The 'Spectre' of burnout hovers over latest Bond film

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic

It's been 53 years since the first James Bond film, "Dr. No," arrived in theaters, and so many have followed in its wake that if you watched all of them back to back without a break, it would take two full days of your life. So if "Spectre," the 24th and latest Bond extravaganza, comes off as exhausted and uninspired — and it does — it's not without cause.

The Bond films' canny masterminds at Eon Productions are well aware that this kind of burnout is a possibility with a series this venerable, which is why there are frequent changes of both star (the current Bond, Daniel Craig, is the sixth they've hired) and director.

But like a baseball team leaving its starting pitcher in a World Series game too long (no names, please), the folks at Eon went to the well once too often with both Craig ("Spectre" is his fourth Bond) and director Sam Mendes, doing his second.

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Not even the addition of another writer (Jez Butterworth) to the team of John Logan plus Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, which wrote the previous, stronger "Skyfall," can shake the lassitude that hangs over a production with a budget that's been estimated in the $250-million to $300-million range.

Yes, some of the individual stunts and action set pieces temporarily hold our interest — at that cost, they'd better — but the story itself is not convincing on its own terms, playing like a series of boxes (Bond asking for a martini shaken not stirred) that need to be checked off and forgotten.

Part of the problem is that Craig, a potent actor whose resume includes Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and playing the poet Ted Hughes in "Sylvia," seems to be feeling increasingly strait-jacketed as Bond. When an actor tells a journalist, as Craig told Time Out London, that he'd rather "break this glass and slash my wrists" than play Bond one more time, that is not a good sign.

When Craig took on the role in 2006's "Casino Royale," his rougher-edged, less-flippant Bond felt like a breath of fresh air, but almost a decade later it's gone stale. Craig's expression is so unchanging it might as well be chiseled out of stone, and his emotionally uninvolved performance is similarly lacking in nuance.

In theory, director Mendes, whose previous films include the Oscar-winning "American Beauty," could have done something about this, but he may have been too busy worrying about the fearsome logistics of an enormous production that went to Mexico City, Rome, Austria and Morocco as well as London to be able expend much time on anything else.

Mexico City is where "Spectre" opens, on a Day of the Dead celebration so elaborate that it took 3 1/2 hours every shooting day to get the crowd of more than 1,500 extras prepared.

Though he turns out to be there unofficially, Bond is busy in Mexico City, stopping a terrorist plot, avoiding getting crushed by a collapsing building, commandeering a careening helicopter and, most important, getting hold of an important ring.

That metal band, with a symbol of a malignant-looking octopus on it, turns out to be the key to the rest of the plot. It's the symbol for Spectre, an organization that simply reeks of evil and must be stopped if humanity has any chance to survive and prosper.

Back home in London, Bond has other problems to deal with. His boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), is irked at his Mexican adventure ("I was taking some overdue holiday" is the agent's cheeky reply), and M's new boss, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the head of the Center for National Security and a worshiper at the altar of 24/7 surveillance, has the temerity to suggest that the double-0 program may be obsolete.

Nothing daunted, Bond calls on the help of old comrades Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), who, using the inevitable "cutting edge nano-technology," injects Agent 007 with "smart blood" that means he can be tracked down anywhere should he get into trouble, which is likely.

Thus empowered on his quest to stop Spectre, Bond encounters a number of folks, including a not-so-grieving widow (Monica Bellucci), a fellow assassin (Jesper Christensen) and Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a mysterious individual with unexpected links to Bond's past.

Bond also meets up with the assassin's stunning daughter, Madeleine Swann (fine French actress Lea Seydoux). Though actual chemistry between the two actors is hard to see, "Spectre" insists they fall madly in love. It's very much that kind of a film.



MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Playing: In general release

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