Connecting the Daniel Craig-starring Bond films and tying them up nicely, SPECTRE is filled with fantastic stunts and the understated dark humor we've come to expect, though the reveal and utilization of its main villain (a popular figure from Bond films past) are poorly squandered in the film's messy third act.
Director Sam Mendes returns after the groundbreaking success of his Skyfall to bring us what feels definitely like a conclusion to Daniel Craig's involvement in the James Bond franchise. Characters from the other three of Craig's films are mentioned and tied in with SPECTRE, showing that, throughout the four film reboot of the series, we indeed have been subject to a continuing story, which is very unlike the Bond films of decades past that acted as one-offs in the echelon of the late Albert Broccoli's brain child. And therein lies some of the problems of this film.
Before I get into too many negatives, I would like to state the positive. First off, the film had a HOLY SHIT $245 million dollar production budget, and a lot of it shows on screen. Many practical stunts were used involving helicopter acrobatics, broken planes skiing down Austrian slopes, and extended car chase scenes with rare, expensive vehicles. EXPLOSIONS GALLORE (Michael Bay would be proud)!! The production value of this film is high, and the level of planning involved in the long, seemingly one-take tracking shot that opened the film alone is something to be marveled at. Even the opening titles with the Sam Smith-sung "Writing's on the Wall" set a very dark and thematic tone for the film that fits the atmosphere of the narrative that followed.
Speaking of the theme song, of the four Daniel Craig films it is probably my least favorite, but I liked it more once I heard it in the context of the film and with the always-cool and creative opening credits sequence that is traditional with all James Bond films. When I heard the song out of context days before the film's release, I absolutely hated it and felt that it was very un-Bondian in nature. But, when I finally heard it on the big screen, it surprisingly fit in really well and made me respect it more..
Dave Bautista is also a high point for the film, portraying a quiet, Jaws-like behemoth of a villainous henchman that delivers some awesome moments of hand-to-hand destruction. His character was probably one of the very few things that truly made SPECTRE feel like a 007 film. Which brings me to the main villain (whose name I will not reveal, but will be quite the reveal for those fans of older Bond films) played by the great Christoph Waltz...
...and it pains me to say that, despite this two-time Oscar-winning actor's credentials, had the unfortunate part of playing a villain with such little to do (especially when compared to Javier Bardem's awesome work in Skyfall) and delivering lines and mannerisms that a couple dozen other lesser actors could easily have done with little to no difference in quality of character. Waltz's character was someone I knew would show up the moment I heard they titled this film SPECTRE, and the moment we are treated with what I came to expect, the reveal and circumstances, as well as the stakes to James Bond's safety, are underutilized and ultimately convoluted in plotting and purpose. The full power of Waltz's villain is told to the audience, but ultimately isn't really shown, nor are we put in a position to really feel ultimate danger from this man. All of this is quite unfortunate, given that earlier in the film, we are delighted to see his silhouetted self creeping up the atmosphere while sitting at a large boardroom meeting with other bad people, seemingly making them all shit their pants with how apparently evil he is. I just wish we could have been given more of him for us to fear, especially given the fact that he was apparently the boss of all the villains in the previous three films.
On top of that, the film is entirely too long. At 148 minutes, there were many scenes I felt could have been trimmed down for the sake of tightening up the flow of the film, making me feel that the film was trying to be more epic and ambitious than it really was. Outside of its large action scenes, there is very little in this film to ponder. Even during the first big car chase, there were a couple humorous moments for us to enjoy, but overall the chase was far longer than it needed to be and came across as just being an action scene for the sake of being an action scene in an action movie about spy action.
Much of what made Skyfall an Oscar-winning film is missing from SPECTRE. The script feels a bit rushed in its conclusion, never really satisfying at the end. The story strongly involves the theme of spying via technology rather than the "analog" choice of a 00-agent, but all of that is used rather minimally in the shape of the film's plot. There are a few little dumb moments involving the lack of disarming a world-renowned British agent and just why the hell the choice of meeting between hero and villain in the middle of the desert, but again, a lot of these choice story moments are used to propel the action more than the plot itself.
In the end, the Bond women are good looking, Daniel Craig is suave as hell, but the main villain didn't quite fit into this darker, post 9-11 version of the spy franchise. Had the films abandoned the need to darken and make "more real" the stories in the wake of Batman Begins and other colorful properties that once relied on slight camp and humor more than death and destruction, Christoph Waltz's character would have sat happily in a secret base hovering over the middle of a distant ocean location, hidden from spy satellites and government observation, and awaiting Dr. Evil-like world domination. Unfortunately, his power is reduced to the common cliche of the modern villain relying too much on technology, while the hero gets his rocks off shooting and punching the shit out of some bad guys.
+ High-octane chase sequences
+ Good intro
+ Daniel Craig's perfection as Bond
+ Dave Bautista
+ Underutilized main villain
+ Main theme of George Orwell-ian proportions is muddled
+ Too long
+ Rushed, pointless final act
In order of preference, I place SPECTRE fourth on my list of the best of Daniel Craig's 007 films:
#1 - Casino Royale (****)
#2 - Skyfall (***1/2)
#3 - Quantum of Solace (***)
#4 - SPECTRE (**1/2)