If Daniel Craig follows through in recent rumination about exiting the role of James Bond, we can at least thank him for bringing back the danger and suspense that fled the British superspy series after Sean Connery departed.
When pretty-boy actors stroll through sequences of supposed peril with smug smiles and martinis that do not get shaken much less stirred amid perfectly choreographed action, there can be no risk to agent 007.
More crucially, working with two-time collaborator as director, Sam Mendes, Craig has made Bond into a character of intriguing enigma. He is a paid assassin, working secretly for a western power, so the series has begun to probe what that might actually mean.
What kind of man would take on such a job? What is his background, who were his parents, why does he want to kill? We never asked these questions before.
Amid the flashy tentpole filmmaking that is Craig’s latest and possibly last Bond film, “Spectre,” these questions do come up. No, the savvy producers of the Bond series have not turned Ian Fleming into Henrik Ibsen. But they do allow Craig and Mendes to show glimpses of a human being beneath all the utter nonsense that is James Bond.
Fleming’s Bond came from nowhere. Nothing explained why a “secret” agent spent so much time calling attention to himself with flashy cars and flashier women or why a dollop of cruelty made his work so much more satisfying.
Craig, with Mendes’ considerable help, has made Bond vulnerable; he has made Bond a man who can feel pain that is psychological as well as physical, a man with a past that can come back to haunt him.
The great Craig-Mendes collaboration, “Skyfall” in 2012, added so many dimensions to the character and twists to the series — indeeds twists that harkened back to many earlier films from the Connery years on — that you brace yourself for a comedown from that all-time high.
And, sure enough, “Spectre” returns to the Bond formula more than you would like. One action sequence falls utterly flat while another becomes so preposterous your mind slips into neutral. You might even question whether Craig’s exhaustion from relentless bad guys is world-weariness or simply the weariness of a fourth outing in such a physically taxing role.
But there are also pleasures in a screenplay credited to four writers (John Logan. Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth) that find intriguing ways to include the usual London set of characters — M (Ralph Fiennes), Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw) — into the story mechanics of how Bond once more saves the world.
There is also the best opening sequence of any Bond movie, which includes a lengthy, unusually difficult tracking shot in Mexico City during colorful Day of the Dead festivities that leads to an assassination, spectacular building demolition, a fight in a helicopter over a crowded city square and a crash landing that leaves you slack jawed.
The only problem with that pre-title opening is that it represents the high point of the movie. It’s not downhill from there but rather a slow glide back to earth and a return to the best stunts and CGI money can buy in place of an actual story that makes any sense.
Whatever plot “Spectre” does have is a murky string of incidents that move Bond from continent to continent — Mexico City to London to Rome to the Austrian Alps to Tangiers and back to London — for action sequences of decreasing interest and credibility.
The driving force behind everything is a search for the latest arch villain, one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, on cruise control following two Oscar wins), the mastermind behind a worldwide criminal cartel called Spectre, a name that harkens back to the earliest Fleming novels.
(A bit of Bond folklore for those interested while all others may skip these two paragraphs: SPECTRE — it was always capitalized — was a super crime syndicate and terrorist organization Fleming invented in the Cold War era so his hero would not forever have to battle Soviet villains in spy novels that at least pretended to be apolitical.
That Franz turns out to have a connection to Bond stretching back not only to the original SPECTRE super villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but to James’ own childhood is quite a stretch but never mind.)
What saves the movie from falling into the kind of doldrums that a reported $250-million plus budget can create is French female lead Lea Seydoux, given the Proustian name of Madeleine Swann.
Mendes evidently knows his Hitchcock for he first introduces Seydoux as an icy blonde only to let her melt in each subsequent scene with Craig until her provocative sensuality radiates from the screen.
Key though minor characters within the grand scheme of things don’t pay off as well. Andrew Scott’s snotty C, a wildly ambitious intelligence chief, makes a stiff and smarmy minor villain while Monica Bellucci is unimaginatively used as a troubled widow who becomes Bond’s first seduction of the movie.
At 148 minutes though the bloat begins to drag the movie down as an endless second act rolls into a third act with far too many double twists, backflips and anti-climaxes. ‘Interstellar” cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema adds extraordinary visual drama to every moment, however, so your attention never falters even if the story does.
Thomas Newman’s manic music lacks a similar sophistication, hitting every note with a sledge hammer when a lighter touch might do. Sam Smith’s theme song is a tepid addition to the 007 canon of music classics but, then again, it plays over Daniel Kleinman’s gothic title credits that more than puts you in the mood for James Bond’s universe.
So every negative in “Spectre” comes with a positive note. You enjoy “Spectre” but don’t thrill to it as you did the valedictory yet refreshing “Skyfall.”
Opens: November 6, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: EON Productions, B24, Danjaq, Columbia Pictures, MGM
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Monica Bellucci, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Executive producer: Callum McDougall
Screenwriters: John Logan. Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Thomas Newman
Title song: Sam Smith
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Special effects supervisor: Chris Corbould
Stunt co-ordinator: Gary Powell
Editor: Lee Smith
PG-13 rating, 148 minutes