Spectre is the film Bond fans feared Skyfall might be. Sam Mendes' first 007 outing arrived in 2012, rounding off the series' 50th anniversary celebrations. It earned widespread praise for being among the best films in the series; a modern, slick action thriller that mixed the old school aura of Bond with a contemporary sensibility. Spectre, by comparison, is a soulless succession of clichés and references.
I greatly enjoyed Skyfall despite its faults, and consider Daniel Craig's debut Casino Royale up there among the very best Bond flicks. I think Craig is a perfect fit for the character, capable of encapsulating everything Ian Fleming intended the spy to be, and all he became in the films. He is a charmer, but has the look of a hardened thug who doesn't quite belong in the world of sophistication he inhabits, and whose piercing blue eyes betray a tough exterior.
That is Bond, and Craig has portrayed that well before – but here, like returning director Mendes - he feels like he's going through the motions. My abiding thought upon leaving the cinema was that he should have bowed out after Skyfall – which ended with the perfect set-up for a fresh start.
Bond as a series is unique because the continuity is lax, affording filmmakers a great deal of freedom. Mostly, it is a series of unconnected and self-contained stories about a cast of established characters that can change when required. For some that's hard to grasp (I'm looking at you, people who think James Bond is a code name) but it works, and Craig's more interconnected era proves that.
In Spectre plot threads from Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall are brought in and tied up by the sinister criminal organisation of the film's title. This is something truly hammered home; the filmmakers bludgeoning its audience with names and faces from Bond's past to the point of blunt force trauma. It tries too hard, and the result is a feeling of redundancy.
If the Craig era has had an aim, it has been to reinvigorate the character and give audiences a better understanding of the damaged hero Bond is. Casino Royale got the ball rolling, Skyfall finished the job. There was no need to make another film taking another march through Bond's psyche.
The film itself makes for a bizarre watch. It is beautifully shot by Her and Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and Sam Mendes has some moments of flair as a director – particularly the well orchestrated opening shot and the meeting Spectre's council. However the action is largely bland. A central car chase through Rome is one of the dullest I've ever seen, shot for most of its duration like a car advert. In fact, the film as a whole has the look and feel of a luxurious perfume commercial, and sadly all the depth of one as well. Only the train fight really stands out, highlighting the impact and intensity the rest of the film lacks.
It's self-indulgent too. Throughout I sensed that Mendes and co consider themselves above making "just" an action film or spy thriller, and so pushed themselves to make art rather than entertainment. Two things that needn't be separate, but in trying so hard to be the former Spectre divorces itself of the latter. There's a dreamlike quality to the film - and I mean that in a negative way. It floats through a succession of beautiful locations at a steady, slow pace and is peppered with Bond cliché (car chase, train fight, tuxedo, evil lair and more) but the whole time something feels off, like you can see an invisible hand moving all the pieces into place.
The impressive cast feels stuck in second gear. Craig, Ralph Fiennes as M and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny are hampered by the script, unable to truly excel. Only Ben Wishaw's Q manages to inject some fun.
The Bond girls are a mixed bag. Monica Bellucci's brief main scene with Craig is great and she's great in it, oozing glamour and mystery. However it's a scene that ends with the two sleeping together for little reason other than that's what is "supposed" to happen in these films. Meanwhile female lead Lea Seydoux tries, but her and Craig's chemistry is tepid - something which instantly dilutes the intentions of the final act.
Then we have Christoph Waltz and Andrew Scott - two actors so well known for playing villains that audiences will know what to expect. Waltz just about scrapes through, but Scott is lost – seemingly stuck playing a watered down and sedate version of his Moriarty from BBC's Sherlock. Both are great actors, but poorly cast due to audience expectation and not at all helped by the weak characters handed to them.
Spectre is a textbook example of style over substance. It is beautifully shot, but the plot, pacing and acting are halfway catatonic. Daniel Craig's successes as Bond have come from a disregard for the established formula, so this barrage of references only feels like pandering to a crowd the series appeared to have outgrown. After revitalising the Bond series and celebrating its history with aplomb, perhaps, sadly, it's time for the Craig era to come to a close.