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MOVIE REVIEW: "Spectre" has shaky moments but still stirs

Daniel Craig as agent 007 and Lea Seydoux as Bond girl Madeline Swann


Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, 
Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Directed by Sam Mendes
Rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, sexuality)
Reviewed by Paul Gibbs and Patrick Gibbs

Perhaps the greatest danger in making a great franchise movie is that if the next one is merely good, it will be seen by many as a major disappointment. It happened to Joss Whedon earlier this year with Age of Ultron, and it's happening to Sam Mendes now. If Spectre had immediately followed the disappointing Quantum of Solace it probably would have been seen as a triumph. Following Skyfall, it may be tempting to go too hard on what is in its own right a very entertaining, solid franchise entry that just doesn't hit the same level of inspiration.

daniel craig james bond spectre
We first encounter James Bond in Mexico City for a Day of the Dead festival, where he is following a mysterious figure name Sciarra. Mendes has once again given us a thrilling and eye-popping teaser sequences which shows off his considerable directorial skill, including an extended opening shot that's a marvel of staging, and some spectacular stunt work. Upon returning to the U.K., 007 finds himself in hot water with the new M (Ralph Fiennes), who would be sick to death of defending his antics to the commissioner if this was a cop movie instead of a spy film. The 00 program has merged with MI5, and their new Boss, C (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty on the BBC's Sherlock) wants to dissolve the license to kill group. But Bond has a personal assignment that supercedes orders, and this causes him to push his way into investigating a mysterious secret organization run by the enigmatic Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a figure from his distant past.

Going into more detail would run too much risk of spoiling the typically convoluted plot (not to mention the least surprising twist since Star Trek Into Darkness), so instead let's focus on how the story is told. Mendes is an extremely talented director, and his staging and pacing remain first-rate, if lacking in quite as many jaw droppingly inspired bits (such as Javier Bardem's slow approach to Bond from across the room and coming into focus while monologuing, Bond getting shot off the train by Moneypenny or the glorious elevator sequence, to name just a few moments of sheer perfection from the previous film.). Visually this movie is certainly strong, but it's hard not to miss genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was unable to continue from Skyfall to Spectre due to other commitments. Hoyt Van Hoytema (a name which sounds like Bond villain from the Roger Moore era) does good work, but Deakins created shots which looked and felt like paintings and this time the photography doesn't quite measure up. . Lee Smith edits the film with finesse, and the team combines to create some wildly entertaining action sequences, highlighted by a plane and car chase sequence and some great fights with Dave Bautista as henchman Mr. Hinx.  All of the elements are there, but as much fun as it is, it just doesn't all click into place as perfectly as before.

lea seydoux bond girl spectreCraig remains the most complex and multilayered Bond, though he won't make you cry in this one. What he's accomplished with the character places him right alongside Sean Connery as one of the defining faces of the franchise. His Bond could outfight and out think most of the others, and his character goes far deeper. He's defined more by his complex emotions than by how he likes his vodka martinis prepared. This time, Craig is ably supported here by a stellar cast. Lea Seydoux (Midnight in Paris, Blue Is The Warmest Color and Mission: Impossible -Ghost Protocol) as Madeline Swann is a rare Bond girl with an actual character who provides some drama to go along with the eye candy, and she and Craig achieve a genuine chemistry that has been this Bond's weakest area in the past. It's also an utter delight to see M, Q (Ben Whishaw)  and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) getting into some of the action (Fiennes in particular brings a dramatic intensity that lifts every scene he's in, and Whishaw provides some endearing comic moments.). Somewhat surprisingly, the one truly disappointing performance comes from Waltz, who could have played this character in his sleep and basically does. It's not that it's a bad performance, but it feels phoned in compared to Javier Bardem's electrifying turn in Skyfall. Oberhauser amounts to little more than a standard one-note Bond villain, and he could have been so much more. It feels like a paycheck gig Waltz crammed in between Oscar bids, and that's a shame when the casting feels like such a perfect fit. But if Waltz is underutilized, than the highly publicized "oldest Bond girl" Monica Belucci is just plain screwed over in every possible way (yes, every possible way.). Her "blink and you'll miss it" extended cameo plays like someone said "Monica Belucci has never been in a Bond film? That's impossible!" and she was merely thrown in out of a strange sense of obligation.

Meanwhile, the script, by John Logan, Jez Butterwerth and long time Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, tries too hard to tie too much together, including the not entirely convincing link between Bond and Oberhauser. Like most Bond films it ends up feeling like it could be tightened considerably in the midsection, though at least the quality of the acting elevates the potentially sluggish sequences.

The film also completes the transition that began in Skyfall from being the "Bond Begins" franchise to simply being Bond, complete with the opening "walk, turn, draw and fire" shot, and other standard trappings. The good news is that Q's gadgets don't even approach the level of cartoon silliness we got in the Roger Moore films; the bad news is that they are not as memorable as the best ones we got in the Pierce Brosnan films. They're believable but very mundane, but they are an obligatory element of the iconography, and as such the feeling that they needed to show up eventually was inevitable and not entirely unwelcome. Some will doubtless be saying that this is overall the most by the numbers, Brosnan-esque entry in the Craig series, and they won't be entirely wrong, but despite it's edgy trappings,  in our opinions, Quantum of Solace still has it beat when it comes to combining laziness with cheesiness (Strawberry Fields? A hidden fortress? Please.).

Whatever shortcomings Spectre has don't stop it from being an immensely enjoyable spy movie thrill ride, and in the overall context of the 007 franchise we'd rank it just in or just outside the top 10. It doesn't quite achieve the greatness it's shooting for, but if it does turn out to be the final outing for Daniel Craig, it's a worthy one, and it's a rousing good time at the movies. It's just too bad it isn't as great as it could have been.

daniel craig james bond spectre

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