The Sky Isn't Falling for 007 Just Yet

(UK/USA, 148 min.)
Dir. Sam Mendes, Writ. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw
Bond (Daniel Craig) following Marco Sciarra through the Dia de los Muertos parade in Spectre.
Photo: Stephen Vaughan / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Danjaq, LLC and Columbia Pictures

There’s no need to worry, Henny Penny: the sky isn’t falling. Yes, James Bond is back after the franchise high of Skyfall and it’s a relief to say that the newest 007 film, Spectre, isn’t to Skyfall what Quantum of Solace is to Casino Royale. Skyfall sets a high bar with its billion-dollar box office, two Oscars, and BAFTA win for Best Film, so while Spectre is no Skyfall by any regards, it’s enough to keep 007 fans satisfied that James Bond is on the mend.

Spectre continues where Skyfall ended and it ties together elements of the Daniel Craig years of the franchise as Bond embarks on a mission to avenge M (Judi Dench) and follow a lead she left him after her death. The film references Casino Royale, Skyfall, and (unfortunately) Quantum of Solace aplenty, so fans might want to revisit all the Craig films of the franchise before sitting down for Spectre. As a stand-alone film, Spectre’s easy enough to follow for fans who’ve forgotten events of the past decade of 007 since the screenplay by the quartet of writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth does its best to drop reminders here and there as familiar faces and names return.

Spectre ups the ante from Skyfall and goes bigger and harder on the action. The film opens with a wild action sequence in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations as Bond tracks an assassin amidst partiers in ghoulish garb borrowed from the closet of Baron Samedi. A crazy helicopter ride, a demolished city square, and a dead assassin later, Bond is back in business. Pause for the obligatory opening credits sequence as Sam Smith’s “The Writing’s on the Wall” offers the worst song in the history of the franchise—it’s slow, boring, and doesn’t fit the 007 character—but if the low point of Spectre is the opening credits sequence, that’s not too shabby.

The  post-credit clues lead Bond to the assassin’s not-particularly-heartbroken widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci, Ville-Marie). Bellucci, finally in a Bond film after losing the part of Paris in Tomorrow Never Dies to Teri Hatcher, is a perfect fit for the 007 world, so it’s a shame that her role is much smaller than PR for the film would lead one to believe. She has about five minutes of screen time, but they’re memorable, as Lucia gives Bond some helpful tips between the covers that lead 007 to the lair of evil goons sporting the octopus branded rings like the one he pulls of her husband in Mexico.

Bond fans recognize the symbol: it’s the mark of SPECTRE, the evil terrorist organization headed by Blofeld, Bond’s nemesis with the white little kitty. His trail eventually takes him to Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a relic from the Casino Royale days, who points Bond in the direction of his daughter, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux from Blue is the Warmest Colour), who offers a decent take on the Bond girl with a smart, sexy, articulate counterpart for Bond as she proves his equal in many ways. All of this trail ties up loose ends from previous missions as the journey leads to the film’s baddie, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who barely shows his teeth until the two-hour mark of the film.

There’s a lot to Spectre plot-wise, but it doesn’t compare to Skyfall in terms of story strength as Bond runs from country to country and from lead to lead. The film mostly lacks a strong villain for Bond’s quest. There’s a lot of action and conflict as Bond battles a Jaws-ish henchman with steel fingernails and as M (Ralph Fiennes) defends the 00 program from a stuffy bureaucrat dubbed C (Andrew Scott). Spectre consistently entertains, but it often suffers from the absence of a baddie, especially since the exhaustingly long running time takes the milk route on its way to bringing Bond face to face with Oberhauser and the most obvious plot-twist in years.

This Bond adventure is more about teamwork as Bond wrangles Q (Ben Whishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to help him track down Spectre on the sly. Q goes into the field for a rare adventure, while Moneypenny plays the mole on MI:6. Both Whishaw and Harris and bright and bubbly—not necessarily comic relief, but rather amiable sidekicks—and Spectre balances the darkness and seriousness with which the franchise has shrouded itself since rebooting with Casino Royale in 2006. As great as Casino Royale and Skyfall are, Spectre refreshingly shakes off the influence of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies that demands franchise films be dark and sombre. Spectre is classic Bond escapism.

Director Sam Mendes works competently with this action-heavy adventure. Directing Bond movies back to back, Mendes works on a larger scale this time with more exotic locations, grander sequences, and bigger explosions. Spectre is technically proficient and the elaborate set pieces are impressive, especially the Day of the Dead sequence, and the film finds some additional artistry in the lensing by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has the thankless job of trying to match the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins in Skyfall. Deakins took 007 and transformed the franchise into art, and Hoytema admirably gives Bond a sleek aesthetic. Music by Thomas Newman is energetic but lacks the familiar pizzazz of a Bond score—the absence of the usual Bond trumpets in the action scenes is notable.

Spectre, finally, feels like a finale of sorts as it ties together elements of the previous four films and ends with a conclusion that could fittingly wrap up the franchise. Spectre, reportedly Craig’s last outing as Bond, leaves 007 much stronger than where he was a decade ago. Craig’s performance confirms that he’s the only actor who rivals Sean Connery’s fit for the role as he plays Bond rough and rugged with a wily sense of humour. Like Spectre having to live up to Skyfall, Craig sets high expectations for the next Bond to match.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Spectre is now playing in wide release.