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007’s Spectre pales in the shadow of Skyfall

In naming the 24th official James Bond film, “Spectre”, series producers Michael G. Wilson and Dana Broccoli, along with returning director Sam Mendes, were declaring up front their intention to reintroduce (care of recently reacquired rights) the terrorist organization that had plagued Agent 007 through six of his first seven films.

What was less definite, however, was the form the rebooted villains would take, given their somewhat dated concept, as well as the colossal bore the similarly-intentioned Quantum group (in 2008’s abysmal “Quantum of Solace”) turned out to be. Add in the fact that their previous effort, 2012’s “Skyfall” , was an award-winning, visually-stunning blockbuster, and one gets an idea of the inherently high bar the filmmakers had to clear.

“Spectre” starts things on the right foot, opening with the traditional 007 gun barrel sequence (the previous two films placed it at the end) before transporting us to a raucous Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. In media res, we are thrust via an exquisite extended take into the sort of macabre sequence Welles and Hitchcock probably would have given their eye teeth for. When things don’t go entirely as planned for 007, his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes, in fine authoritative form), takes Bond out of the field while trying to prevent the shutdown of MI6’s Double-0 section by C (Andrew Scott), who believes in the superiority of electronic surveillance to on-the-ground operatives.

True to form, Bond ignores his orders and goes off to investigate an international shadow organization, aided and abetted (with various degrees of reluctance) by tech wiz Q (Ben Whishaw) and M’s ever-faithful assistant, Ms. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris). Along the way, he will encounter – in no particular order – beautiful women (Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux), vicious henchmen (former wrestler David Bautista), and, of course, an evil mastermind (perennial big screen baddie Christoph Waltz) with an eye towards global domination.

As it turns out, the Spectre of 2015 isn’t all that different from the SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Revenge, and Extortion) of the 1960s. “Spectre” the film, however, suffers from a clear case of identity crisis. Clearly, someone wasn’t entirely sure whether they wanted to return to the tongue-in-cheek action extravaganzas of years past or maintain the darker, more realistic tone of the last three films. The tonal disjoint is especially apparent in nearly every action scene that follows the brilliant opening sequence and an extended fight on a train, as the majority of “Spectre’s” technically impressive stunts are rendered inert (and dull) by a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Narratively, the decision to anchor “Spectre” on 007’s past so soon after a three-film exploration of his backstory is a curious one, and the less said about the ham-fisted, retroactive attempt at world-building (from pieces that neither needed nor called for it) the better. “Skyfall” ended with the triumphant promise of new adventures now that familiar characters and concepts had been firmly re-established. What we got instead is a movie that lumbers from one exotic location to the next without any urgency, leading to an eye-rolling reveal that the film barely takes the effort to set up. You thought the Sandman being shoehorned into Uncle Ben’s murder in “Spider-Man 3” was contrived? Wait ‘til you see this.

Infinitely more interesting is the subplot involving the attempts of “Sherlock’s” Moriarty (Andrew Scott) to put the world’s intelligence networks under his thumb while phasing out the Double-0 program with arguments that were made earlier, better, and, (beautifully) refuted, in “Skyfall”. The subplot gets short shrift, though, showing up in fits and starts before leading into the overdrawn finale. Despite this subplot (and Scott) not getting enough screentime, “Spectre” still manages to be overlong.

In what could very well be his final outing as 007, Daniel Craig remains perfectly-cast as ever, filling the role of Her Majesty’s finest blunt instrument to a bespoke-suited T. Unfortunately, this time around, his cocky Bond veneer comes perilously close to smugness in the absence of a strong costar to play off of. This isn’t to say that Seydoux doesn’t make a try for it, but she simply doesn’t have the presence or the gravitas of, say, “Casino Royale’s” Eva Green, to hold her own against Craig’s baby blues. And for all that was made of Bond actually pairing off with a woman his own age, Monica Bellucci’s appearance here amounts to little more than a glorified cameo.

As the villanous Franz Oberhauser, Waltz doesn’t stray far from his comfort zone as a perpetually bemused megalomaniac. While numerous interviews and press statements made it clear that he hadn’t been cast as traditional SPECTRE head honcho Ernst Stavro Blofeld (memorably satirized as Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil), Waltz’s turn here is about as revelatory as Benedict Cumberbatch’s in “Star Trek Into Darkness”. And, with all due respect to returning writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, the word, “Cuckoo,” should never, ever, be used as a catchphrase.

Comparisons with Bond films past are more unavoidable than usual as the film throws in so many broad, jokey references that they become distracting, a far cry from the sly winks that worked so well in “Skyfall”. Unfortunately for everyone involved, 2015 is a year that saw numerous films (“Kingsman”, “Spy”, etc.) riff on well-worn Bondian tropes to great effect and success, showing just how effective (and fun) the material can be when executed properly.

Finally, one would be remiss to ignore the eerie similarities to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, which also happened to feature an intelligence service whose government is trying to shut it down while investigating an international enemy with infinite resources that culminates in a showdown on the streets of London involving a truck with a cage in it.

Perhaps the fault isn’t entirely Mendes’. After all, after having accomplished his dream of creating the ultimate Bond flick in “Skyfall”, it may have been somewhat unfair to ask him to do it again with anywhere near the same level of invention. At any rate, now would seem good a time as any to hand the directorial reins off to someone else.

As Ralph Fiennes’ M himself once said, “There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step. The only shame would be not admitting it until it's too late.” — ALG/BM, GMA News

"Spectre" is now showing in cinemas.

Tags: spectre, movie