"Spectre" A Flat-Footed, Flimsy Bond Flick

“Spectre” is the twenty-fourth James Bond film, the fourth to see actor Daniel Craig don the superspy’s iconic tux, the second helmed by “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes, and the first to be mostly indistinguishable from its brethren. It plucks locations and characters from Bond movies past in a way that screams “Greatest Hits,” adding up to a veritable clip show desperate to evoke what’s come before – all without a speck of forward thinking. Wherever the series goes from here, it will necessarily have nothing to do with “Spectre.”

At least the film’s pre-title scene is killer. Set amidst the streets and sky of Mexico City during a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, the sequence begins with a rhythmic, propulsive long take and wraps up with an all-time great aerial fistfight. Seeing Craig’s Bond brawl in a spiraling helicopter is a premier adrenaline rush, cascading beautifully into Sam Smith’s underrated title song.

But the writing on the wall is quick to fade. The opening works at least partially because it isn’t tied to the rest of the film’s piecemealed, wet noodle scripting, a notion bolstered by the project’s multitude of screenwriters (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth). It’s nothing new for action movies to be crafted on the fly, but rarely has one with such pedigree felt so half-assed.

Coming off of the events of 2012’s surprisingly intimate “Skyfall” (also directed by Mendes), 007 finds himself on familiar terrain: he’s in trouble with his boss. With Judi Dench’s M having been offed last time around, Ralph Fiennes steps up into the role of chief buzzkill. His M grounds 007, which goes down about as well as a hemlock martini.

Bond is soon off on an unsanctioned, astonishingly linear pursuit of a shadowy villain named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), replete with competent but perfunctory action scenes and token romantic escapades. Characters dip in and out, with our hero getting reluctant help from his Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) and M’s secretary, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), traversing locales that should be familiar to even the most casual of 007 fans.

As the story unspools, it becomes clearer and clearer that the problems of “Skyfall” (thin storytelling and an unfortunate insistence on delving into James’ backstory) are back, but with a twist. Where that film’s themes of obsolescence and rebirth were handled clumsily, at least they were there. “Spectre” has no themes, dressing character names as revelations and series callbacks as plot points. “Guardians Of The Galaxy” star Dave Bautista’s turn as henchman Hinx is particularly frustrating. He’s a placeholder, a blank space where a character might have been, shepherding Bond from point A to point B in the name of empty intrigue.

The outcome of said intrigue – on which the movie hangs entirely; hopelessly so – deserves little more than a nod and shrug. The script’s ultimate twist isn’t a twist at all; it’s an answer to an easy trivia question with zero bearing on the story being told.

Atop Christoph Waltz’s resume sits the century’s best screen villain to date (Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”), making his Franz Oberhauser an inevitable disappointment. He’s vastly overqualified to play the next in a long line of mostly uninspired Bond villains. Yet, it’s stunning just how big of a disappointment the character is in the context of the film and the series at large. And his connection to Bond is laughable in both conception and execution.

Conversely, Lea Seydoux (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) as “Bond girl” Madeleine Swann is a bright spot, if only because her story here is more interesting than anyone else’s. Swann’s place in the Craig-as-Bond canon is a fascinating one, a station the movie only begins to explore. But the actress scales the character for all that she’s worth, clocking in as Daniel Craig’s second best Bond love interest (to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd from “Casino Royale,” of course). Monica Belucci (“Irreversible”) isn’t half as fortunate, saddled with a character that’s only on hand to deliver dull exposition and go to bed with 007.

Sam Mendes’ biggest “Skyfall” ally, cinematographer Roger Deakins, opted not to return here, leaving Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) to do his best Deakins impression. It’s adequate work but it feels pre-packaged, underlining the project’s staleness. Thomas Newman’s score fares similarly, throttling up volume and familiarity to fill in gaps where onscreen activity isn’t enough to hold our attention.

Apart from the aforementioned pre-title sequence, Daniel Craig’s best moment in “Spectre” is, not coincidentally, one of few with a heartbeat. Amidst a maelstrom of one-liners that don’t land, it’s the spy’s brief interaction with a rodent that sticks. It’s yet another scene in service of getting Bond to Oberhauser’s compound, but it feels genuine and human and everything that most of the rest of “Spectre” isn’t.

Mendes has been unenviably tasked with following up a gigantic hit and connecting said follow-up with its three predecessors. This was no drop-in-the-bucket undertaking, so that it feels like one is just short of inexplicable. There’s nothing of any consequence here, the same miscalculation that sunk Pierce Brosnan’s string of Bond films. And the longer “Spectre” goes on, the more it hollows itself out.

The Bond movies of yore – of which “Spectre” is clearly aspiring to – were sprawling, lightly confusing, ever-charismatic. “Spectre” is bland, bare bones, basic. Just nine years after the shot of life that was “Casino Royale,” it feels like it’s time again to start over. For shame, James.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 6, 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony), MGM
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Dave Bautista, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language)