Bond faces the 'Spectre' of government surveillance (review)

The latest 007 adventure sees the superspy in a playful mood, battling budget cuts and an enemy from his past. Here's our spoiler-free review.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Watch this: 'Spectre' review: Bond's license to thrill intact in 'solid' Skyfall sequel

James Bond, 007, has always been known for his handy gadgets, but in his latest adventure, "Spectre", technology is the enemy.

"Spectre" is the 24th movie in the official James Bond series and could be the last to star Daniel Craig as England's top secret agent. Bond and his chums could be out of a job too, faced with cuts in favour of the all-seeing eye of technological surveillance -- which puts a serious crimp in Bond's attempts to track down a shadowy organisation that may have its roots in his own past.

Luckily, Bond has a few tech flourishes of his own. Craig's era has so far been pretty light on cool kit, but gadget-master Q, drily played by Ben Whishaw, has an expanded role in "Spectre". Among the tech toys is Bond's new ride, a fully specced-out (or should that be spectre-d out?) Aston Martin DB10 equipped with increasingly ludicrous extras.

See inside James Bond's custom Aston Martin DB10 from 'Spectre' (pictures)

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A clenched fist draped in sleek curves, the muscular DB10 is a perfect metaphor for Craig's Bond at this point. After 10 years in the role, Craig is at his most relaxed and confident here, finally adding a playful smirk and witty quips to the dour scowling of his earlier outings "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace".

That confidence is on display right off the bat in a bravura tracking shot of 007 swaggering along a rooftop high above a Day of the Dead fiesta in Mexico. A corking helicopter fight quickly ensues, while another action highlight is a bruising train-set punch-up that evokes the classic scrap in "From Russia with Love".

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Ben Whishaw (seated) and Daniel Craig battle against technological surveillance in "Spectre". Jonathan Olley/Eon Productions

"Spectre" also harks back to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "Live and Let Die" and "The Man with the Golden Gun", and with Craig in lighter mood it's his most old-school outing yet. Except in one important regard: the plot.

In the old days you used to know what a Bond movie was about -- 10 minutes in, a posh old bloke would literally tell you what it was about, before dispatching Commander Bond to sort things out sharpish. Since Daniel Craig shrugged into Bond's impeccable wardrobe it's been getting harder and harder to actually describe what each film is about, and that's the biggest problem with "Spectre". The previous 007 adventure " Skyfall" grippingly raised the stakes by eschewing the traditional megalomaniacal world-dominating supervillain for a bad guy with a very personal purpose, and "Spectre" doubles down on that idea, reaching into Bond's past. But while venturing into overwrought psychological waters, the film stretches out a thin story to breaking point.

"Spectre" feels like the "Dark Knight Rises", if "Skyfall" is Bond's "The Dark Knight". "Skyfall" and "The Dark Knight" both took established characters -- Bond and Batman -- and mined their psychological anguish by pitting them against a manipulative villain more interested in getting into their heads than taking over the world. Both stories creaked under scrutiny but the tightly wound action and magnetic villains carried them through, with mesmerising performances from Javier Bardem and Heath Ledger as villains Silva and the Joker.

"The Dark Knight Rises" took things further, pushing Batman into even more philosophical and psychological territory -- but at the expense of logic and coherence. The same is true of the psychological shenanigans of "Spectre", especially as it meanders past the two-hour mark. And unlike "Dark Knight Rises", "Spectre" doesn't have a compelling villain like Bane to anchor it.

As the main baddie, Christoph Waltz is as irresistible as ever, but his shadowy villain is only effective when he's actually in the shadows. As the bland government mandarin trying to administrate Bond out of existence, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from "Sherlock") overdoes the moustache-twirling in a vain attempt to hide how banal his character is. And as the muscle, Dave Bautista is a charisma void, built like a brick outhouse and blessed with the same charm. Where's Jaws when you need him?

There's still a lot to like -- it is a Bond film after all. Visually "Spectre" is a worthy successor to the sophisticated palette of "Skyfall", especially in the surreal Day of the Dead scenes, a sumptuously shot sojourn to Italy and in the return of the sinister Spectre boardroom. Monica Bellucci burns up the screen in her all-too-short appearance while Léa Seydoux is a sensual foil to Craig's Bond. And the film plays like a greatest hits of Craig's tenure, should this prove to be his swansong.

But overall, "Spectre" can be summed up by its anaemic theme song from perennially-on-the-verge-of-tears warbler Sam Smith: trying to be like "Skyfall" only more so, it ends up not as good.

"Spectre" is in UK cinemas on 26 October, in US theatres on 6 November, and in Australia on 12 November.