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Columbia Pictures

Spectre (2015)

Consistent screen universes are a mixed blessing — as proved by the smell of burnt wiring hanging over the film called "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — and it might have been better in the long run if James Bond had not caught the history bug. "Spectre" ties Daniel Craig's four Bond movies into a final fixed alignment, concluding the chain of events initiated in 2006 when Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) walked into "Casino Royale" and commented on his ass; and also gives the guy yet another layer of familial pain for the ongoing motivational pot. But in the process the film has a mild personality crisis, scared rigid at the prospect of there being any corner of Bond fandom not addressed by the current product and trying to build a machine that could appeal to every single vested interest in existence. A crazy, ambitious, expensive quest. And doomed.

The success of "Skyfall" seems to have posed Sam Mendes and his fellow filmmakers a problem that could not be solved. Was it the cinematic craft in all technical departments that made that film hit the jackpot, following on from the already sky-high production values of "Quantum of Solace" — the only Bond film that can legitimately be called beautiful? Or was it the return to a ludicrous supervillain plot in which schemes against British power lie dormant for years before exploding into life after appropriate bon mots, the kind of palaver "Quantum of Solace" and "Casino Royale" declined to go in for?

Unable to answer, "Spectre" decides to pile on more of everything: More cinematic expertise — especially from Thomas Newman's occasionally terrific score, again the antidote to a Hans Zimmer-style aural comfort blanket. More high-tech villainy, from the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), with a spotless torture chamber and a secret base in a crater. Most unexpectedly, more echoes of Roger Moore's suavely dire pickup routines, which Mr. Craig shrewdly delivers with acid unpleasantness. (Whatever history decides, the actor's ultimate contribution to 007 has been to play him as a bastard.) And more of your evening taken up, since "Spectre's" immense running time of 148 minutes seems there only to prove that the film means business.

In hindsight, all this began at the moment "Skyfall" allowed its villain Silva (Javier Bardem) to prance onstage for the climax in a helicopter gunship playing John Lee Hooker; a surrender to all the naturally campy lines of force that the franchise had by then spent two and three-quarter films uncomfortably sitting on. "Spectre" restarts the franchise's fixation with British influence, which is about the same as fixation with British decline. In the wake of Christopher Nolan this kind of thing must be played with a terribly straight face, so quite a bit of "Spectre" is occupied by a discussion of personal freedoms between M (Ralph Fiennes) — suddenly rather concerned about the exercise of state power, or at least about keeping it to himself — and newly-installed ministerial favorite C (Andrew Scott), who plans to combine the intelligence resources of nine nations into one British-approved system of command and control — an idea sure to resonate with anyone confounded by the British-approved system calculating his phone bill. "A terrible event can lead to something wonderful," says one advocate of worldwide surveillance, calling in from September 2001.

Perhaps sensing trouble, the filmmakers allowed the impression to spread that the casting of Monica Bellucci was a progressive act; so they will have to take the heat now that she's only in the film for five minutes and spends three of them undressing. Stephanie Sigman fares even worse, getting five seconds and one line. That leaves Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann as the only female character standing, completing the cycle by which the Craig Bonds have cast some fine actresses and intermittently found them things to do. Ms. Seydoux is never less than 100 percent alive, but brought low by a script that gives her character an ulcer of familial pain to match Bond's — although there's a nice moment when she just decides to get drunk and mock him, a route other Bond girls might have considered.

Mocking Bonds is easy; and "Spectre" turns out to be not all that interested in making it any harder. Weird to remember that in 1989 the whole franchise ground to a halt, derailed partly by the uncomfortable fact that it looked like a dinosaur next to "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" — weird, now that modern Bond is happy to consume its own stepchildren like "Mission: Impossible" rather than ignore them. But in the process, the individuality of Mr. Craig's first two Bonds has finally receded irrevocably over the horizon. There was a crazy five minutes back there when Quentin Tarantino wanted to make "Casino Royale"; where we would be now if that had happened is impossible to conceive, but it probably wouldn't be here.


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