'Spectre' stays in the shadow of earlier spy films

Latest, longest Bond film delivers spectacle but feels stale

We require a lot from 007 these days.

After 53 years and about 25 movies (give or take some unauthorized outings), the James Bond films carry conflicting demands. They have to honor a legacy of spy entertainment that goes back for decades, while still feeling fresh for 21st century audiences. They must tell stories that stand on their own while having a coherent continuity between them. They have to present a fantasy of violent, womanizing, hard-living lifestyle without being too gross about it.

When Daniel Craig took over Bond's tuxedo and gadgets in 2006, the films set an even higher standard. The series began to explore the emotional dimensions of Bond's character and relationships, with great results, as Casino Royale and the previous film Skyfall became two of the best in the series. The latest, Spectre, delivers a lavish spy spectacle that still buckles under its expectations, despite the proven cast and creative team.

Directed by Skyfall's Sam Mendes, Spectre begins with a remarkable uninterrupted tracking shot through a Mexican Day of the Dead parade, up an elevator and out onto a ledge — an introduction that ranks with the Bond films' best. After some requisite chases and explosions, we learn that Bond is following the final orders of the deceased spymaster M. While M's replacement (Ralph Fiennes) wants to keep Bond on a short leash, 007 enlists the help of Moneypenny and Q (Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw) to track down a sinister secret organization with an octopus insignia.

Hopscotching between such locales as London, Rome, Austria, and Tangiers, Bond eventually infiltrates a board meeting of the group known as "Spectre." Its soft-spoken leader (Christoph Waltz) presides while literally cloaked in shadow as an intimidating enforcer (Guardians of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista) demonstrates his lethal prowess. Spectre's first act introduces some potentially great villains and high stakes, but then struggles to sustain its momentum over a two and a half-hour running time (the longest in the franchise's history).

Bond gets one clue by wooing a widow in some brief, skeevy sequences that waste the screen presence of Monica Bellucci. Later he inadvertently endangers, then rescues, Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, a psychologist trying to escape an underworld connection. Seydoux proves as gorgeous as any "Bond girl" and, while she lacks the chemistry with Craig of Casino Royale's Eva Green, the character challenges Bond's self-conception: why is he a government assassin, and what would he do if he wasn't?

Spectre focuses more on familiar spy shenanigans than psychology. A shake-up at MI6 sees the rise of a new executive whom Bond calls "C" (played by Andrew Scott of "Sherlock"), who not only wants to eliminate the 00 program, but advocates for international intelligence sharing system that could destroy global privacy. The idea has clear real-world ramifications, but also resembles the hook of too many other recent spy films, including Furious 7 and earlier Bond entries.

Mendes' direction brings an operatic dimension to the franchise, not just in the photography, locations and sets, but in the dynamics of the main characters. Skyfall created juicy mother-son-style tension between Bond, M, and the bad guy that led back to Bond's origins. Spectre's script seeks to reveal similarly deep-rooted secrets while connecting the dots with the previous Craig films, but the approach fizzles. The big twists could be edited from the film without having an impact on the story, even though Waltz seems to be born to play a Bond villain.

Craig has recently expressed exhaustion with the Bond films, and the Internet seems eager to recast the role with the likes of Idris Elba. He still plays Bond with understated panache. Craig can fall down multiple levels of a collapsing building with only a frown of irritation, while allowing himself the tiniest smile after saving hundreds of innocents. If the film was the actor's first outing after Die Another Day, Spectre would be perfectly satisfying but, as it is, Craig will hopefully get a stronger send-off. (3 out of 5 stars)

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