So this is it. After four outings as the world’s best-dressed sociopath, Daniel Craig has announced that he’s done playing 007. In a recent interview with London’s Time Out, the 47-year-old actor declared with typically British understatement that he’d rather “slash my wrists” than sign on for another James Bond movie. If he returned to the role, he said, “it would only be for the money.”
It’s hard to discuss “Spectre” without mentioning cash. The film cost a reported $250 million to make, plus another $100 million for marketing, and is larded with subtle product placements.
Fittingly, even the movie’s villain came with a hefty price tag attached. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the cat-loving criminal mastermind who was Bond’s most durable antagonist during the Sean Connery era, had to delay his comeback because of a long-standing copyright dispute with the estate of “Thunderball” producer and professional gadfly Kevin McClory.
There’s only one actor who could conceivably play such an iconic part nowadays, especially in a production with so much money at stake, and Christoph Waltz does it well enough, applying his now-familiar blend of intelligence and reptilian cool. Blofeld’s first big appearance, bathed in backlight at a meeting of his global terror network, Spectre, is one of the film’s highlights. Yet the actor’s most chilling innovation is sartorial: As we discover later on, this Blofeld is so deviant he doesn’t even wear socks.
After hitting a dramatic high with 2012’s “Skyfall,” which deconstructed the Bond mythos while depicting the spy at his most vulnerable, the series reverts to type in “Spectre.” There’s plenty of swagger but little spark, and some of the franchise’s conventions are starting to feel awfully tired.
The opening sequence, which unfolds amidst a Day of the Dead carnival in Mexico City, sets the tone, both in its bombast and the ease with which Craig’s protagonist extracts himself from the most perilous scrapes. You wouldn’t expect realism from a Bond film any more than you’d expect gender equality or a plug for Uniqlo, but there’s a degree of persistent flukiness on display here that just feels like lazy writing.
This extends to the film’s romantic entanglements. There was a minor fuss about the casting of Monica Bellucci — at 51, the oldest actress ever to play a “Bond girl” — but when her only purpose is to fall into bed with our hero and reveal a vital nugget of information to him, what does it really matter? Soon enough, he’s traded her in for a younger model (Lea Seydoux), but the chemistry is off. When Seydoux flaunts a figure-hugging cocktail dress in a dining car, the film desperately wants to evoke the sexual frisson between Craig and Eva Green in 2006’s “Casino Royale.” Instead, Bond looks like a middle-aged geezer who can’t believe his luck.
Following the example of “Skyfall,” “Spectre” makes frequent nods to contemporary concerns while threatening its hero with that most ignoble fate: obsolescence. In a world of drone warfare and mass surveillance, what use is there for an old-fashioned martini-quaffing assassin in a tuxedo? After the destruction of the MI6 building in the previous film, the British government is now consolidating its intelligence agencies, and the new boss, C (winningly played by Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty from TV’s “Sherlock”), considers secret service agents to be an anachronism.
Though M (Ralph Fiennes) makes an impassioned argument for the importance of carefully nurtured skill sets — reminding C that “a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill” — the film ends up resolving its central dilemma with a contrivance more befitting of a superhero origin story. It isn’t enough for Blofeld to be masterminding a global conspiracy — he’s also got a personal vendetta against Bond that stems back to adolescence.
The world may have changed, but “Spectre” reassures us that Bond doesn’t have to: It still revolves around him anyway.