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007 Is Haunted

Columbia Pictures
 148 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Sam Mendes 
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux

Oftentimes, there is a turning point in a movie. I don’t mean a turning point in the plot where things all of a sudden start to go well (or poorly) for a particular character. I mean the quality of the film itself. Sometimes, a movie that seems unfocused can find its footing and finish strong. On the other hand, there’s the latest James Bond movie, Spectre. Rarely have I seen a good movie fall apart as quickly as Spectre does the moment Bond (Daniel Craig) and his latest lady love, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) arrive at the desert headquarters of the mysterious head of SPECTRE, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What makes this collapse all the more frustrating is the fact that two-time Oscar winner Waltz is arguably the best actor to ever play a Bond villain.


The Craig Bond films have been frustrating enough long before Waltz ever became involved. When Craig assumed the role, the producers decided to essentially reinvent the entire franchise, much the same as has occurred with comic book characters like Batman and Spider-Man. The expressed intent was to show audiences how Bond became Bond. In that regard, although Judi Dench reprised her role as M in Casino Royale, beloved characters like Q and Moneypenny were nowhere to be found. Despite their absence, Casino Royale worked brilliantly because it stayed close to Ian Fleming’s plot (Casino Royale was the first Bond novel), and the events in the book clearly turned Craig into the rather hard-edged Bond he would become.


Unfortunately, Quantum of Solace followed Casino Royale and proved to be a dreadful misfire. But the producers again righted themselves with another winner, Skyfall, bringing back Q and Moneypenny and killing off one M in Dench, only to introduce another in Ralph Fiennes. That movie also set the stage for Spectre, since it laid the groundwork for a “new” British intelligence service (fittingly the new building sits across from the ruins of the former headquarters of MI6 that was destroyed in Skyfall). In this service, agents like Bond are archaic dinosaurs, dangerously out of touch with the new methods of intelligence gathering in which computer whizzes are far more powerful than field operatives.


It’s against this backdrop that the producers decided the time was right to “introduce” SPECTRE, one of the best ideas Ian Fleming had. SPECTRE is essentially a multiethnic Cosa Nostra on steroids, a nearly all-powerful international criminal organization. During the course of the movie, Bond learns that SPECTRE was responsible for much of his grief in the last three films, since all of their villains worked for SPECTRE. This discovery, however, couldn’t have come at a worse time.


Since the events in Skyfall, MI6 in general and the “00” licensed-to-kill branch in particular have fallen out of favor in the halls of Parliament. Bond himself doesn’t help matters when he destroys half of Mexico City while bringing down a would-be terrorist in Spectre’s pre-credits sequence. M has a new rival, C (Andrew Scott), who wants to link all the world’s intelligence agencies together in one giant computer network.


One doesn’t need to be a computer genius to see how spectacularly bad an idea that is, but, as usual in movies like this, C has a funny way of having terror attacks occur in ways that support his arguments. And with C looking over everyone’s shoulder, figuratively, M can’t give Bond much help in finding Oberhauser. Bond winds up teaming up with Dr. Swann , with whom he tracks down Oberhauser’s secret base deep in the Sahara desert. And that’s where Spectre jumps the shark.


Even before the desert showdown between Bond and Oberhauser, the pacing of Spectre was problematic. There’s a fine line between solemnity and lethargy, and Spectre probably should have been about 15 minutes shorter. However, the first part of the movie was definitely enlivened by some spectacular cinematography (especially alpine and desert shots) by Hoyte Van Hoytema and three solid action set pieces.


The best sequence is the pre-credits sequence, featuring a lengthy tracking shot following Bond and a lady friend through the streets of Mexico City during the festival of the Day of the Dead into a hotel room. Bond then arms himself to go after an illicit arms dealer. That leads to a chase and a wild helicopter flight over the crowds below. Two other sequences are also very well done, an alpine chase involving a plane and some Jeeps and a train fight between Daniel Craig and muscleman Dave Bautista.


All that goes by the boards when Bond and Swann are captured by Oberhauser, who, not surprisingly, reveals himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE who bedeviled earlier film Bonds on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, rather than channel Donald Pleasence, who was the best Blofeld, Christoph Waltz instead trots out a Dr. Evil impression. With Bond at his mercy, this Blofeld becomes the chattiest of villains as he straps Bond into a chair and proceeds to talk at great length about how he’s going to torture Bond. This of course gives Bond ample time to use the one gadget Q was kind enough to supply in order to escape and blow Blofeld’s fortress to bits.


Neither Blofeld nor the movie are done, and the archvillain goes after Bond one more time, but Spectre seems to completely run out of gas at this point. The last 30 minutes seem quite routine (in the same fashion that the recent Mission: Impossible film lost steam towards the end).  Director Sam Mendes attempts to recreate the same melancholy mood he had at the end of Skyfall but it just doesn’t work.


Rating Spectre is rather difficult. Mendes gets a lot of the little things right, but he misses on what should have been the easiest part of the film, the confrontation between Bond and Blofeld. It’s not the fault of the actors, but the chemistry between Craig and Waltz never works the same way that Craig was able to play off Javier Bardem in Skyfall. Unlike that film, Spectre falls just short of the best Bond works and on a level with Pierce Brosnan’s lesser efforts. The most likely explanation for the lethargy at the end of the movie may be that everyone involved sensed that Craig was at the end of the line. If so, let’s hope some new blood gets the franchise back on its feet.

Read other reviews of  Spectre:


Spectre (2015) on IMDb