Sony Pictures has formally asked reviewers to not to reveal plot points from the 24th James Bond film, Spectre. I will honor that request, and will not reveal that Daniel Craig’s Bond is (redacted) at the end of the film, or that the film’s true villain is (redacted)—though anyone who knows anything about James Bond’s history probably knows who the villain of a film called Spectre is likely to be, and anyone who reads Entertainment Weekly knows that Craig is contracted to appear in one more Bond film.
Denied these easy spoilers, I will at this time reveal the last four words that appear on screen at the end of Spectre: “James Bond will return.” That phrase, or a variant of it, has appeared at the end of every Bond film, and that’s really all you need to know. James Bond will be back, whether it’s Daniel Craig or Tom Hardy or Idris Elba. He will wear bespoke suits; he will drive fast cars; he will punch a guy in the throat. The emotional stakes of a Bond film are confined to those who surround the British spy: Will they kill his colleagues, the women he’s bedded?
Such has been the formula since 1962’s Dr. No, with only a few films meddling with it. And the thing that’s most unfortunate about Spectre—the thing that makes it a solidly made, yet emotionally unsatisfying entry in the Bond series—is that two of those off-brand movies have been Craig’s: 2006’s Casino Royale and 2012’s Skyfall. Both films found their way to the heart of the character and jammed sharp things into it: the loss of a woman he truly loved, the death of the one colleague he unequivically trusted. In just a few hours of screen time, Daniel Craig gave James Bond more humanity than any other actor did in the 20 Bond films that preceded his. Spectre doesn’t piss away all that hard-won humanity, but doesn’t add to it, either.
For a moment, though, you have hope. “The dead are alive,” reads a white-on-black title card at the beginning of the film—the first time a Bond movie has opened with such an epigram—and then Spectre gives you its best set piece: a spectacular airborne fight over Mexico City’s Día de Muertos celebration. Director Sam Mendes, returning from Skyfall, begins the sequence with a long, unbroken take that follows Bond from street party to rooftop, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema—recently of Spike Jonze’s Her and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—shoots it with artful grace. Mendes has made two great-looking Bond films—films that look like they belong to another series entirely, one that isn’t driven wholly by the desires of its producers. Skyfall and Spectre feel like they were directed, as opposed to requisitioned.
Sadly, all this fine material is used to make a suit that was first cut 53 years ago, with few alterations. The villain of the piece, Oberhauser—played by Christoph Waltz, wonderful as always—is largely standard issue: He talks in a purr, wants world domination, believes that Bond and he aren’t all that different after all. Oberhauser stands in stark contrast to Skyfall’s villain Silva (Javier Bardem), who only wanted to kill his old bosses, cheerfully talked shop with Bond and even hit on him. The 20 seconds of Skyfall where Bond endures and deflects Silva’s advances are better than the entirety of Waltz and Craig’s scenes in Spectre, and that’s not the actors’ fault.
Still, life goes on, and James Bond’s life goes right along with it. Cars are revved up, shots are fired, buildings explode in fireballs. We ooh and ahh, because we love these Bond movies and Spectre does manage to scratch that singular itch. And through it all walks a man who’s probably wondering by now if anything else will ever happen to him that he didn’t expect. By now, James Bond has got to be tired of knowing all the spoilers.
Spectre (PG-13): ★★★✩✩