The good thing about Spectre is that it manages to strike a breezy, pulpy tone that was sorely lacking in Daniel Craig’s pouty predecessors. This time around, Craig actually manages to look like he’s having fun underneath that paralytic upper lip. Just when it seemed like we’d finally gotten past the idea of the Craig incarnation as gritty reboot, we realize they’ve ditched the “gritty” only to be undone by the “reboot.” Sam Mendes and his pick-up basketball team of screenwriters almost had a good thing going, until they got almost to the end and realized but wait, we have to shoehorn in an origin story for a character who hasn’t been in a Bond movie for 34 years!
Oh good, for a second there I was worried this extravagantly budgeted watch commercial wouldn’t maintain continuity with Ian Fleming’s spy novels from the ’60s. I can’t decide if this was another misguided attempt at fan service (dear franchise filmmakers, never try to please the fans, never ever) or if they simply couldn’t ditch their initial story outline after they’d come up with something much better (also known as the Man of Steel effect).
Look, I don’t entirely begrudge the filmmakers’ desire to throw in elements that Bond nerds in the audience will be able to watch and nudge their friends in the ribs to whisper, “Did you catch that?? That’s Professor Vladimir Yackmeov, from On His Magistrate’s Sausage Sandwiche!” But if you’re going to do tie-ins, at least tie them in. Incorporate it into the story. In Spectre, the bad guy comes out of nowhere two thirds of the way through feeling like he wandered in from a different movie. One that actually needed another bad guy, say. Wait, who was that? I had to look this character up on Wikipedia to see if it would help the subplot make sense, but nope, not really. Reference all you want, but no callback is going to patch a hole in logic and tone.
In its first half, Spectre really feels like it’s going to work. Bond finally looks like he’s having a little fun, we aren’t expected to care about his psyche or his childhood traumas, only to watch him kill bad guys in needlessly elaborate ways in extravagantly beautiful places, in between seducing tragic, voluptuous widows who can’t resist his stiff-lipped charm and veiny T-rex arms. “You killed my husband, of course I will sleep with you in this rocket-powered canoe traversing the Bosphorus.”
Bond’s initial adversary is C, a new British intelligence honcho played by Andrew Scott, a snot-nosed punk who thinks agents like 007, with their martinis and their turtlenecks and tiny guns are an anachronism, pointless excesses in an age when you can just spy on everyone through the computer and drop bombs on them with robot planes. C, naturally, wants to do away with the double oh program in favor of a new quasi-sinister sounding international intelligence sharing agency. (*cough* hydra! *cough, cough*.)
Bond scoring one for face-to-face interaction against a band of neo-imperialist keyboard warriors is a relevant plot, and it’s also compelling to watch old-school security apparatus folks bemoaning the “unfairness” of computer spying, sort of like when basketball purists saw their first behind-the-back pass. When C presents his proposal for his “cooperative” intelligence coalition, Ralph Fiennes’ M snipes “unelected” under his breath. Right, because shadowy teams of extra-governmental assassins driving cool cars had so much democratic oversight. “[Sigh.] Doesn’t anyone kill third-world dictators with itching powder anymore?”
There’s even an Oddjob-style henchman played by Batista (aka Dave Bautista), who kills people with his bionic thumbs or something. And Léa Seydoux from Blue Is The Warmest Color as Bond’s indeterminately European love interest. Great! So Bond is seducing chicks, wrecking flash sazz wagons, being glib toward his supervisors, and everything’s going swimmingly until Christoph Waltz shows up to tie Bond to a chair to drill into his skull… to… uh… kill… his memories? Or something? Because he’s still bitter about a childhood skiing accident? Or something?
There’s an entire element of this story that makes zero sense, and I’m not asking for much here, only for the movie to not fail the “Who is this guy and what does he want?” test for 25 minutes at a time. I don’t remember Javier Bardem’s evil plot in Skyfall making much sense either, but at least he was fun to look at and had a weird homoerotic chemistry with Bond. Christoph Waltz just sort of talks slowly and smirks. And this is Christoph Waltz! One of the all-time great scene-chewers!