This review contains (minor) spoilers for Spectre.
M has a problem. Bond has taken off on an unauthorised jaunt to Mexico City where, in the brilliant pre-credits sequence of Spectre, he intends to take out an Italian mafiosi planning a terror attack. Not that going rogue is anything new for this emotionally-stunted spy, who pretty much always does the polar opposite of whatever command his superiors give him.
In some ways, Bond's unpredictability is reflective of the franchise itself, which spikes and dips in quality about as regularly as James lands in bed with a freshly-widowed beauty - which, coincidentally, leads us and Bond to Rome where, on the instructions of the late M (Judi Dench, in a pleasant surprise cameo), he meets with freshly-widowed beauty Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) and extracts some crucial information about a criminal organisation known as SPECTRE.
Much has been made of Bellucci's casting in this film - at 51, she's the oldest Bond girl in history, or perhaps the first Bond lady. Bellucci looks gorgeous at any rate and shares palatable charisma with Daniel Craig, so it seems odd that her screen time is no more than five minutes, even less than that of the enticing but sadly underused Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe) in Skyfall. The brevity of Bond's affair with Sciarra proves to be the first of many disappointments in this film's expansive 145 minutes.
The moment his clothes are back on, Bond is on a mission to infiltrate the SPECTRE meeting which happens to be taking place that very evening in Rome. In early Bond movies, Blofeld would play deliciously cruel mind games with the agents sat around his table, leading them to believe one was to be taken out as punishment for a failed operation, before unleashing the element of surprise by terminating somebody else altogether.
There is no such fun in Spectre. As Oberhauser, the head of the organisation, Christoph Waltz keeps his features passive and his words to a minimum. The theatrical villainy of Silva in Skyfall left far more of an impression. Whether Waltz failed to connect with the script or merely forgot that a Bond adversary should always be at least slightly camp, he's not in any danger of making many all-time greatest villain lists.
Speaking of scripts, it took no fewer than four writers to pen this one, with the Sony email hack of 2014 revealing that execs at the studio were far from satisfied with early drafts. Numerous rewrites later, no particular sense of cohesion or logic has been imbued, the action lurching from one glamorous locale to another - Mexico to Rome, Tangier to London - for no apparent reason.
The prolonged action sequences are backed by a strong orchestral score from Thomas Newman, but fail to pack any real punches. Most shocking of all is the absolute lack of comedy. A well-placed one-liner can elevate almost any Bond film, but apparently nobody involved in Spectre got that memo. Skyfall, though serious, raised plenty of laughs. Here, even a predictable but much-appreciated punchline regarding new character C (Andrew Scott) is ruined by what's said next.
For much of the movie Bond is accompanied by Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a quintessential Bond girl - beautiful, tough, and mysteriously armed with a number of designer costume changes despite having been kidnapped from her place of work by silent henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) without so much as an overnight bag on her shoulder. Despite the French DNA, Swann is certainly not the new Vesper Lynd, but Seydoux finds a depth to the character which is absent from the script, and she does much of the heavy lifting in making this flawed Bond adventure somewhat enjoyable.
The biggest problem with this film is that it's simply forgettable. Aside from the superb, four-minute opening tracking shot which follows a skeleton-masked Bond through the Day of the Dead festival and up onto the rooftops of Mexico City, nothing here will go down in 007 history. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is horribly underused, barely having a line of dialogue after the first hour. Sam Mendes didn't want to return to the director's chair after Skyfall and perhaps he should have stuck to his instincts.
Spectre is certainly not a bad film. It's a technical masterpiece, the lens of DoP Hoyte van Hoytema capturing the beauty of the Moroccan desert as a train glides through it like a rattlesnake. Its cast is excellent, Craig proving once again that he's the best Bond we've ever had, whilst Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes grow comfortably into the roles of Q and M. And as Mr. White, a returning face from Casino Royale, Jesper Christensen adds emotional poignancy.
Mostly, though, this is not an emotional film. It's oddly cold. When Swann tells Bond she loves him, it jars because we've seen no evidence of it. When Bond is tortured by a drill to the brain, it's more horrifying than entertaining, a throwback to the painful but far more darkly humorous testicle torture scene in Casino Royale. A late cameo for Bond's repaired Aston DB5 fails to stir.
For all the rendezvous in hotel rooms, the car chases on the glistening streets of Rome and the impromptu, forbidden globe-trotting, Bond left something crucial behind in his apartment in rainy London: his license to thrill.