The James Bond franchise (officially) reaches 24 entries in Spectre, which is also Daniel Craig's fourth time in the iconic role. The Craig era has been marked by a darker tone and a willingness to move away from the franchise tropes that the first 20 Bond films defined for multiple generations. Now that Craig's Bond is more comfortable in the role, those tropes are starting to come back. Combined with an interest in Bond's backstory and personal history, there seems to be an attempt to make the character darker, while still allowing him to make plenty of droll quips. Roger Moore crossed with Jason Bourne. Spectre has the benefit of excellent direction and choreography, but the seams in this multi-film arc are starting to show.
This transition in tone from the darker Casino Royale towards the silliness that had always been a part of the franchise was heralded at the end of previous Bond film, Skyfall, in which Bond teamed up with his boss and his childhood groundskeeper to booby-trap his ancestral home, dropping in a sassy line or a theatrical eye-roll at every opportunity. The jokiness of it marred what had been up to that point one of the more successful Bond entries. Spectre never gets as cartoonish as those final Skyfall scenes, but it does indulge in another Bond staple; the impossibly dumb villain. The Craig Bond's have been building on each other towards Spectre, in which he faces off with the head of a vast criminal organization that has its tentacles in everything. The struggle should be at its highest here, but instead, due to the absurd lengths the villain goes to trap Bond, it seems to have never been easier.
That villain, Franz Oberhauser, has had his eye on Bond for decades. He had a hand in the action of all the prior Craig entries, though that's only revealed in Spectre and I don't remember the groundwork being laid in those films. Bond finally gets on Oberhauser's tail after the previous M's (Judi Dench) death in Skyfall. At the film's outset, Bond is completing an assassination mission, which was posthumously assigned to him by Dench's M. While attending the target's funeral in Rome, in hopes of turning up more leads, Bond eventually finds himself in a board meeting of Spectre, where Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) reveals himself to Bond. Bond escapes, and tracks down an old enemy who Oberhauser also now counts as an enemy, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), last seen in Quantum of Solace. The near-death Mr. White gives Bond more information and asks him to look after his daughter Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) as she is also now a Spectre target. Bond finds her in a clinic in the Swiss mountains, and the two set out to track down Oberhauser and dismantle Spectre.
The above is all typical Bond and in some ways, a direct rehash of Sean Connery's time in the tuxedo, but Spectre feels a need to get topical. The double-O program is being dismantled, and will be replaced with drones and broad-scope intelligence-gathering and data mining, much to the current M's (Ralph Fiennes) chagrin. He is being shown the door by the high-hatted C (Andrew Scott), who will run the new, larger organization. While Bond is globe-trotting, the action often returns to London to check in with this bureaucratic matter, and it's only tangentially related to Oberhauser and Spectre at large. Anyone who's seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier will see how this plot is playing out, and while it does give M, Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) more to do, plenty of other Bond films have succeeded without spending too much time back at the home office.
The story problems, from the Oberhauser's general incompetence to the added MI6 plot to the insistence on tying everything into Bond's backstory, are de riguer for a Bond film, as few fans would admit that this is a franchise known for airtight plots. The settings and the action are what puts butts in seats, and with Sam Mendes at the helm after the beautiful Skyfall, Spectre is much stronger in these areas. The opening scenes in Mexico City, filmed during Day of the Dead celebrations, are a high-water mark for the franchise. Mendes starts with a long tracking shot that establishes the surroundings and follows Bond to his quarry, and the lack of a cut, plus the unsettling and macabre nature of costumes and the parade floats, build significant amounts of tension. There's the requisite car chase and hand-to-hand combat, both involving Spectre strongman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), with the fight being particularly thrilling and reminiscent of Bond's close-quarters rumble with Red Grant, one of the franchise's marquee scenes. However, it was only after viewing that I realized that the chase and the fight, plus several other scenes, were strikingly devoid of extras or traffic. It's possible Mendes blew his budget for those things in the Mexico City scenes, as the difference is huge crowds of people on the one hand, and barren streets on the other.
After four films, Craig seems quite comfortable in the role. Spectre is possibly the funniest of Craig's entries, and it's all due to his timing and witticisms, which never get anywhere near the worst the franchise has had to offer (poor Pierce Brosnan). A key aspect of any Bond film is the chemistry between Bond and his female counterparts (at best) or accessories (at worst). With Seydoux, and Monica Belluci as an earlier source of, uh, information, Mendes has two exceptional actresses to work with. Belluci isn't treated well by the script, but she does make a graceful and stoic impression in her limited screentime. Seydoux is more fiery, and is allowed to warm up to Bond on her own time, though she gets a truly corny moment in one of the film's low points. As a Bond villain, Waltz is perfectly cast. His penchant for eccentricity is on full-blast, giggling inappropriately or making bird noises, but he also is the unquestioned leader of his organization, speaking to nervous underlings in clipped and curt sentences. He's 90% iron-fisted and 10% unhinged, a classic Bond ratio that is again undercut by the script as the limits of his efficacy and competence are gradually exposed.
Spectre is deeply frustrating, as it works in the moment and falls apart after deeper rumination. It contains some superlative sequences, but also manages to be overstuffed with some puzzling choices. Excepting the Craig films, I've seen around 75% of the Bond franchise, and I don't think I knew anything about the character's life outside of the professional side of it. Why Craig's turn in the big seat has been marked by all this stuff about his childhood and his upbringing escapes me, nor do I see the advantage in stringing all his films together. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were about Craig's Bond becoming the classic Bond. Once he got there, that's all the character development the character ever needed. My hope for Craig's fifth and potentially last turn as Bond is that there's some plot that must be foiled, involving several beautiful people and locales, and that he's able to do so using Craig's suave brutality and dry wit. I don't feel like I'm asking for a lot. C