It all starts so well. The 24th installment of the 007 series kicks off with a bravura tracking shot that swoops and weaves through Mexico City's throngs during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The camera picks out a white-suited man with his hair scraped back into a disreputable bun, before joining a couple as they walk purposefully through the crowds. They both wear masks. But it's clear from her bearing that she is beautiful. And it's clear from his tailoring that he is James Bond.
We follow them upstairs to a bedroom, where the masks are shed. But then Bond slips out of the open window, leaving his companion unfulfilled and disappointed. And for all the dizzying impact of this extended pre-titles action sequence -- with its building surfing and helicopter wrangling -- ultimately, she is the character with whom we end up identifying. The thrills here are empty. "Spectre" is a frustratingly unsatisfying experience.
Almost from the moment that the title sequence ends, the picture's shortcomings are laid bare. Whereas "Skyfall" explored the emotional backstory of the world's most famous secret agent and served up unexpected pathos along with the action, "Spectre" is all about the set pieces. Character development and dialogue both come in at a distant joint second place. An encounter with M (Ralph Fiennes) is a cold, stilted affair that seems more about ticking off plot points -- namely, Bond's suspension and the introduction of C (Andrew Scott), the new head of the joint security service -- than it is with creating a flowing scene.
Despite being grounded -- Q (Ben Whishaw) has injected Bond with something called "smart blood," an intravenous tracking device which allows the powers that be to know his movements at all times -- Bond manages to steal a multi-million dollar Aston Martin prototype and smuggle it to Rome before anybody notices. Here he encounters Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci), the not-so-grieving widow of the man he killed in Mexico. It's a throwaway role, offering little other than plot point delivery and joylessly routine seduction, and Bellucci handles it more with resignation than any great conviction.
But Lucia gives Bond a vital clue, which sends him to a meeting of the shady organization that turns out to be SPECTRE. There he first encounters his ultimate foe: softly spoken sociopath Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), alias ... well, let's just say he has a penchant for white Persian cats. We are also introduced to this episode's formidable evil henchman: Mr. Jinx (Dave Bautista), who demonstrates his fitness for the position by thumbing his rival's eyeballs out of their sockets during the interview.
It's an auspicious start to the job, but like so much else in this film, Mr. Jinx invites us to reference past Bond movies, only to end up lesser by comparison. He lacks the amiable relentlessness of Jaws or the stylish efficiency of Oddjob. In fairness, there was not much Bautista could do to flesh out the role. He only gets one word of dialogue.
Mr. Jinx does get to pursue Bond through the streets of Rome at night in a car chase which is notable for the fact that the streets are eerily deserted. This Bond film is empty, both emotionally and literally. There's a later encounter on a luxury train which seems to have only three passengers, all of whom are trying to kill each other.
In what may or may not be his final outing in the role, Craig remains one of the series' main assets. His Bond is permanently pissed off. His reaction to anything -- shrapnel, heavy traffic, sexual attraction -- is a grimace of irritation. He is paired with Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, the daughter of an assassin. It's a photogenic match but it lacks the screen-melting chemistry he shared with Eva Green in "Casino Royale."
Perhaps it's unavoidable since there have been so many double-O outings before this one, but "Spectre" frequently feels as though it is picking over the corpses of the films that came before. The Day of the Dead opener, for example, evokes the New Orleans funeral parade at the start of "Live And Let Die." And a needlessly complicated brain-drilling contraption that Bond finds himself strapped into is every bit as inefficient as Auric Goldfinger's laser castration device.
Fittingly, it is information, rather than some genocidal superweapon, which is the threat to humanity in this installment. A global surveillance network is about to be launched -- and the film rather quaintly suggests that a global surveillance network is something you can just switch off by fiddling around on a laptop for a few minutes, but that aside, the idea is timely and perhaps not too far removed from the truth.
"Spectre" is strongest is when it explores the central theme: What is the point of men like Bond in an era where information is power and drones can do his job without racking up an eye-watering bar tab and dry cleaning bill? Is he an outmoded relic of a bygone age? While the character's relevance may still be subject for debate, the franchise doesn't do its best work at justifying its continued existence this time around.