“Spectre”: The shadow of “Skyfall” falls over the new Bond film

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“Spectre” opens Friday in Point, Palace, AMC Fitchburg and Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 2:28, three stars out of four.

In the Daniel Craig era, we’ve seen two of the best James Bond films ever (“Casino Royale” and “Skyfall”) and one of the worst (“Quantum of Solace”). But we’ve never seen a middle-of-the-pack, conventional James Bond film yet.

Until “Spectre.” Don’t get me wrong — the pleasures of middle-of-the-pack Bond have been vast and enduring to me over the years, the essential stuff of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies and weekend matinees with Dad. And so it is in “Spectre,” which contains clever action sequences, spectacular locales, colorful baddies, and another assured performance by Craig in his fourth outing as 007. It’s just that the suit seems to fit him maybe a little too well this time.

Returning director Sam Mendes created one of the best pre-credits sequences ever with “Skyfall,” and he comes close here, starting off Bond in Mexico City in the middle of a Day of the Dead parade, sporting a skeleton costume and top hat. The sequence goes from a sinuous several-minutes long single take propelled by Latin rhythms, to a rip-roaring fight on a helicopter that’s doing loop-de-loops above a crowded city square. Great stuff.

We soon learn that Bond was in Mexico City on his own, for reasons that neither M (Ralph Fiennes) nor Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are aware of. This is the trump card of “Spectre” — Bond is on his own mission this time, and one that the audience isn’t privy to the details of until we’re well into the film. All we know is that it involves a cryptic message from the previous M (Judi Dench), a few old Bond family photos, and a ring with a sinister octopus-like design on it.

Bond’s investigation, begrudgingly helped off the books by Q (the always wonderful Ben Whishaw), takes him to Rome, where he dallies with the widow (Monica Bellucci) of the man he killed in Mexico City, then to Austria, for a reunion with an old “friend” from earlier Bond movies. “Spectre” contains some of the best pure action sequences of the Craig era, including a high-spirited car chase through Rome and a vicious fistfight aboard a train that’s a clear “From Russia With Love” homage. (Homages to previous Bond films abound this time out, including a visit to a mountaintop clinic like the one in “On Her Majestic’s Secret Service” and a mute Jaws-like henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista)).

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As Bond moves closer to the shadowy organization that gives the film its title, led by a man (Christoph Waltz) with whom 007 seems to share some unpleasant history with, back in London M is dealing with a hostile takeover of the 00 branch by his smarmy supervisor C (Andrew Scott of “Sherlock”). “Spectre” continues the trend of recent Bond movies by having his supervisors all claim that the secret agent is a dinosaur in the Age of Information (and now drones), only to have the dinosaur in his white tuxedo end up saving the day again.

Mendes has the confidence to hang back and let a scene breathe a little, let a mood develop, such as when Bond is facing off over a chessboard with that Austrian friend, or a very witty scene where, on sentry duty, Bond starts interrogating a mouse. (“Who sent you?”) But the lines aren’t as sharp as they were in “Skyfall” or “Casino,” and Craig doesn’t quite make his stamp on the character this time, keeping the tough-guy vulnerability we’ve seen before under wraps. (His romance with a doctor, played by Lea Seydoux, feels perfunctory.) Too often, longtime Bond fans watching “Spectre” find themselves with the familiar feeling of waiting for an expository scene to be over so we can get back to the good stuff.

And there’s lots of good stuff in “Spectre,” to be sure. But this isn’t the Pierce Brosnan era. The franchise has done better under Craig, so we can be forgiven for raising our expectations a little now. The one saving grace is that this is probably not the one that Craig wants to go out on, so we can hopefully count on at least one more film with him as 007.

 

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