The opening gambit of Spectre – the fourth outing in the reinvigorated-for-the-21st-century James Bond franchise – is absolutely spectacular. It begins with a long sequence in which the secret agent and a lady friend wend their way through raucous Day of the Dead revelers in Mexico City, through streets heaving with partiers, into a fancy hotel (where the party continues), up to a room. They are dressed for the mock-morbid mood, gloomy yet merry, and we catch that funereal contagion. And then it graduates to authentically thrilling. As Bond leaps out the hotel window and across rooftops to do a Secret Agent Thing, we are powerfully in the moment as he goes to work.
There is atmosphere to spare here, as well as humor and action-movie grace. It's exhilarating. If this is how Spectre begins, what amazing goodies does it have up its sleeve for the meat of the movie?
As it turns out, not much. Spectre never reaches that same pinnacle of movie-movie joy again; it's like director Sam Mendes steps out once the opening has unspooled, and leaves the rest to his understudy. The thin plot never catches fire, either. Underlying connections between all four films are laid out here ... and Spectre only moves Bond backward. The earlier films actively worked to make room for a Cold War relic like Bond in the new global paradigm. But now Spectre throws that all away.
In the immediate aftermath of the events of Skyfall, Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone rogue, chasing hints of a big bad guy around the globe, while back in London, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling with C (Andrew Scott), who is about to launch a new blanket electronic surveillance scheme that will replace the 00 program: something about drone warfare being more efficient than spies with a license to kill. It's an idea that the movie doesn't seem to know quite what to do with – Bond can be just as indiscriminate as a drone strike – but it does give 007 a literal ticking clock to race against.
Apart from occasional explosions of not entirely undiverting action – the plane-versus-SUV game of chicken is mildly amusing – Bond's globetrotting and spycraft are dreary and perfunctory this time around. Very little of the brains or verve of Casino Royale or Skyfall turns up here. There's nothing in the least bit surprising or unexpected about anything Bond uncovers on his journeys: If we are meant to be startled by the things he learns about the mysterious criminal organization called Spectre (we are offered no hint of what that name means) or its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the feeling fails to materialize. "You are a kite dancing in a hurricane," a bad guy tells Bond, which is wonderfully, poetically sinister, implying that Bond cannot hope to defeat the menace he is up against. But we never see a Spectre that lives up to that.
Everyone might as well be enacting a Bond puppet show, which sometimes descends into ickiness, as in Monica Bellucci's sequence. Her character is superfluous except for Bond to mechanically bed, as if part of a box-ticking exercise for Essential Bond Scenes: They've barely met before they engage in the unsexiest grappling imaginable, and then her character is completely forgotten, never spoken of or seen again. Even the second-best section of the film, after Mexico City, eventually trips over itself with awkward Bondian self-consciousness. It starts out all desert romanticism, classy and smart and funny, as Bond and the daughter (Léa Seydoux) of one of his old enemies travel in and around Tangiers in search of Spectre's HQ. Then the mood is lost with the deployment of what is perhaps meant to be a sort of punchline, but might as well be a placard that reads Insert Obligatory Sex Scene Here.
Of course the sex is as empty and as bloodless and as tween-friendly as the violence, which is a particular problem here when there's nothing but old-school Bond sex and violence on offer. And yet little here works on the level of nostalgia, either. It just feels trite and tired. Which is a particular disappointment for a series that had, until now, avoided that trap.