Well, Mr. Bond, we meet again. You’re looking pooped.
Following the thrilling 50th-anniversary celebration of the James Bond saga in “Skyfall,” Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes reunite to advance the slam-bang secret agent’s escapades. Unfortunately, this mission is a misfiring collection of drooping plot lines, overworked action sequences and formulaic fan-service homages to 007 adventures gone by.
Rather than delivering a thrilling, deadly Bond, “Spectre” leaves viewers shaken, not stirred. “You’re like a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond,” one of his adversaries declares. That sums up the film itself, checking formulaic moments off the to-do list but never following a solid course of its own. The excellent production values and lavish cinematography dress up the film like Bond’s impeccable white tuxedo, but offer it nowhere to go.
The story line follows the same path the series has walked since its audacious reboot 10 years ago, when “Casino Royale” began moving it beyond juvenilia and toward serious maturity. As in its first three entries, this new-age Bond is battling a cadre of international villains and personal demons side by side.
It begins with a thrilling opening. A seemingly uncut long shot follows Craig through a surging, surrealist Mexico City pageant celebrating the Day of the Dead. Arriving at the upper-level hotel bedroom of his lovely female companion, he peels off his skeleton mask, but has business in mind she was not expecting. Slipping out her window, he races over the tops of nearby buildings at a fast, casual pace, and soon is battling terrorists through gunshots, fisticuffs and a nonstop brawl aboard their getaway helicopter.
“Spectre” delivers the sort of over-the-top excitement the franchise provides at its best as the chopper spirals through loop-the-loops over the skyline. Unfortunately, it is just the beginning of the film’s tailspin descent, plummeting to superficial stereotypes. There are some high cards in the film’s hand. The script digs into Bond’s relevance in a world of post-Snowden computerized spycraft, making a top antagonist of a tech-slick British bureaucrat (Andrew Smith, “Sherlock’s” arch enemy Moriarty) aiming to terminate the outmoded double-0 program that gave Bond his license to kill.
But through the 148-minute running time, the four-man screenwriting team’s collaborative efforts feel like the labyrinthine prose on a Mad Libs word game. Their man-on-a-mission story is rich enough in mayhem but short on focus. Characters appear and vanish without explanation as veterans of earlier installments return and the sublime Monica Bellucci (the most mature Bond lover ever, seducing 007 at age 51) disappears in a mere cameo. Plot holes grow to the size of the meteorite chasm that houses the top villain’s luxurious secret headquarters.
And who is the megalomaniac, planet-strangling supervillain? Christoph Waltz, so compelling as mustache-twirling evil personified in “Inglourious Basterds.” But here his clutches are not too frightening. Waltz offers a performance so underplayed that it is forgettable scene by scene. While the usually magnetic Waltz can be brilliant in gentleman sadist roles, his character’s identity and motivations are so personal that goals of world domination seem like the wrong option. A course of emotion-focused therapy would better deal with his aggravating issues. Among the supporting cast only the romantic resonances of Lea Seydoux’s bittersweet performance as Craig’s beautiful feminine foil feels like more than a kiss-off.
The film’s off-into-the-distance conclusion carries the sense of a swan song for the reboot that “Casino Royale” launched a decade ago. Its tone fits the recent public hints from Craig that he is done with playing Bond. Watching this extravagant collection of small wonders makes the star’s wish to say farewell understandable.