The theme song of any given James Bond film doesn't necessarily reflect the content of the film. I couldn't sing you the Chris Cornell tune from Casino Royale, a universally-loved Bond film that stands as one of my two or three favorites, if you strapped me to a chair and threatened me with a laser. But I can instantly sing along to "Live and Let Die" regardless of whether someone does or doesn't gimme some reggae, and I never remember the plot of that film beyond the NYC sequence, Roger Moore jumping on alligators, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman reading tarot cards.
Even so, the latest Bond movie, Spectre, was plagued by bad omens coming into it, including reports of much-needed third act rewrites and most acutely, the dreadful Sam Smith theme song, "Writing's On The Wall." He claims it took him only 20 minutes to write it, and it certainly reflects that—it's the worst Bond theme song since Madonna dragged Sigmund Freud into the sub-Joel Schumacher camp-fest that was Die Another Day. And unfortunately, the parallels between the two films don't quite end there.
Like with Die Another Day, which turned out to be Pierce Brosnan's fourth and final go-around in the suit (something Daniel Craig dreams of), this film doesn't quite fit right. You can feel everyone involved straining a bit to get that old magic back, the mix of familiarity and reliance on the old cliches starting to overwhelm whatever it was that made their initial outings (Goldeneye/Casino) so fantastic.
But at least both films start with fantastic scenes: this time around, Craig is doing a little off-site assassinating in Mexico City as one final mission for his beloved M (Judi Dench, who was killed in Skyfall). While not quite as spectacular as Casino's rooftop chase, it's still a thrilling set piece that takes its time revealing the landscape of the place before blowing it all to hell. Craig slides right back into his role as Bond as seamlessly as ever, leaving behind a would-be paramour in favor of a solo copter ride to safety. He even seems to smile at one point!
It's unfortunate then that the rest of the film feels so very flat after that. Spectre is to Skyfall as Quantum Of Solace was to Casino—a lesser little brother that picks up almost immediately where the other one left off... and then doesn't do much with it. Except Quantum at least knew what it was: the first outright Bond revenge pic. It was Casino Royale 1.5, and if there had been a better director at its helm—Marc Forster really, really, really doesn't know how to film chase/action sequences—it could have been a minor classic.
But Spectre, while having more surface-level pleasures (the martinis and cars and hulk-like henchmen and overly-chatty bad guys and nameless conquests are back, baby!), has more problems and plot holes than all the water-deprived deserts in Bolivia. Spectre, while still entertaining (as long as Daniel Craig is Bond, it's hard to imagine it being outright bad), now seems destined to be the least loved Craig-era Bond movie, a film which will only seem more confused and awkward as it ages. It apes the structure of the vastly superior Skyfall almost point-by-point, but never comes close to topping it. Instead, it feels derivative of modern franchise-movie making (Bond as a rogue agent dealing with his mysterious past) even with the many, many classic Bond callbacks. It's not good that the contemporary movie I thought about the most while watching it was Star Trek Into Darkness, a perfectly adequate modern action movie that had almost nothing to do with Star Trek (and also relied on a third-act twist that was as obvious as it was stupid and unnecessary).
This film's a mess, sadly. I enjoyed watching it enough at the time, but every moment away from it only sinks it lower in my estimation. Skyfall was a Bond movie which I had some issues with when I first saw it (the whole "villain gets himself caught on purpose then breaks out of custody because it was always part of his masterplan" cliche really gets pushed to its limit here), but every single re-watch has impressed upon me just how great (and re-watchable!) a movie it is. I may like Casino more, but Skyfall is a bolder movie that questions the very existence of Bond in the 21st century. It has a thrilling third act at Bond's familial "Skyfall" estate, and it is by far the most beautiful Bond movie ever made, thanks in large part to the otherworldly talents of longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Spectre still retains some of that pure cinematic beauty, with plenty of shots that could be printed, framed, and hung on a wall—besides the spectacular opening in Mexico, there is a gorgeous car chase in Rome, a wicked train fight in Morocco (which contains the best fight scene in the film by far), and my personal favorite moment, when Bond is slowly gliding into a moody Austrian landscape on his way to meet his newest love interest, Dr. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is very good in a thinly-written role, but still lives in the shadow of the mighty Eva Green).
I think I've narrowed down my major problems with Spectre to four areas [small spoiler warning!]:
1. The film sets up a mystery during the first hour+ involving Christoph Waltz's character Oberhauser, with oodles of intrigue and hints that he is connected to Bond's past. The film goes out of its way to tease him in just one scene until the big third act reveal, and that's when everything really goes to shit.
Waltz is supposed to mean as much to Bond as Silvia (Javier Bardem) meant to M in the previous film. And yet, this is possibly the least compelling, least believable villain Waltz has ever played. Maybe if he had been woven into the film more naturally throughout the first two acts (instead of leaving the villainy to Dave Bautista as the mostly mute muscleman Mr. Hinx, and Andrew Scott as the too obvious MI6 mole), they could have built more of a yin/yang connection between the two characters before the film turned into a full-blown cartoon (Goldeneye pulled this off wonderfully with Sean Bean's Alec Trevelyan and The Man With The Golden Gun did this with Christopher Lee's Scaramanga, so it CAN be done).
Instead, we are left with a third act that is both completely underwhelming (the ease of Bond's escape from Oberhauser's compound is insulting, to put it mildly) AND ludicrous (sigh, the white cat is back). They tried to have their cake and eat it, by re-introducing the goofy SPECTRE organization (complete with nameless employees bent on world domination and nary a hint of silliness or camp), and combine it with the already-established, much more grounded take on Bond.
2. And having heard director Sam Mendes go on at length about the complex juggling act that is creating one of these films, I think I understand why the third act is such a mess. As he put it: "If you're not careful, it's like buying the furniture to a house and there's no house, and then you have to design the house around the furniture, and it's a pretty ugly house, because everything in the wrong place."
Leaked documents while making the film back this up—the studio execs recognized as far back as last winter that the film started strong and didn't know how to top it off. So what did they decide to do to really up the ante? Reimagine the story (and Waltz's character in particular) as some sort of keystone figure who was guiding Bond's life and influencing all the missions over the four Craig films...retroactively. Watching him explain it onscreen is somehow even more awkward than my explanation.
3. The lack of Judi Dench. Her M was the emotional tether to Bond throughout Craig's movies, and she served as the second lead in the other films. The movie has a gaping hole where such a figure is needed, especially to guide/support/react to Craig's brutish/vulnerable take on Bond. Without Dench, none of the other supporting characters rise to the occasion. Ralph Fiennes' M could have been that character, but I completely forgot he was even in this movie for most of it.
4. It rehashes the same "Bond goes rogue! This time it's personal!" plot of the previous three films. At the point, the only movie in which Bond has been gainfully employed and dispatched by MI6 for a majority of the film is Casino. It'd be one thing if we saw Bond reaching out to his many acquaintances and friends over the years—whither Felix Leiter/Jeffrey Wright?—but instead, we get a Mission Impossible-style team (M, Q, Moneypenny) who don't actually do much (okay, Q does travel to Austria, but then he mostly disappears until the climax). It took 40 years for filmmakers to say, "maybe we should dip into Bond's backstory for new plot points," and only four films for me to walk out of the movie theater praying that the next film in the series is a regular old James Bond mission.
I think ultimately, I'm more disappointed than anything else—after smelling a whiff of continuity with the mysterious Quantum group, I was excited about how Mendes and the team could integrate a sinister global organization with a legendary head honcho into the current mythos (after all, Bond movies always like including a stab at realpolitik, whether it involves hacking or surveillance states). Unfortunately, it just didn't work this time. Maybe you need to have a sillier, brightly-colored Bond to be able to reconcile all this. Either way, I hope Craig really does return for one more Bond adventure, freed of the filmmakers' inclinations toward tying EVERYTHING together into a neat package. And even if it means sending Bond back into space, I'm willing to give it a try.