Has any franchise ever taken the tumble from one movie to the next that Spectre does from Skyfall?
I'm hard-pressed to think of one, and depressed to report that James Bond is alive and not doing well. Watching Spectre unfold, lumbering and slumbering, on the heels of a franchise high is a shock, so much talent coasting this time.
Spectre appears to wrap up Daniel Craig's era of Agent 007 fame; four films, now two disappointments counting Quantum of Solace. With Skyfall, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes set the myth on a new course that Spectre attempts to drag the first two Craig vehicles into. It isn't a nifty fit.
Mendes seems to have listened to anyone believing Skyfall didn't showcase enough Bond stunts. Spectre features several such set pieces, that Mendes hasn't displayed the chops for staging. Whatever plane, train, automobile or boat Bond can board (often without explanation) is ripe for a chase, crash or fisticuffs.
Just like every other soulless blockbuster, this one more head-shaking than usual.
Spectre sets its customary big-bang opening in Mexico City, teeming with Day of the Dead celebrants. One skeletal reveler is Bond on an unauthorized mission, filmed in an extended tracking shot as he seduces his way into a woman's bedroom for a clearer view to a kill. One target escapes, leading to a foot chase then fist fight inside a helicopter spinning too long and gimbal-smooth for thrills sake.
A promising start, although that impression lasts only as long as it takes to strike up Sam Smith's falsetto dirge Writing's on the Wall, appropriately played over the worst opening credits in 007 history. Craig glowers at the camera, shirtless, muscular arms folded, while gloomy under-dressed women writhe around him, and octopi ripple like Rockettes. The sequence is beyond bad, bordering on stale Austin Powers parody.
Between the limbs and tentacles viewers will spot Spectre's villain, played by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. Take a good look. Four screenwriters couldn't figure out a way to get Waltz further involved in Spectre until far too late and infrequently for an arch villain to matter, even with a spoilable secret identity.
Spectre is about the ghosts of Bond films past, specifically Craig's era. The movie is chock full o' callbacks to stunts, gadgets and emotional and bureaucratic scars left by Skyfall's MI-6 apocalypse. Judi Dench's M is dead, and her successor (Ralph Fiennes) is on career support, his Double-Oh spy program deemed obsolete by a hot shot (Andrew Scott) derisively nicknamed C.
Bond's Mexico escapade was a prequel vendetta, leading to his suspension from duty. That doesn't stop Bond, still driven by grief over Vesper Lynd's drowning in Casino Royale, and MI-6's destruction. A message from beyond the grave sends him globetrotting, with hesitant assistance from Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (an invaluable Ben Whishaw).
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Revenge will require an encore by Craig's least interesting adversary (Quantum of Solace's Jasper Christensen), the introduction of a rare Bond girl who doesn't entice (Lea Seydoux), and another who's actually a 50-year-old woman (Monica Bellucci), a first in maturity for the franchise.
Bellucci's sequence is among the movie's low points, not for her presence but how Mendes and the writers abuse it. She plays the widow of Bond's Mexico City victim, with information the spy needs. Within hours of the funeral Bond has her backed against a wall for what amounts to a date rape interrogation. She gives in, gasping what Bond wants to hear.
We last see Bellucci perched in bed, satisfied in lingerie like countless starlets before, and the objectification of women in Bond films gains another facet.
Another clumsy moment occurs after Bond brutally dispatches an assassin (Tampa's Dave Bautista) and Seydoux's minx asks: "What do we do now?" Jump to she and Bond playing tonsil hockey, in contrast to every humorless moment before.
In moments like those Spectre might pass for parody, except Mendes raised the stakes so high with Skyfall that lowbrow isn't becoming on 007, and might spell his end. Like Sam Smith sings, much too shrill for a James Bond movie: The writing's on the wall.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.