Remember when Bond movies were fun?
With a wink at the world and a playful attitude toward 007's legendary sexual prowess, Bond movie etched themselves into pop-cultural immortality -- which in this instance means 53 years of entertainment.
Now comes Spectre, the 24th film in the series that will not die. No expense has been spared to fill Spectre with action, exotic locations and IMAX-worthy scale.
But this time, a dizzying pre-credit sequence -- set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City -- proves the most exciting part of the movie.
Amassing a crowd of extras reported to number about 1,500, director Sam Mendes guides Daniel Craig's Bond through an escapade that finds 007 scampering over roofs and elbowing his way through crowds of revelers in skeleton costumes. He finally hops onto a helicopter for a white-knuckle battle with an ugly villain.
The movie's opening gives you the feeling that this edition of Bond is going to blow the roof off the theater, thanks in part to spectacularly good design: Mexican rhythms, the traditional Bond theme and an amazingly fluid camera blend in ways that let you know that some very talented people are at the controls.
It's an opening that's tough to match -- and director Mendes, who directed the far better Skyfall -- never tops it.
Mendes seems to have approached Spectre with the same dutiful seriousness that infects Craig in his fourth outing as Britain's most legendary spy.
Many critics applauded the dark hues that Craig brought to the Bond series when he took over the job in 2006's Casino Royale. Craig made Bond credible in a post 9/11 world -- or so the argument went. Glowering menace seemed preferable to nonchalant ease.
Is it possible that this approach has worn out its welcome?
Let's look at some of the elements:
-- Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) comes across as a more life-sized Bond girl than some, but Bond movies tend to be at their best when nothing about them seems life-sized or attainable.
-- Monica Bellucci plays an intriguingly sexy widow, but she's not around long enough to spice things up.
-- And the Bond villain? Christoph Waltz picks up the bad-guy cudgel as the head of Spectre, the organization that's threatening the world.
Poor Waltz. He'll never top the terrifyingly polite SS guy he played in Inglorious Bastards. Here, he again opts for understatement, which may have been his only choice, but he's neither frightening nor arch enough to fill the bill.
-- Ralph Fiennes brings near-actuarial sternness to the role of M.
-- Ben Whishsaw holds his own as the inventive Q, the character in charge of the movie's gadgetry.
-- Naomi Harris, who plays Moneypenny, might be the closest the movie gets to finding a good, old-fashioned Bond beauty. She takes care of Bond business with no-nonsense efficiency and welcome traces of worldly wit.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema leans toward a sepia-tinged palette that reinforces the movie's more-or-less serious tone, a tone which -- by the way -- a cluttered plot can't really support.
As for Craig: He's brusque, sometimes raw in his expression of emotion. He gives Bond the force of a blunt blow to the head.
There also are suggestions that Bond is an assassin who never really has thought much about what he does, an interesting attempt to give the character some existential lift, but is this really what we want from Bond?
Look, many of the important elements can be found in Spectre: action, killer clothes, romantic dinners on speeding trains, globe-hopping and one ogre-like villain (Dave Bautista's Hinx) who rises to the occasion, something accomplished only intermittently by this overly long helping of Bond.