In theaters Friday, Nov. 6
2 stars (out of 4 stars)
James Bond isn’t just a name.
Since 1962, it’s been a primo luxury brand that signifies world-class glamour, cheeky British humor, and spectacular thrills. There’s a difference between a female love interest and a Bond Girl; same for a soundtrack song versus a Bond Theme. The assembly parts may change but the connotations do not.
Alas, you won’t find much of the above in an installment that disappoints by virtue of its total roteness. Not nearly as exhilarating as 2012’s Skyfall or as horrid as 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it just sort of hangs there. Like a License to Chill. And though the film is poised to rake at the box office, it won’t leave you shaken or stirred.
It starts off with such promise, too. In a high-flying opener that takes place during the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, dashing Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) effortlessly glides off a crumbling roof and maneuvers a crashing helicopter without tearing a single hole in his tailored suit. After a sensual title sequence (set to Sam Smith’s unmemorable “Writing’s On the Wall”), the convoluted narrative lands with a thud.
Bond is now on the outs with his organization. But he sneaks off from London to Rome anyway — via a state-of-the-art Aston Martin — to track down the origins of a man he killed during the Day of the Dead. The man’s widow (Monica Bellucci in a throwaway role) tips him off to a meeting of a shady crime syndicate called Spectre. Or maybe it’s SPECTRE. Either way, these bad guys want to launch a surveillance network, and all its members wear a ring engraved with an octopus.
He soon encounters lead foe Franz Oberhauser (sinister villain extraordinaire Christoph Waltz), who spends his downtime in a meteor crater and rueing about a lost childhood. It gets weirder: After the two finally have their tete-a-tete, Franz straps Bond in a chair that's hooked up to an elaborate machine and drills into his brain to remove his memories. It's a peculiar scene ripe for spoofing in a future Austin Powers movie. (Speaking of Powers, Franz’s true identity — this is a mild spoiler — is Dr. Evil-esque.)
Where’s the freshness here? Even the No. 2 plot, about the double-0 agency, is a leftover from this summer’s Mission: Impossible film. Once again, a bigwig (Agent C, in this case) wants to dismantle the organization because of its expensive, headache-inducing overhead. Drones can do the same job, and they don’t crash expensive cars in the river. Ben Whishaw’s delightful Q is the equivalent of Simon Pegg’s Benji as both lanky British characters provide covert technical assistance to the gone-rogue hero, as well as much-needed comic relief.
Yes, we’re in the information age. The threat of drone warfare is timely, blah blah. But in a James Bond movie, technological power does not make for an intriguing enemy. The idea of it lacks vitality, not to mention any sort of emotional heft.
The dry story might pass muster if the franchise’s hallmarks went down as smooth as a martini. Yet the action sequences are uninspired and too familiar. We know the flashy car chase is inevitable, and sure enough, Bond and Franz’s henchman ride through the empty streets of Rome. There’s an endless shoot-out on a train (shades of Skyfall). And while the opening crashing-helicopter scene is a knockout, director Sam Mendes tests his audience’s goodwill with a second helicopter-in-peril sequence two hours later! Meanwhile, Bond’s cipher of a romantic foil (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of an assassin, shares scant chemistry with the hero. When she tells him that she’s not interested in a liaison, you believe her. This couple may both possess impressively high cheekbones and Euro-coolness, but they don’t bring the heat.
Maybe she can sense the weariness behind those blue eyes: In Craig’s fourth outing, his restlessness in the role is evident. He’s never been more stoic or dry — a waiter that serves him a protein enzyme-enhanced drink pisses him off! If he wants out, he’s not doing an impressive job of hiding it. Blah. Very blah.
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