All right, enough is enough. In theory, I can appreciate that Eon Productions, the company behind the James Bond franchise, has tried to make Bond a deeper, more relatable, more tragic figure. For too many years Bond was just a cypher, an impossibly cool super spy with nary a chink in his armor. It made sense to give the character a real soul, which Eon pulled off spectacularly in Casino Royale, a 007 all-timer that set Daniel Craig up to be the series’ best and most complex Bond for years to come.
And then they went and ran the series completely — and, after Spectre, probably irrevocably — off the rails. Quantum of Solace was barely even a movie, but rather a writers’ strike-crippled epilogue to Casino Royale that didn’t seem to have much to say on its own. That was followed by the even worse Skyfall, a dour, overlong mess filled with ridiculous, comic-book plotting and a clumsy look at Bond’s tortured upbringing that the movie never fully commits to. And now comes Spectre, which doubles-down on Skyfall’s “the past will come back to haunt you” mantra and makes the Bond universe so ludicrously small and personal that, by its end, I found myself wishing that another reboot would come sooner rather than later.
Let’s get the good things I have to say out of the way first. There are some small ways the new film does appropriately course-correct from Skyfall. For one, it has a sense of humor, adding a few bits of much needed levity to the proceedings. (Bond’s stare-down with a mouse comes to mind.) And the members of the supporting cast who get a single letter for a name — Ralph Fiennes’ M, Ben Wishaw’s Q and Andrew Scott’s C — are all used to good effect. Wishaw and Craig especially have a great rapport in the film. Also, the comic-book plotting of Skyfall is gone in favor of a more streamlined narrative that, while still overlong and preposterous, at least tracks from one scene to the next without relying on a million different coincidences.
The story is this: On a tip from the Judi Dench version of M, left for Bond to receive in the case of her death, Bond heads off to Mexico to kill a man named Marco Sciarra. Sciarra was planning to blow up a sports stadium, and Bond discovers that he has ties to a larger criminal organization, Spectre, which seems to have been vaguely connected to all of the villains who have plagued Bond over the last three movies. So … ludicrous, but okay — I’ll roll with it. When Bond crashes a rare Spectre board meeting, it turns out its leader, Hans Oberhauser (Cristoph Waltz), is someone Bond recognizes. From where or when? The movie doesn’t want to tell us immediately, and by the time it does, honestly you’d be better off not knowing anyway. Bond’s cover gets blown, though he escapes with his life. The rest of the movie has Bond desperately trying to track down Oberhauser by completing a sort of scavenger hunt that involves both familiar faces from past movies and new characters, including Léa Seydoux as Madeleine, a woman who can’t seem to escape the shadow of her family’s spy business.
Like I said, I appreciate the less complicated approach to storytelling here, but the movie is such a slog and some of the narrative reveals are so completely asinine that any potential benefits are lost. Start with the action, the bones of every good Bond picture. After an effective and fun Day of the Dead-themed opening, the movie fails to contribute another single action sequence of note to the Bond cannon. There’s a ho-hum car chase. That’s followed by a snowy-mountain rescue attempt where Bond somehow makes an airplane materialize out of thin air so he can rescue Madeleine from a small fleet of SUVs. (How does that even work? Really seems like a shitty plan, James.) There’s also a fistfight on a train between Bond and Dave Bautista (Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy), a new Bond-movie henchmen who’s certainly physically imposing but not given much of a character. Lazily conceived and choppily edited, none of these sequences prove to be original or exciting.
Also suffering this go round are the Bond Girls. Seydoux and Craig have no chemistry, which really becomes a problem once the movie tries to sell you that these two aren’t just fucking but might actually be in love with each other. (Sorry, Madeleine. You are no Vesper Lynd.) Monica Bellucci also turns up early on as Sciarra’s wife, who Bond insults, lays, milks for information and leaves — all immediately following her husband’s funeral. It’s kind of gross in all the worst ways a bad Bond movie can be.
And then there’s Waltz.
MAJOR SPOILERS INCOMING.
Waltz is a big deal in this movie because he’s not just playing Oberhauser, he’s playing legendary Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, an alias taken on after Oberhauser faked his own death. Let’s count the ways this goes so horribly, terribly wrong. For starters, Waltz is pretty bad in the role. How much of it is his fault could be debated. The exposition he’s given is terrible. The motivations provided to him paper-thin. (Also, why is he inviting Bond over to his lair for a chit-chat immediately after his henchman were trying to brutally murder 007?) So a lot of it falls on the writing. But Waltz, so good when he works with Tarantino, is unable to elevate nary a scene, nor even a single line, past its flatness on the page.
On top of this, the film tries to expand Blofeld’s mythology by making him a figure from Bond’s past. I’m not going to ruin that connection here. Not because I’m being nice to you, the reader, but because I hate it so much I really don’t want to think about it more than I have to. Just know that it’s dumb, that it involves more digging into Bond’s formative years (which director Sam Mendes, back after Skyfall, finds way more interesting than I do) and that it turns Bond himself from a cunning super spy into someone who was destined to get wrapped-up in all of this Spectre nonsense from the get-go. Bond movies should not be about “destiny” and constantly atoning for past sins (that really aren’t even sins in the first place). Somebody please give EON the memo.
So, honestly, I don’t know where the 007 franchise goes from here. After Casino Royale, I was ready to watch Craig in the role for the next 15 years. And part of me still wants to. The failures of Spectre and the last two films are not his fault. He’s good here — imposing yet graceful, funny when he needs to be, dangerous when called upon. But he’s adrift in a sea of hazy, unnecessary back-story and a universe that keeps shrinking instead of expanding. I feel like we haven’t gotten a single Bond film where Craig just gets to be Bond, have some fun and splash around in that world. Every movie now is about the outdatedness of the 007 program or Bond at odds with his superiors or Bond’s tortured psyche preventing him from doing his job. Just give me one goddamn movie where Craig’s Bond is at the top of his game and gets to save the world with the full support of MI6 behind him and no emotional baggage to deal with. JUST ONE. And if you won’t do that, then let Craig out of his contract, move onto the next guy and hit the reboot button once more. At this point, it really might be for the best.