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SPECTRE

**1/2

DIRECTED BY Sam Mendes

STARS Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz

While it might feel like the specter of SPECTRE has been with us throughout all five decades-plus of James Bond’s cinematic exploits, the actuality is that pesky copyright issues prevented this league of extraordinarily evil gentlemen, an international organization headed by one Ernst Stavro Blofeld, from appearing in any of the James Bond films since that initial 10-year stretch when Sean Connery essayed the role (though there is that clever opening from the 1981 Roger Moore entry For Your Eyes Only, where a nameless bald villain in a wheelchair gets unceremoniously dumped down a chimney).

But agreements have been reached, papers have been signed, money has switched hands, and now the outfit (whose acronym stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) finds itself back for active duty in SPECTRE, the 24th film in the established 007 canon – and, alas, the first Daniel Craig outing to qualify as a disappointment.

The pre-credits sequence, set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations, gets the movie off to an exciting start. Bond’s brief time south of the border finds him foiling a stadium explosion, wrestling with a villain for control of a spiraling helicopter, and locating the clues necessary to continue his globetrotting – and, it should be noted, completely unsanctioned – mission that remains a secret from M (Ralph Fiennes) and all other special branch operatives with the eventual exceptions of Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw). Bond’s sleuthing ultimately uncovers a criminal network whose leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), sports some interesting ties to his own past.

Craig’s previous Bond pictures – the superb Casino Royale, the criminally underrated Quantum of Solace and the supremely satisfying Skyfall – were all of a piece, with plot elements carrying over into each subsequent film and the movies working beautifully as a self-contained trilogy. The decision to shoehorn SPECTRE into that narrative proves to be a disastrous one, as a perfectly engaging 120 or so minutes is then run into the ground for a wince-inducing final half-hour of unfortunate developments.

The link between Oberhauser and Bond’s past is moronic in the extreme – the overreach and the absurdity of the relationship brings to mind MAD’s spoof of the Star Wars saga, where it was revealed that not only was Darth Vader Luke’s father and Leia his twin sister, but C-3PO was his twin brother, Chewbacca his dog and R2-D2 the family’s Hoover vacuum cleaner. Yes, the big reveal is that ludicrous.

SPECTRE still has time to right itself, but the subsequent set-pieces are alternately jumbled, silly and tiresome, with the final bang coming off as a pale whimper to that excellent opening. It’s too bad, because what SPECTRE provides during its initial two hours is sound – and potent enough to still earn this a modest recommendation. The subtle references to past franchise entries are pleasant (From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only and more), and the strain of sly humor frequently found in the series is present here (love Craig’s reaction following his couch trip).

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t return following his Oscar-nominated stint on Skyfall, but the picture’s nevertheless in excellent hands, with ace DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar) nailing every visual beat (there’s a wide tracking shot during the opening scene that’s staggering to behold).

And while Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista (as the brutish henchman Hinx) is the only cast newcomer to make an impression – Waltz is shockingly bland as the Bond master villain, nowhere near as menacing as Inglourious Basterds’ grinning Nazi, while Lea Seydoux is the dullest Bond woman in a long time – repeat performers like Harris, Whishaw and Jesper Christensen (as the elusive Mr. White) continue to register strongly.

As for Craig, he’s still the best Bond since Connery, though it’s uncertain how much longer he’ll remain with the franchise. He certainly needs to hang around for at least one more picture, as it would be unfortunate if his swan song turned out to be an entry that, while overall enjoyable, doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the series’ all-time highs.

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