For all their reliably repeated elements – tailored suits, tricky gadgets, glamorous women, outlandish villains, M, Q, and Moneypenny – the oft-rebooted James Bond movies are one of our culture’s most reliable barometers. (Or should I say they are reliable cultural dipsticks, a more fittingly utilitarian and phallic metaphor?) The series is awfully good, for better and worse, at reading the zeitgeist’s mood and reflecting our current storytelling obsessions back at us. That’s evident in Spectre, the fourth to feature Daniel Craig as 007. His decidedly post-9/11 entries have viewed geopolitical dangers with dread and a greater interest in personal demons, threats in the business of wounding a more human Bond more closely. This latest one pushes further into the postmodern blockbuster’s main interests: being grim and dark, obsessed with backstory, and paranoid about surveillance but ambivalent about its necessity. And yet director Sam Mendes, returning from the last, terrific entry, continues to find a way to make a film both derivatively modern and classically Bond. It’s a tough balance, but he mostly pulls it off.
From the opening shot – a long, unbroken one dancing through a crowded festival, into a hotel, up an elevator, out a window, over a ledge, and across some roofs – it’s clear Mendes knows great cinematography can be as good as any dazzling special effect. With Hoyte Van Hoytema behind the camera (he who is responsible for the austere beauty of films like Interstellar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Let the Right One In), Mendes crafts a movie with not a single misjudged image. (Call it cinema du “One Perfect Shot.”) The movie globetrots with Bond as he follows a series of clues on the trail of a mysterious villainous organization. Each stop is appealingly photographed, exquisite in its rendering of bright snow, crackling desert expanses, warm Italian villas, and chilly grey London streets. Handsome, expertly constructed frames find silhouettes and reflections, smooth glass and flickering flames. The movie is as well put together and aesthetically pleasing as a luxury car, a perfectly fitted tux, or a supermodel in high-fashion attire.
The look is all well and good, but what’s happening in this artful design? Well, it’s more or less a typical Bond film, but with its recent tonal habit of sustained seriousness. The super-spy is suave and flirtatious. His boss (Ralph Fiennes), assistant (Naomie Harris), and gadget supplier (Ben Whishaw) are alternately impressed and exasperated by his antics. A slimy villain (Christoph Waltz) hides in the shadows, pulling strings on an elaborate megalomaniacal plan. The antagonist’s brutish henchman (Dave Bautista) is lurking around every other corner. And two beautiful women (Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci) are tough, hold valuable information, and want nothing to do with Bond until he proves just too irresistible to not make out with for a bit. The plot develops in a controlled, subdued manner, the better to hide the grinding formula, I suppose. When the action arrives, it’s tough and smashing, flipping helicopters, flinging cars, smashing planes, and exploding buildings. The best is a close quarters hand-to-hand fight aboard a train, echoes of From Russia with Love.
It’s built around a need to draw connections, not just to traditional Bond elements, but most obviously to Craig’s previous outings. The screenplay (credited to John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth) brings back a character from Quantum of Solace (Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White), references the events of Skyfall (Judi Dench briefly appears in a message from beyond the spoiler), and alludes to Casino Royale’s villains. This is supposed to make its conspiracy-minded plot more impactful because we can recognize threads from the last few Bond films. I like it in theory, but in practice it’s muddy and forced, full of loose ends and plot holes. Besides, it puts too much faith in Bond as a character instead of a construct. It’s one thing to groove on the franchise’s persona. It’s another thing entirely to care about James Bond the man, especially when there’s not a lot of evidence pointing to characterization worth caring about.
Craig’s Bond is best at projecting unflappable competence and wounded backstory while never dropping the strong mostly silent type act. The movie’s at its best when it sends him hurtling into wordless action – it’s unfailingly sharply staged and thrillingly paced – or poses him in attractive tableaus against striking scenery and painterly light and shadow. There’s not much depth here, which makes it hard to care when the movie pretends there is. The characters, though inhabited by great actors, are ultimately nothing more than sparsely developed types. And the political interests are strictly unserious despite the gravity with which it frets over the double-oh’s future in the face of a digital dragnet, amounting to nothing more than an argument for ditching cold computerized snooping in favor of artisanal spying. And yet, for all two-plus hours, it basically works. The look is impressive, and it slides along seductively enough on expert craftsmanship. As a delivery device for slick surfaces and fun setpieces, Mendes and crew give you your money’s worth.