How do you like your James Bond? Brooding and brutal, with a healthy dose of melancholic angst? Or breezily throwing out quips as he murders his way around the world? Should his adventures be grounded in his personal tragedies or pit him against megalomaniacal supervillains? Should he beat the villains to death or use wacky gadgets? Should he drink craft cocktails or Heineken?
If you answered "all of the above," then you're in luck. Spectre—the 26th Bond film—has it all, and more. The one thing it doesn't have is the ability to leave a lasting impression. We walk out of the theater neither shaken nor stirred.
Following the impressive Skyfall, director Sam Mendes returns to the director's chair. He opens with a bang-up sequence featuring an extended shot of Bond strolling through a Mexico City Day of the Dead celebration, bedding a woman and carrying out an assassination (gone awry, as usual). Buildings crumble, helicopters do barrel rolls, and Daniel Craig nonchalantly causes millions in property damage.
But from the minute Sam Smith's grating theme music starts, the movie slides downhill, fast. Then it plateaus into something that Bond hasn't achieved since Roger Moore's time: mediocrity. Spectre neither reaches the heights of Casino Royale and Skyfall nor the ridiculous, schizophrenic chaos of the maligned Quantum of Solace.
The ho-hum vibe wouldn't sting so much if it weren't for all the cards stacked in Spectre's favor. Craig is a great Bond—humorous beneath his hard veneer—but he also seems to be running out of steam. Q (Ben Whishaw) hooks Bond up with gadgets, but they're mostly played for visual gags. The Bond girls played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux are phenomenal, but they're wasted in extended cameos or damsel-in-distress roles.
Most disappointing, though, is Christoph Waltz. The German actor—so perfect in his Oscar-nominated roles in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained—seems like he came out of the womb as a fully formed Bond villain. But as the mysterious leader of Spectre, he's relegated to the shadows for nearly two hours of the overlong film (the series' longest). When he does emerge, he's given little to do beyond sneer, cackle and hunch.
Oh sure, there's fun to be had here—Bond drives a tricked-out ride through Rome's narrow streets and engages in an Alpine plane chase before the anticlimactic conclusion (extremely uncommon for the series) lands with a dull thud. There are good zingers and enough fan service to placate an entire Comic-Con crowd, but none of it seems genuine.
It's all pretty hollow. This is the most average of Craig's outings. Maybe it's the most authentic compared to these often middling and generic films. But considering everybody who's involved in Spectre, the very last reaction anybody expected was "meh."
Critic's Grade: C+