What it's about:
A message from beyond the grave has James Bond hunting down a shadowy organization whose leader may have a connection to Bond's own past, while at the same time, even closer to home, forces within MI6 are conspiring to finally bring an end to the 00- program.
What we thought:
Bond films have had a long tradition of being weirdly affected by their immediate predecessors, even though almost of all of them are stand-alone films with little to connect them but a handful of characters (and even then, the actors portraying them may not be the same). This started around the time Roger Moore took over as Bond and a dud like Moonraker would be followed up by the excellent For Your Eyes Only, which would conversely be followed by the middling-at-best Octopussy.
This constant bouncing between series highlights and series lowlights would continue throughout Moore's stint as Bond and, though it largely skipped Timothy Dalton (whose two films were sort of oddities in the series anyway), it came back in full force with Pierce Brosnan, whose four films basically went, in order, from great to a bit rubbish to really good fun to just unspeakably awful. The trend seemed to continue with Daniel Craig's first three outings as the exceptional series reinvention of Casino Royale was followed by the awful Quantum of Solace but bounced back with Skyfall, a strong contender for best Bond film to date.
At the outset, then, things don't necessarily look good for Spectre because surely even a great filmmaker like Sam Mendes doesn't have the power to break a tradition as old as he is? As it turns out, he kind of doesn't - but he gives it the old college try anyway. The result is a film that falls solidly on the top half of a qualitative ranking of the Bond series but is still a major disappointment after Skyfall and, though it's leagues better than Quantum of Solace, it still doesn't come close to rising above third place of the Daniel Craig era. It doesn't even manage to displace either Kingsmen: The Secret Service or Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation as the best spy film of the year – though that says as much about them as it does about it.
But then, to be perfectly honest, Spectre is really just a weird James Bond film from top to bottom. It's stuffed to the gills with brilliant characters, set pieces, performances, zingers and tasty spy stuff (and a bunch of references to Bond films of yore) but it never adds up to anything anywhere near as satisfying as it probably should have. It's also the first Bond film to really draw heavily from past films as it ties together the events of all three of Craig's previous outings, feeling less like a typical standalone Bond entry and more like a sequel (and semi-conclusion) to three other films.
Not insignificantly, it also seems more committed than ever to replacing Bond, the - as M called him in Goldeneye – the misogynistic dinosaur, with Bond, the serial monogamist, but his romance (not sexual dalliance!) with the otherwise terrific Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann mostly just comes across as vastly underdeveloped. Not that any of this stops him from having a quickie with Monica Belluci's barely-there-character in the early parts of the film, of course – but then this difficulty balancing classic Bond with our more “enlightened” era is precisely the main flaw with Spectre. Well, that and the overly extravagant 150 minute running time, anyway.
It's hard not to appreciate how hard everyone involved with the franchise tries to meld the sillier classic James Bond elements with both our post-post-modern reality and the increased quality of the production of the Craig-era Bonds. The misfire of Quantum of Solace aside, the Daniel Craig Bonds are more sharply written, better directed, better acted and better shot than just about any past entry in the 007 canon, but there still seems to be a major disconnect between this increase in “quality” and “modern sensibilities” and the campier, sillier aspects of James Bond - no matter how hard everyone involved tries to ensure that this is not the case.
For all my misgiving, though, Spectre is very much a good James Bond film with plenty to recommend it. Daniel Craig, in particular, stands out from a frankly ludicrously good cast (I could write a paragraph a piece praising no less than six of the film's main supporting characters, with ease) as he comes across as more comfortable than ever in James Bond's impeccably polished leather shoes, as the sly toughness he brings to the role melds perfectly with the inherent ridiculousness of the character and the laser-sharp wit of the writing. Unlike Brosnan and Moore, he's more cool than charming, to be sure, but that just makes him the coolest Bond since Connery – and, not coincidentally, arguably the best too. If this does indeed turn out to be his last turn as Bond (and, honestly, that's not the given that many expect it to be), it's a fitting farewell. And, if nothing else, that immediately puts it way above the swansongs of Connery, Moore and Brosnan.