Because women are particularly beguiling when viewed from behind, the camera loves to follow them: Anyone who’s watched James Stewart’s lovesick detective trailing Kim Novak, a platinum dream poured into a pale gray flannel hourglass, understands the voyeurism at the heart of Vertigo. With Spectre — the 24th James Bond picture and the fourth and probably final one to feature Daniel Craig as 007 — director Sam Mendes takes a tip, perhaps unwittingly, from Hitchcock, as well as from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil: The picture opens in Mexico City with a regal, ambitious, Wellesian tracking shot that begins in the midst of a Day of the Dead parade and eventually finds its way to Craig’s Bond, standing in the crowd.
He’s wearing a holiday-appropriate costume, a sexy-threatening skull mask and a black topcoat with a silkscreened skeleton’s spine winding up the back. There’s a masked beauty on his arm, but who’s looking at her? The camera trails the couple as they trek through the reveling masses, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off that spine, a sensuous, rippling, imaginary X-ray of the man beneath. Why, oh why, don’t real 3-D glasses — the ones advertised in the backs of comic books and sold to young boys hoping to see through women’s clothes — actually exist?
We don’t really need to see through Daniel Craig’s clothes, because eventually he does take at least some of them off. But dressed or un-, he’s the chief pleasure to be had in Spectre, along with the joys of gazing at the feral-flower beauty of Léa Seydoux (as Madeleine Swann, the headstrong psychologist Bond falls for), Monica Bellucci (who appears only briefly, as an Italian widow in a merry widow) and the radiant charmer Naomie Harris (who again plays MI6 administrative assistant Miss Moneypenny, although like most administrative assistants, she’s sorely underappreciated and given only unimportant things to do).
Spectre on the whole is gorgeous, shot — by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — in a bevy of locales including sandy-gold Morocco, glowing, gray-marble Rome, the winter-white Austrian Alps, and, of course, dazzling, polychrome Mexico City. Every action sequence is beautifully staged and edited clearly: There’s a rough-and-tumble dust-up set in a train’s dining car and a breathtaking midair scuffle in which the two principals dangle precariously from a flying helicopter. Mendes and his screenwriters (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) give us multiple villains to thrill to and hate, one played by appealing muscleman Dave Bautista, another by Christoph Waltz, who’s perfectly fine if you’re not yet tired of his trademark death’s-head grin. This isn’t your average James Bond movie; it’s more of a SuperBond, packed with all sorts of things you didn’t know you wanted — but also with things you don’t really need.
Because in the end, Spectre is just too much of a good thing. Though each scene is carefully wrought, there’s little grace, majesty or romance in the way the pieces are connected. The whole is bumpy and inelegant — entertaining for sure, but hard to love. It’s easy to see how all this aggressive splendor could fall flat: Both Mendes and Craig have said in interviews that they were nervous about being able to top the over-the-topness of 2012’s rich, resonant Skyfall, Mendes’ first film in the franchise; Craig has also said that he’s “done” with James Bond, and though that could be exhaustion speaking, it’s easy to see how the excesses of Spectre might cause anyone to say enough.
The shaky plot mechanics don’t help: Acting on a tip from his late, and beloved, boss M (Judi Dench, who appears here only in a small, moving snippet of video), Bond goes rogue to root out the mysterious head of bad-guy syndicate SPECTRE. In the process, he flagrantly disobeys his new boss (played with bespoke tastefulness by Ralph Fiennes) and messes up the beautiful Aston Martin DB10 he’s stolen from fidgety gadget mastermind Q (an adorable Ben Whishaw, dressed in a series of amazing jackets, in plum tweeds and dark-blue windowpane-checks). Meanwhile, an evil new boss (Andrew Scott, of Sherlock) has taken over MI6 with plans to dissolve it. There’s enough plot here for six movies, and Spectre groans under the weight. Mendes has dropped in some lovely details that nearly get lost: Not surprisingly, Bond’s underfurnished bachelor-spy apartment is lacking in tchotchkes, but we do get a glimpse of a miniature bulldog figurine, its back adorned with a Union Jack, that in the old days used to sit on M’s desk.
Touches like that personalize a living space, and they help humanize Bond, too. If this really is Craig’s last go-round in a 007 dinner jacket and bow tie, let’s make the most of it by objectifying his beauty to the max. Let’s drink in the sight of him standing alone in the window of his apartment, gazing at the twilight London view beyond — he’s in his shirtsleeves, his gun holster still strapped across his back. We can’t see his face, but we know he’s brooding. This is how Craig’s Bond unwinds, when he unwinds, which is hardly ever. In those pre-Spectre interviews Craig expressed boredom with the 007 character, but if that’s the case, he’s a good enough actor that his ennui serves the performance. When Bond scowls, we see a man dissatisfied with himself; when he strokes Madeleine’s cheek, he’s shutting off, if only for a few moments, the almost relentless macho current that drives him. This scrappy bulldog Bond is tired, but he’s also capable of tenderness. And no matter how frustrating or exhausting Spectre may be, there’s nothing but sadness to be felt in watching him walk away.