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Spectre is a perfectly fine James Bond film that suffers only from the misfortune of following a perfectly great one. 2012’s Skyfall was the best-received film of the franchise since the Roger Moore years, racking up critical accolades and over $1 billion in box-office receipts. Still, its success came with a caveat: The film brought new depth to the iconic character, saddling him with heretofore unexamined backstory and physical and emotional vulnerabilities, and some critics worried the film made Bond too much of a three-dimensional character. In Hollywood, turning an icon into a human being—one who can grow and change—is a risky business proposition.
To combat these concerns, Spectre leans heavily on the Bond mythology. The second consecutive effort in the franchise by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead) reinterprets various elements from the Sean Connery years into a contemporary, somewhat generic blockbuster. It will surely be catnip for the hardcore fans, although younger viewers may find it too narratively clunky and self-referential to be involving.
In this one, Bond has gone rogue and is off pursuing a lead from his late friend M (Judi Dench, who appears in flashback). After a highly conspicuous shoot-out and helicopter crash in Mexico City, M (Ralph Fiennes) informs Bond that his antics couldn’t have come at a worse time. The British government is on the verge of shutting down the Double-O program and handing over the work to a smarmy new bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott). C’s plan to fight terror through extensive surveillance feels timely but not quite fresh; it’s fun to trace the history of America’s enemies through Bond films, but Spectre is hardly the first recent film to criticize the surveillance state.
In fact, the film’s homage extends far beyond the Bond canon. Some of the bigger plot elements feel reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and early scenes between Bond and the cantankerous M would not be out of place in Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or any of a million other Rogue Cop flicks of the 1980s.
The success of Spectre, then, comes down to how well it executes its conventions, and, of course, its simple pleasures still endure. The action scenes are inventive and well-staged, the dialogue is pleasingly quip-heavy, and the performances are good enough to pass muster, if never quite as revelatory as in prior efforts (Judi Dench is sorely missed here). As the villain with a predictable link to Bond’s past, Christoph Walz doesn’t offer too many surprises; picture Walz as a Bond villain, and that’s exactly what you get.
As for the other items on the checklist, Spectre offers a crisp and clever final act, and a sharp amalgam of form and content that has become a winning trait in Mendes’ offerings. Consider the intentional shift in visual palate: Skyfall was one of the more colorful Bond films, but Spectre is haunted by whiteness. Key scenes are set in snow-filled mountains and a stark, white laboratory. Craig sports a white skeleton mask one scene; Léa Seydoux stuns in an ivory dress in another. Whiteness can suggest clarity, purity, or death, and Mendes evokes all three, while keeping the audience in the dark about which will ultimately win out. Given what we know about Bond, however, and how deeply Spectre reveres its icon, it’s not too hard to guess.
Spectre opens Friday in theaters everywhere.