously in the series' 53-year history (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Casino Royale) and shows the producers to be cognizant that the concept of a "love interest" has to evolve from what it once was. Although Lea Seydoux gets the lion's share of female screen time, Monica Bellucci's small role as the widow of a man killed by Bond allows her to become the first fifty-something "Bond girl" (assuming one doesn't count the original Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell).
In terms of its pyrotechnics, fight scenes, and stunts, Spectre outdoes anything attempted in Skyfall, fulfilling director Sam Mendes' self-imposed requirement that things needed to be more spectacular in the follow-up. Although the film doesn't reach the absurd heights of rival action franchises such as The Fast and the Furious and Mission: Impossible, there are times when it comes close. Composer Thomas Newman proves to be a better successor to John Barry than David Arnold, who scored five of the last seven franchise entries. He is less reluctant and more able than Arnold to entwine the iconic Monty Norman theme into his work. (Sam Smith's title song, however, is unremarkable and a significant step down from Adele's "Skyfall.")
One point of curiosity about Spectre is how it would address the so-called "Blofeld question." Considering that Ernst Stavro Blofeld was Spectre's #1 and became Bond's arch-rival during the Connery era, it seemed odd that there was no mention of him in any of the publicity material related to Spectre. Rest assured, the movie addresses this. I won't discuss the specifics or guess whether viewers will be satisfied with how it's handled, but Mendes and the screenwriters don't ignore the character.
"James Bond will return." So promises the end credits (as they often do). Although Spectre is not top-flight 007, there's nothing here to damage the venerable franchise. It has the ingredients necessary to succeed at the box office and offers the kind of high-voltage action that today's movie-goers love. If there's too much plot and times when the pacing becomes sluggish and uneven, those are easy traps for ambitious, would-be epics to fall into In the end, this solid Bond does justice to the character's long legacy while paying due diligence to what he has become under Daniel Craig's stewardship.
© 2015 James Berardinelli