Shaken, not stirred - that is how I felt after seeing Spectre, the new and aptly titled James Bond movie whose high-octane action and moody visuals give audiences a thorough shaking, yet fail to stir the soul on an emotional level half as well as either CASINO ROYALE or SKYFALL. The title fits because the film unabashedly drags the ghost of just about every other Bond film through the early eighties out of the proverbial closet. In the hands of a lesser director, it probably would've resembled an elaborate and uncharacteristically moribund S.N.L. send-up of an already self-parodying franchise. While it is a thoroughly enjoyable and deserving entry in the now hallowed franchise on many levels, I still can't help but wonder why director Sam Mendes returned after originally declining in favor of focusing on his stage work.
As the fourth 007/James Bond adventure with Daniel Craig in the lead, SPECTRE is much more of a direct sequel than most other Bond films. It's an origin story that retroactively ties together the last three movies, yet in a way that is ultimately so simple that it makes the vast criminal organization and conspiracies at its core seem almost counter-intuitive. One wonders how the super-powers of the world could miss this huge group of masterminds with their admittedly infrequent, yet extravagant and even theatrical soirees. Or did they really miss it at all?
The plot sees James Bond being pretty much laid-off from work and the double-0 section of British Intelligence rendered extinct by the machinations of the aforementioned organization. Its name is, of course, Spectre. Though the film marks the group's first appearance in the Daniel Craig movies and plays as a pseudo-origin story for its mastermind played by Christoph Waltz, the organization, itself, was once a staple of the franchise in both the books and the films. What Bond does with his off-time is to essentially execute the last wishes and final orders of the previous, now-deceased M.played by Dame Judi Dench. One could argue that this is a shade out of character for an agent that frequently called Dench's character a "bitch" and, in SKYFALL, played dead and disappeared onto some beach where he could presumably drink himself to death. But, I digress...
In short, the movie's story once again leads Bond from one exotic locale and femme fatale to the next until he finds Madeleine Swann, played by 29 year-old Lea Seydoux as the daughter of CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Bond's promise to the dying Mr. White to, um... protect her... is made when he seems to just take White's word that she both has and will share with Bond the information he needs to find Spectre's enigmatic leader, who also happens to be a man from Bond's distant past that everyone outside of the organization seems to believe is dead. The adventure takes him from Mexico to Britain, and from Britain to Austria, North Africa, and then back home for SPECTRE's darkly theatrical conclusion in which the movie comes as close to resembling an ensemble piece as just about any in franchise history.
SPECTRE is one of those franchise films that seems made for a certain kind of fan, putting just about every familiar element into one bag, then shaking it up and pouring it out in the hope that what emerges is new enough to make audiences feel like they've been surprised. The last three movies struck a slightly different chord and tried more or less to do their own things, so while it probably won't matter much to the movie's box-office, I can see why so many critics are less than impressed.
SPECTRE is as much an homage as it is part of a franchise which is truly unique. Many revolve around more overtly fanciful material in genres like fantasy, science fiction, and superhero action. Though elements of those other genres have been sprinkled into the mix on more than one occasion, one could argue that the Bond franchise's coolest costumes and props are the outrageously expensive clothes, gadgets, and overall lifestyles led by Bond and some other fairly violent, almost nomadic characters.
Despite rumors to the contrary, I hope Daniel Craig comes back for at least one more Bond film because I feel like this particular string of Bond movies needs a strong conclusion with a definitive feel. Such a film would cap-off a trilogy which really began in both plot and tone with SKYFALL. Whatever the case, I don't need to see the words that have so often accompanied the end-credits of these movies to know that what they say is surely true: "James Bond will return"... and the sooner, the better!