“Spectre” cost nearly $300 million to make, and I suppose it was worth it. It’s a good Bond movie, which will be good enough for many millions of fans. It’s also the longest Bond movie in existence, clocking in at just under two-and-a-half decadent, carefree, flamboyantly destructive hours.
This time Ian Fleming’s well-dressed assassin changes clothes from Mexico City to Rome, from London to the Austrian mountains, from Tangier back to London, where terrorists-entrepreneurs carrying the familiar handle of Spectre are doing dirty work on a large scale. Of the Daniel Craig 007s, director Sam Mendes’ follow-up to “Skyfall” is not quite up to “Skyfall” or my favorite, “Casino Royale.” But it’s a considerably better evil-quelling instruction manual than “Quantum of Solace,” a movie Craig himself admitted went before the cameras in rough shape, racing against time and the most frightening of cinematic adversaries: a writers’ strike.
Here, the “Skyfall” scribes John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are joined by Jez Butterworth and the results reference nearly every previous Bond outing. Throw in a certain facially scarred cat-stroker whose origin story becomes a part of “Spectre’s” narrative, and you have a hugely expensive hunk of nostalgia, more travelogue than thriller, more sunglasses-modeling session than acting opportunity. And yet it works; it’s satisfying; in other words, Guy Ritchie didn’t direct it.
The opening sequence is a pip. Bond’s in Mexico City, just in time for the Day of the Dead celebrations, putting his license to kill to effective if unauthorized use. His target: an Italian crime lord mixed up in Spectre, the venerable world-domination collective familiar from six previous official Bond movies. Then to Rome, and to bed with Monica Bellucci (seen briefly as the gangster’s widow). In exchange for a brief, scowly sexual encounter, she provides Bond with a tip about a meeting of Spectre, infiltrated by 007 because he has purloined an evil-insignia ring. There he, and we, meet the shadowy puppetmaster known as Oberhauser, though he really goes by the name of . . . Uber-spoiler!
Mendes was a peculiar if successful directorial choice for “Skyfall”; his brand of action lacks a distinct visual attack, but he’s smart about pacing and rhythm and an astute judge of when to go for the joke (in “Spectre” there’s a clever sight gag involving a well-placed sofa) and how to let his actors run the show, as opposed to the show – the explosions and murders and such – flattening the actors. Ralph Fiennes (M), Naomie Harris (Moneypenny) and Ben Wishaw (gadgetmeister Q) return from “Skyfall,” which is lovely news.
Crucially, Lea Seydoux joins Bond’s endlessly tortured relationship resume as Madeleine Swann, the ravishingly sullen daughter of an old Bond enemy. Imperious yet almost immediately imperiled atop her Austrian mountaintop clinic, Dr. Swann swears Bond will never, ever, ever get anywhere with her. Yet soon they’re on a train, chugging across the Sahara, and the wine is excellent, and after one protracted slugfest involving a near-mute bruiser who clearly studied for his assignment by watching “From Russia with Love,” it’s clear these two emotional cripples speak the international language of love.
Casting Christoph Waltz as Bond’s insidious opposition makes almost too much sense, given Waltz’s comfort level with this sort of fellow. Yet the actor evinces a swell throwback quality (he’s like Mountain Dew, Eurotrash division) that’s strangely comforting. “Spectre” pretends to stand up against unchecked surveillance and data-gathering tactics, which is also comforting, though there’s a moment when Fiennes’ old-guard spymaster scolds an inferior that a license to kill is “also a license not to.” Well, yes, of course, though good luck with making a Bond film when that actually becomes a plot point.
For all its workmanlike devotion to out-of-control helicopters, “Spectre” works best when everyone’s on the ground, doing his or her job, driving expensive fast cars heedlessly, detonating the occasional wisecrack, enjoying themselves and their beautiful clothes. The signature title sequence, for the record, is dominated by Sam Smith, giving his all to a nothing of a song titled “Writing’s on the Wall,” already a chart-topper in the UK.
“I’m not going to ask you to change,” Seydoux deadpans at one point to Craig, in her minimalist-smitten state. Bond fans the world over ask nothing less, or more, of the franchise with a nearly miraculous survival instinct.
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language. Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes. Director: Sam Mendes. Running time: 150 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Village Cinema.