Slick visuals and sublime action can't disguise a procedural plot and thinly-drawn supporting characters in 007's latest mission, Spectre.
Back in 2012, the stars aligned for Skyfall, Daniel Craig's third outing as Bond. After the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Craig had asserted himself as the best Bond since Connery; the icy demeanour and even icier blue eyes meant that Craig's incarnation of 007 was popular with fans across the board, and riding a wave of British patriotic fervour, Skyfall skyrocketed to a worldwide gross of over $1 billion, and the mantle of highest-grossing British film ever made.
Three years on and the follow-up, Spectre (also helmed by Sam Mendes), sees the series stumble a little; it's still good, but not as convincingly well-rounded as Mendes' first Bond film, or as refreshing and exhilarating as Craig's near-perfect debut, Casino Royale.
In this entry, a skeleton from Bond's closet comes back to haunt him in the form of a man named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz); after a wayward altercation with Oberhauser in Mexico City, Bond recruits the help of Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) to help him track down an illusive organisation called Spectre and destroy their omnipotent network of spies once and for all.
For the first half, Spectre feels like a direct sequel to Skyfall - and that's a good thing. Plot threads are carried over, characters like Silva (Javier Bardem) are referred back to and the entire narrative has been advanced to accompany the events of the proceeding film. This isn't a world without consequences, and MI6 now face a greater threat than ever before; extinction. In the wake of Silva's assault on MI6, the British government has put in place a sophisticated information network, and through the leadership of C (Andrew Scott), they plan to dissolve the OO program once and for all.
This narrative between C and M (Ralph Fiennes) runs concurrent to Bond's globe-trotting adventure and gives the film a tightly-packaged feel where the two strands click together. Plus, Bond is no longer a lone wolf; Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are given more to do this time around, even stepping into the field and forming a spy team that rivals Ethan Hunt's in Mission Impossible.
Lea Seydoux is a great addition also; her character is a little underdeveloped as the plot chugs along and skips a couple of steps in her relationship with Bond, but on the whole it works. Monica Bellucci's character is nothing more than a plot device though; a quick frisk with Bond in Rome and the film soon forgets that she ever existed.
Where the film suffers, is in its efforts to connect the four Craig films so far. The villain, Oberhauser, is billed as 'the author of [Bond's] pain', and the overarching villain across Craig's entire tenure; except, it doesn't quite work because the film just tells us rather than showing us. "Vesper, Silva, Le Chiffre," he boasts "It's all connected" - oh, okay thanks for letting me know. I'll just take your word for it.
I admire the ambition, but it doesn't slot together as easily as Marvel's interconnected universe. Plus, the personal connection between Bond and Oberhauser isn't well developed. Again, we're offered brief insights into their long-standing history, but not shown first-hand. The clues are there, but it isn't as compelling or engaging as you'd want. Furthermore, Spectre suffers from a noticeable lack of emotion; where Casino Royale and Skyfall were deeply personal films, Spectre steers Craig away from this in favour of breakneck action sequences that look cool but are disappointingly bereft of consequence.
For example, an early car chase through the streets of Rome is gorgeously shot and staged, but the streets are empty and soulless. Bond and and his opponent Hinx (Dave Bautista) move their cars through the streets like a graceful ballet, arching and swooping around fountains and piazzas. The grit from Craig's early films is all but gone by this point; a fight sequence aboard a train proves how Bond is now an indestructible hero who never bleeds or feels pain. The series has come full circle, and Spectre sees it settle into the formula established by Moore or Brosnan, and forget the refreshing take that was Casino Royale.
That's not to say this film isn't entertaining; if Mendes is concerned with one thing, it's entertaining the audience through all manner of thrills and spills. From car chases through the Austrian Alps to a thrilling helicopter duel above Mexico City, the action in this film is wonderfully choreographed and executed. The opening tracking shot that follows Bond and Estrella (Stephanie Sigman) through the Day of the Dead party sets the tone for a film that has some brilliantly inventive and gorgeous cinematography.
Production designer Chris Corbould must get some credit here too; the pyrotechnics he has put together on this film are astounding, especially on a particularly explosive shot during the Morocco section of the film. Thomas Newman's score is one of best in recent times also, even if Sam Smith's intro 'The Writing's On The Wall' is bland and uninspired.
Despite all this, Spectre is still disappointingly formulaic. This is Bond in cruise control, happy to coast through another film where he drinks, shags and shoots his way to saving the world once again. The emotion is sorely lacking and the antagonist is undercooked - and if the sense of conclusion proves to be right and this is Craig's final outing as 007, it'll feel like a slightly restrained disappointment after his era began so viscerally.
The Verdict: 6/10
Daniel Craig's fourth film sees him get frisky with lots of girls and fly to lots of beautiful locales, but these two elements are overshadowed by a bland plot, weak villain and a strict adherence to the formula. It's fun, but it could've been so much more.