Skyfall is a hard act to follow. The 2012 film was not only the most profitable Bond film in history, it is arguably the best, and certainly is the high point of the Daniel Craig era. The expectations for the follow up were always going to be unreasonably lofty. Retaining director Sam Mendes for the next installment was the right choice, and in every way Spectre tries to duplicate the successes of the past, to mixed effect. It falls somewhere in the middle of the modern Bond films; it never reaches the Shakespearean grandeur of Skyfall, but is far superior to the shaky cam “Let’s turn James Bond into Jason Bourne” nonsense of Quantum of Solace.
Every Bond film opens with a self-contained set piece, and Spectre’s is a doozy: Bond chases a terrorist through the streets of Mexico City during Dia de los Muertos. The scene is one of the film’s best, starting with an unbroken tracking shot that would feel at home in an Alfonso Cuaron movie as Daniel Craig’s Bond maneuvers the streets in full Day of the Dead regalia with a beautiful woman on his arm. A collapsed building and highjacked helicopter later, Bond has acquired a strange ring etched with an octopus symbol that anyone familiar with the Connery era Bond films will recognize. The movie is called Spectre, after all. While a smarmy bureaucrat (Andrew Scott) tries to shut down MI6, the ring leads Bond to his old nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), and then to White’s daughter Madeleine (Lea Seydoux), who in turn leads Bond to Oberhauser, Spectre’s sinister and mysterious leader, played to oily perfection by Christoph Waltz.
I won’t delve too far into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Oberhauser is not who he says he is (it’s not exactly a surprise, but anyone wanting to stay in the dark should avoid the movie’s IMDb page) and everything that has happened to Daniel Craig’s Bond since Casino Royale has been part of a larger scheme. This is one of the film’s greatest weaknesses, as it tries to build a multi-film mythology, as if it was a Marvel movie. This seems a bit of a stretch (wasn’t Quantum supposed to be its own clandestine organization?) and in some ways it cheapens what came before. It’s so much more effective if Skyfall’s villain is a rogue MI6 agent on his own vendetta than a pawn in a bigger game. Mendes and the screenwriters try so hard to twist the bigger storyline to fit their narrative that when the big reveal comes, it doesn’t have the impact that it should.
That is not to say that Spectre is not an entertaining film. There are many nods to classic Bond that will tickle 007 afficionados. The snowbound clinic where Bond finds Madeleine is a direct homage to Blofeld’s lab in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Bond’s brawl on a train with Hinx, the burly henchman played by Dave Bautista, harkens back to similar fights in The Spy Who Loved Me and From Russia with Love. One of the best scenes features Monica Bellucci, who plays the widow of the terrorist Bond kills in the opening scene, and who Bond promptly seduces in order to track down Oberhauser. She is criminally underused, and would have made a better primary love interest than Seydoux, who comes across as rather bland and has zero chemistry with Craig.
Maybe I’m being a trifle unfair with Spectre, but when the filmmakers are so determined to directly tie the film to Skyfall, it’s impossible not to weigh the two against each other. As was the case with movies like The Dark Knight Rises or The Matrix Reloaded, Spectre suffers by comparison with its predecessor. Skyfall plumbed emotional depths previously unimagined in a Bond movie, and it elevated the film to classic status. Spectre falls short in that regard, and that is a shame, especially if this turns out to be Daniel Craig’s final go around.