Spectre review: James Bond returns to the ham-fisted days of Roger Moore

Earlier this year, a Spectre trailer spoof made the rounds, replacing shots of Daniel Craig’s modern take on James Bond with footage of Roger Moore. The joke was in the premise itself: while the latest string of movies have largely been praised for rebooting the character with a gritty, nihilistic edge, Moore’s films throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s have come to be seen as a series low point, heavy on wah-wah one-liners and comic book supervillainery. The current Bond era has tried to stay above that sort of thing, and when it did mine from the franchise’s past— and in Skyfall, it mined a lot — its memory was selective, mostly calling back to Sean Connery’s original take on the character.

With Spectre, the series is attempting to tie things together, wrapping up loose ends from Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, while placing Bond up against one of his most classic nemeses: the titular criminal organization Spectre. With director Sam Mendes back for the second time in a row, I was expecting an adventure full of spectacle and scale, grounded by Craig’s tortured anti-hero superspy.

If only. Spectre is a mess; a listless mash-up of lazy gags and storytelling shortcuts that doesn’t just echo the series’ Mooreian lows — it undermines all the work the franchise has done since 2006. By the time it was over, I completely understood why Daniel Craig wants out.

Spectre opens with Bond in Mexico City, hunting a mysterious man on an off-the-books mission. The first half is staged as a single, seamless shot in the midst of a massive Day of the Dead parade, a hypnotic sequence that ends up being one of the highlights of the film. But after Bond disposes of his target in a typically conspicuous fashion, he’s grounded by M (Ralph Fiennes), who is dealing with political pressure back in London. The entire program under which Bond operates is under attack by intelligence up-and-comer Max Denbigh (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott), who wants to dismantle it in favor of a global wiretapping co-op dubbed "Nine Eyes" — replacing agents like Bond with drones and intelligence from every spy organization in the world.

That’s of little concern to James Bond, of course, who goes rogue to investigate a criminal syndicate known as Spectre and its shadowy leader Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a group he learns is tied not just to a recent spate of terrorist bombings, but to every villain Bond has faced since 2006’s Casino Royale.

If you’re hunting for spoilers, I’m going to make it real easy for you: this review isn’t going to discuss Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the character that’s historically served as head of Spectre — and inspired Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil), nor will it address whether anybody in the film ends up being Blofeld or not. But I can safely say that Spectre is a film that is utterly devoid of surprise, rotating through a series of rote beats with almost no sense of invention.

Spectre promotional still (MGM/Sony)

Granted, many Bond films play like a series of MacGuffins strung together by action, but recent entries have been able to distinguish themselves in terms of character (Casino Royale) or through the sheer force of their charismatic villains (Skyfall). Spectre, however, isn’t able to do either. Waltz, who rarely delivers anything less than a stellar performance, plays Oberhauser as the world’s sleepiest criminal mastermind. Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) certainly stands out from Bond’s usual female cohorts, holding her own in a brutal train-set fight sequence — but eventually her character is shoehorned into the traditional Bond girl role by inexplicably falling in love for no reason whatsoever. (Try not to laugh during the film’s more romantic scenes, I dare you.) And while Craig still brings an impressive physicality to the role, his Bond, once brooding and haunted, now alternates between preening for the camera and outright boredom.

Try not to laugh during the film’s more romantic scenes, I dare you

Much of it may be due to the kinds of scenes Craig’s being asked to play this time around. Instead of sly nods to Dr. No, Spectre is full of the kind of groan-worthy jokes that nearly killed the franchise 30 years ago. A car chase through Rome — which, incidentally, feels like the least dangerous pursuit in Bond history — is more gag reel than action sequence, as Bond deals with malfunctioning weapons, stereo problems, and getting stuck behind a slow-moving driver who’s too busy singing to himself to realize there’s a car chase going on.

It happens far too frequently to be a simple tonal misstep. From a snow chase to winky musical cues, this is a movie intent on high-fiving the Moore films as often as possible. On one hand, the instinct is understandable; it worked well in Skyfall, so why wouldn’t the obvious progression be to move the frame of reference forward in the series? But I don’t know that a lot of moviegoers are out there fondly yearning for the days of The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only — particularly when taking the franchise more seriously is what made Craig’s Bond stand out in the first place. It’d be like having Christian Bale wear George Clooney’s neon batsuit in The Dark Knight Returns; sure, it’s a reference, but it undermines the entire take on the character.

Spectre promotional stills (MGM/SONY)

While there are occasional flares of visual brilliance, the movie falters even there, lacking the panache that made Skyfall so captivating. A good part of that is due to the departure of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on the last film. He’s replaced here by Interstellar’s Hoyte van Hoytema, and aside from the expansive daylight sequences, the movie feels dull, even muddied at times. (Between this and Interstellar, maybe it's time to admit film's not the definitive medium for shooting movies after all.)

For a production that reportedly cost more than $300 million, it’s a stunning technical failure, and it’s made all the more awkward by the fact that Spectre is trying to tell a story we’ve already seen this year — and told better. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation essentially put forth the same premise and storyline (there are even some uncanny visual similarities in the climax), and managed to weave them together into a more coherent package. Nobody’s buying tickets to a Bond movie for narrative invention, of course, but the fact remains that other movies are doing a better job telling these kinds of stories, and if people can get their spy fix elsewhere, they won’t stick around forever just because Bond is Bond. Just ask Timothy Dalton.

Casino Royale reinvigorated the franchise by leaving the past behind, reimagining a character that had begun to show his age on multiple fronts. It was the usual franchise money grab, sure, but there was a creative reason behind it all that gave this era of Bond a dangerous new energy. Three films later, Spectre has lost that sense of purpose, leaning on hat-tips and references instead of striving to be good on its own terms. Every 007 movie ends with that title card: "James Bond will return." Before they start work on the next installment, I hope the producers just ask themselves one question: "Why?"

Spectre opens in the US on November 6th.