Spectre wasn’t the disaster some reviewers claim but it’s certainly nowhere close to Casino Royale (a film I consider one of the greatest Bond films of all time behind Goldfinger, License to Kill, and For Your Eyes Only).

The problem with Spectre is the similar problem with much of mainstream franchise cinema: “safe” stories with play-it-safe-writing that reduces the cinematic experience to a minor distraction from a busy week instead of an exploration of ideas.

There’s some huge ideas running beneath the surface of the story regarding global surveillance networks and the concept of democracy in a post-9/11 world where there’s a perpetual war against “terrorism.” I can only think of two modern American films that discuss the idea of what constant surveillance means for our lives and our posterity: Enemy of the State and Eagle Eye.

Unfortunately, these ideas are largely left on the table as the narrative dives into a story that should have been handled two movies ago.

For some reason, recent action cinema has been terrified to delve into substantial ideas and tend to skew toward moronic revenge plots and/or ridiculously crafted apocalypses manipulated by villains with no true motivation.

With that said, it’s worth mentioning that none of the Daniel Craig Bond movies are meant to be solitary experiences. They are all a part of a massive reboot/origin fable that explains Bond’s backstory. To grasp the events and Bond’s personal dilemma in Spectre, you have to watch Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall.

 

This presents a problem for long-time Bond fans as we’re left with the notion that the Bond-verse begins here (before Dr. No because the original S.P.E.C.T.R.E. isn’t mentioned in that film — IIRC) and begs the question of whether “James Bond” is still the same guy portrayed by Sean Connery et al., or if (as many have suggested online) the 007 program is a long-running Cold War system that periodically recruits emotionally-damaged orphaned males to replace previous 007s who’ve died or retired?

The end of this movie doesn’t even get close to answering that question but it strongly suggests that there’s now a blank slate from which to build the next chapter of the Bond franchise on.

The threads of the story in Spectre conjures all the villains from the previous three movies and their connection to the mysterious organization the movie is named after. It doesn’t take much to see how the puzzle pieces fit, but again, it requires you remember everything that happened beforehand.

Nothing in the movie is shocking or unexpected. While the Bond movies are well-known for their predictability, there’s something nice about having a few twists and turns thrown your way — the best example of this in the Bond franchise were the two Timothy Dalton movies: The Living Daylights and License to Kill. (I’ll go on record here to say that my favorite two Bonds are Craig and Dalton).

The Dalton movies had to resurrect the franchise from the cartoonish B-movie silliness that marked the end of Roger Moore’s run while competing with the burgeoning superhero movie boom of the late 1980s/early 1990s. I don’t believe audiences were truly ready for a dark Bond back then, but now with so much of pop culture inundated with imagery of shadowy heroes, Craig stepped in and did the job admirably.

Which leads to the issue I have with the “safe” version of Bond in Spectre. In Casino Royale, Craig was basically a sociopath with a badge. He was dead inside and was more than willing to kill someone and then drink himself into a numb stupor. He simply did not care until someone made him care. Well, two women shattered his shell: Judi Dench’s M and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd.

That was a powerful character turn that worked very well until the simple-minded and utterly boring Quantum of Solace came along. To be fair, this wasn’t the first time Bond would make a real emotional connection; George Lazenby’s turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have him fall in love and get married (but this is generally a forgotten footnote in Bond lore).

Spectre runs along the surface of what could have been the definitive Bond experience. Here we finally learn about Bond’s past and his mysterious connections to all his recent villains. What we get instead is a by-the-numbers tale that hints at depth and complexity while staying grounded in multiple superficial plot devices.

That’s the sad part about Spectre — there are some truly intense moments accompanied by a gorgeous score and stunning cinematography. The lighting effects when Bond infiltrates the secret meeting are worth the price of admission. I’m not kidding; it is some of the best photography you’ll see in the cinema in 2015.

In fact, that was probably the best scene in the movie. It was dense, atmospheric, spellbinding, dangerous and held your attention. I only wish the entire movie had the same tone as the Spectre meeting sequence. I’m not saying that as an insult, I was totally impressed with that scene.

In any case, is it worth seeing? Yes — only if you’ve watched the previous three movies and want to see how it all ties up. If you’re a casual moviegoer, chances are you’re not going to understand what the hell is going on because the movie references the overall Bond universe in some clever and not-so-clever ways and it helps to be familiar with that world.

Bottom line: I know Daniel Craig is signed for one more Bond film despite all of his public declarations of being done with the role. Give him a few years and a bunch of cash and he’ll come around. Heck, I’ll still be waiting.

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