“Spectre,” the 24th official James Bond movie in the Eon Productions series, is the most “Bond” movie since Daniel Craig took over the lead role in 2006.
Name any quality of classic Bond — stylish costumes, international locations, outlandish action scenes, martinis, slick cars, spy gadgetry, gorgeous women, silent henchmen, or villains with needlessly labyrinthine plans — and you’ll find it here, looking better than ever before. Every penny of the film’s reported $300 million budget is on display for 148 minutes, making it not just the most expensive, but the longest film in the franchise.
This is mostly to the film’s benefit, but paying tribute to so many of the long-running franchise’s iconic traits means “Spectre” has its share of bad habits as well.
No doubt second-time director Sam Mendes felt pressure to follow up 2012’s “Skyfall,” a similarly beautiful-looking movie that achieved massive box office success on a global scale, eventually tallying over $1 billion. From the very first scene of “Spectre,” which was shot using 35mm film stock, Mendes announces his intention to top his last film.
Taking over the reigns from Oscar-nominated “Skyfall” cinematographer Roger Deakins is Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Her”), and the first part of a stunning opening sequence, shot in Mexico City with 1,500 extras during a Day of the Dead celebration, is a seemingly one-take wonder that will leave cinephiles wondering how he accomplished it for years to come. (Or at least until they explain it all on an upcoming Blu-ray extra feature.)
Sidenote: The screening I saw opened by playing the entire music video for Sam Smith’s theme song “Writing on the Wall,” which includes clips from the movie. Assuming this comes after the previews and you’ve been sitting in the theater a while already, this is a perfect time for a bathroom break. Besides showcasing Smith’s annoyingly over-emotive lip-syncing technique and giving away at least one clip from the film’s finale, this terrible video is made redundant when the song is then played again in its entirety over the credit sequence.
“Spectre” jet-sets from Mexico City to Rome for a too-brief sequence with Monica Bellucci (the oldest Bond girl, at 50) and back to London, as Bond gets scolded by the new head of MI6, Ralph Fiennes, taking over for Judi Dench. With the interplay between Dench and Craig missing, “Spectre” has little of the emotional weight that grounded “Casino Royale” — still the high-water mark for the franchise — or “Skyfall.”
Much like Ethan Hunt in the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Bond is forced to go rogue, albeit not without conning Q (Ben Whishaw) out of a nifty watch gadget and stealing an Aston Martin. Thanks to a recorded video message from Dench’s M, he’s already hot on the trail of the far-reaching criminal organization that gives the film its title. Anyone familiar with Bond lore will know what this means and which famous villain Christoph Waltz is playing.
Bond meets up with the fetching Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), whose resentment toward him predictably fades, and Seydoux has a couple of moments to rise above the damsel-in-distress part she’s given. When it comes time to admit their simmering attraction is real, it happens in the most Bond way possible, and is one of many throwback moments.
Part of the fun of “Spectre” for Bond aficionados will be trying to spot all of the myriad references to past movies. I give credit to Mendes at least for re-imagining and updating these familiar tropes with a scale of production design (by Dennis Gassner) that’s unmatched.
With this and “Skyfall,” James Bond has truly been realized with the slick, modern elegance the franchise has always chased, and in 2015, its retro-'60s style looks cooler than ever. It's hard to imagine another director topping Mendes in this department anytime soon, or ever. If you are already planning to see “Spectre,” you’ll definitely want to see it on the big screen.
The action scenes are big and badass, thanks in part to hulking Dave Bautista who doesn't speak a word but relentlessly pursues Bond, Terminator-style, and proves to be more than his equal at least once. Without quite dipping into absurd “Fast & Furious” territory, Mendes reaches some thrilling heights in this department as well, and the editing is clean and easy to follow. In these action sequences, returning composer Thomas Newman goes heavy on the bombast, which works well but gets a little old by the end.
In paying so much tribute to classic Bond themes, however, there’s no room for innovation in the plot department. The only fresh plot device in “Spectre” is a lame stab at commenting on modern privacy issues that other films have already covered ad nauseam. Most of the film plays like a game of Connect Four, piling up and grouping together characters and schemes from Craig’s last three films in vaguely related ways, in the hopes that the connections to Bond’s past will bring them some emotional heft.
They don’t, and when the fourth and final piece is finally added, it lands with a thud. Like the game, the bottom falls out and “Spectre” is left empty, with its Bond references and clichés scattered across the table.
“Spectre” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, language, and sexual politics from 50 years ago.
This autumn is littered with the usual mix of prestige pictures, Oscar hopefuls and indie dramas, all vying for attention in the season of “serious” movies.
Amidst the original entities, some familiar — and already well-publicized fare — is being released as well: Joe Wright’s “Pan,” reimagines an origin story for Captain Hook (Hugh Jackman) and Peter Pan, “Spectre” is the latest (and probably last) James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig, and a little movie called “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” opens on Dec. 18
Here’s a look at some of the other buzzed-about films of the fall and what could make them stand out from the pack — and why they could fall flat.
“The Martian” (Oct. 2)
Matt Damon is an astronaut stranded on Mars in this Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Gladiator”) adaptation of a self-published novel, which promises more first-person drama and less gimmicky sci-fi action.
Could be great if: it combines the sophisticated action and character development of “Gravity” with the rescue mission of “Apollo 13.”
Could fall flat if: it feels too familiar, a la “Interstellar,” which also co-starred Damon and Jessica Chastain, his co-star again here.
“The Walk” (Sept. 30 in IMAX/Oct. 9 wide)
This '70s-set true story follows French daredevil Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he eludes security and attempts to walk a tightrope between New York’s Twin Towers.
Could be great if: director Robert Zemeckis leverages IMAX 3-D technology along with old-school action storytelling to give moviegoers a unique experience.
Could fall flat if: it mirrors too closely the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” which already told this story in thrilling fashion.
“Steve Jobs” (Oct. 9)
With a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), direction from Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), and Michael Fassbender in the title role as the iconic Apple visionary, the potential for this one is enormous.
Could be great if: Fassbender is able to bring some real depth to a man who still seems like a mystery, even after receiving the biographical treatment in multiple books and movies.
Could fall flat if: Sorkin has an axe to grind, and takes a one-note approach to Jobs’ many contradictions.
“Crimson Peak” (Oct. 16)
The latest film from writer-director Guillermo Del Toro is a gothic romance/ghost story set in 19th-century England, and boasts an all-star cast, including Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.
Could be great if: it’s a real return to Del Toro’s roots, in the vein of his R-rated nightmarish adult fairy-tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” or his spooky ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone.”
Could fall flat if: it’s marred with a big-budget Hollywood mentality, and is too worried about pleasing mainstream audiences.
“Bridge of Spies” (Oct. 16)
Steven Spielberg directing. Tom Hanks starring. Joel and Ethan Coen co-scripting. Yeah, this Cold War spy thriller, based on a true story, has quite a pedigree.
Could be great if: it’s as tense as it the trailer would have us believe. If there’s some modern-day parallels to be drawn, even better.
Could fall flat if: it’s schmaltzy pap like Spielberg and Hanks’ last collaboration, “The Terminal.”
“Our Brand is Crisis” (Oct. 30)
An adaptation of Rachel Boyton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, this political drama about American marketers getting involved in a Bolivian election stars Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.
Could be great if: director David Gordon Green gets intimate with his characters, like he has in indie successes “Joe” and “All the Real Girls.”
Could fall flat if: Green handles the big stars and big budget like he did in forgettable Hollywood comedies like “Your Highness” and “The Sitter.”
“I Saw the Light” (Nov. 27)
The tragic story of country legend Hank Williams, who died at 29 and changed the face of popular music, is recounted in this biopic starring the British guy who played Loki in “The Avengers.”
Could be great if: that British guy (Tom Hiddleston) makes us forget who he is and convincingly portrays the tormented honky-tonker, whom he already bears a striking resemblance to.
Could fall flat if: it’s another formulaic biopic with a tacked-on happy ending.
“The Danish Girl” (Nov. 27)
Last year’s best actor winner Eddie Redmayne appears to be gunning for another statue, playing 1920s painter Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Could be great if: the film is as humanistic a portrait as the book (a fascinating piece of historical fiction from David Ebershoff) it is based on.
Could fall flat if: director Tom Hooper brings the same sense of gimmicky bombast he did to his roaring adaptation of “Les Miserables.”
“Joy” (Dec. 25)
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper reteam with David O. Russell, their director on “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” to tell the quirky tale of the inventor of the Miracle Mop.
Could be great if: Lawrence and Cooper have their usual chemistry and it channels another twisted side of the American Dream the way “Hustle” did.
Could fall flat if: it tries too hard with its oddball intentions, like Russell did in the admirable but messy “I Heart Huckabees.” Even then, at least it will be interesting!
“The Revenant” (Dec. 25)
This year's best director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Birdman”) braved wintry conditions in Canada and Argentina to film this adaptation from Michael Punke’s novel about 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was left for dead in the Dakota Territory.
Could be great if: the now-infamous stories of a set plagued with problems actually creates a palpable sense of danger that bleeds into the film itself.
Could fall flat if: Iñárritu’s strategy of using only natural light to create striking visuals is just a mask to cover its lack of emotional investment.
“The Hateful Eight” (Dec. 25 in 70mm; Jan. 8 wide)
Another wintry outdoor tale set in 1800s America, Quentin Tarantino’s latest stars Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter escorting a fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) cross-country. It was filmed on 70mm film, using the same ultra-wide Panavision lenses popularized in epic films like 1959’s “Ben-Hur.”
Could be great if: Tarantino retains his iconoclastic creative spark and avoids repeating himself.
Could fall flat if: it covers the same ground as his Western “Django Unchained” and his last five movies, which have all been revenge pictures.