Silver Screen: Spectre ***1/2
Perhaps no modern film series is more inherently formulaic than the James Bond movies. The pleasure is all in the execution. The creativity is expressed not through overwhelming novelty but variations on a theme. They might best be reviewed in checklist format.
How is the: opening action sequence, theme, first girl, gadget, second girl, car, henchman, villain, climactic action sequence?
Spectre, the fourth installment of the Daniel Craig era and the second outing for director Sam Mendes, outdoes itself in the opening, a sumptuously shot sequence set on Dia de los Muertos. Bond, clad in a tophat, skull mask, and matching tuxedo, slinks through a sunny street packed with fellow skeletons. While the rest of the masked revelers enjoy the parade, 007 tracks down an elusive criminal based on a previously recorded video tip from the former M (Judy Dench). Literally, Spectre outdoes itself here. The movie is never quite able to strike the same balance of style, sex, and action that it does here, whereas Mendes’s Skyfall followed its thrilling prologue with the luridly lit neon-skyscraper fight.
Then comes the theme: a deadly-dull mopefest from professional British whiner Sam Smith, which would be more appropriate for a movie about Bond getting dumped by his high-school girlfriend. The grating falsetto lament pairs strangely with the octopus-themed visuals, which have an uncomfortable tentacle-porn tinge to them.
First girl: Monica Bellucci. So, five stars. Out of four.
The gadget: a demure booby-trapped watch. The grim, relatively more realistic Daniel Craig Bond drifts closer to Thunderball territory here. Whereas Casino Royale almost disdained the potential silliness of the superspy franchise, Spectre represents several big steps toward a more centrist Bond story. There’s no better example than the second appearance of Q (Ben Whishaw), even if the gadgets he dispenses are still a far cry from the sci-fi accessories of Moonraker.
The second girl: Léa Seydoux is a terrific modern Bond accomplice, sexy and self-possessed as Madeleine, the estranged daughter of a supervillain. The plot of Spectre ties together threads from the first three Craig movies, a connection hinted at in Quantum of Solace but ignored in Skyfall. It firmly establishes the Craig movies as a reboot of the series, bringing in a few surprise elements from the original run and providing a key character an origin story, albeit one that’s a little overreaching and melodramatic.
The cars: I don’t know much of anything about cars, but there are several of them and they look expensive.
The henchman: Former wrestler and Guardians of the Galaxy costar Dave Bautista is a terrific old-school Bond baddie, a suit-clad bruiser who lets his thick mitts do the talking.
The villain: Christoph Waltz is a born Bond villain. How it’s taken this long is a mystery, but he’s excellent as the shadowy leader of Spectre. He’s literally shadowy when introduced, just a dark profile and an unmistakably sneering voice. If anything he’s underused; Mendes and his team of screenwriters keep Waltz in their back pocket until fairly late in the film, but once he shows up he’s every bit as wicked as you want him to be. Eagle-eyed fans will start piecing together the story’s clues when they spot his fluffy white cat.
The climactic action sequence: pretty damn good. Spectre is a little thick in the middle. It regains its lost momentum about an hour and a half in, heading toward a showdown in a secret lair located in a strange geological formation.
It’s classic 007, and whereas any other series doing so much doubling back would seem exploitative, here it’s comforting. James Bond is defined by his tux, his martini, his pistol, his wit, and his action-hero acumen. The James Bond movies are defined by their familiar rhythms. Spectre edges the pseudo-revisionist 007 toward more of the same. If that’s a problem, you’re probably not a big Bond fan in the first place.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.