‘SPECTRE’ review: Daniel Craig at ease as an imperfect James Bond

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Daniel Craig had some fans quite shaken and others stirred with his declaration last month he’d rather slash his wrists than play James Bond again — and though I’ve found Craig to be an excellent, badass Bond in his four turns as 007, maybe it’s time for a new and fresh edition, because the veteran warhorse is getting a bit careless.

Not Craig. He’s still a tightly coiled, deadpan funny, hardcore charmer as Bond. But in “SPECTRE,” Bond looks weary and battle-scarred, and he’s getting a bit sloppy in his work, whether he’s walking away from a spectacular crash scene without making sure a monstrous goon is actually dead, taking note of a security camera but neglecting to destroy surveillance video or saying goodbye to his beautiful lover on an inexplicably empty street in London and walking away without even considering the possibility she might be snatched up by the bad guys the minute she turns the corner.

This is not your Connery’s James Bond.

Back to some other head-scratching moments down the line, but first the good stuff. This is the 24th Bond film and it ranks solidly in the middle of the all-time rankings, which means it’s still a slick, beautifully photographed, action-packed, international thriller with a number of wonderfully, ludicrously entertaining set pieces, a sprinkling of dry wit, myriad gorgeous women and a classic psycho-villain who is clearly out of his mind but seems to like it that way.

Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” the previous Bond film “Skyfall”) opens with a breathtaking flourish: a five-minute sequence (without a discernible cut) set amidst a wild “Day of the Dead” celebration in Mexico City. We first see Bond dressed as a dashing skeleton — but soon he’s on a rooftop in a perfectly tailored gray suit, taking aim at terrorists who are plotting to blow up a stadium filled with thousands of people later that evening. It’s a near-perfect bit of action moviemaking, ending with Bond making a hilarious landing.

(In the first minute of the film, we get the first of more than a dozen references aka “Easter Eggs” paying tribute to earlier Bond films, from the Rolls Royce in “Goldfinger” to the Aston Martin ejector seat to the train fight in “From Russia with Love” to — well, let’s leave it at that and just say there are PLENTY more inside jokes and callbacks for the serious Bond fans to enjoy.)

Cut to the opening credit sequence, with Sam Smith belting out the ballad “Writing’s On the Wall” while anonymous women grope a shirtless Bond, and the slithering tentacles of a giant octopus wrap around legs and torsos and whatnot. “Live and Let Die” this isn’t.

And then it’s back to the movie. Dame Judi Dench’s M is gone, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ fussbudget M — but Bond’s beloved mentor/mother figure has left a message from beyond the grave. She wants James to kill a man named Sciarra, and to make sure he attends Sciarra’s funeral.

Meanwhile, a twerpy bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott) has taken over British intelligence and is moving forward with a grand (and stupid) plan to merge forces with eight other nations to create one global superpower capable of spying on just about everyone at all times — the better to combat the forces of evil, or so he believes. Of course C believes Bond is obsolete, an ancient relic whose time has come and gone. How long has Bond been hearing THAT song?

Bond goes on an international scavenger hunt, from Rome to Austria to Morocco, in an effort to track down the serpent’s head of an evil organization he eventually learns is called SPECTRE. Along the way we get a novelty for a Bond movie: James has a brief dalliance with the widow of an assassin, and she’s his age! (Monica Bellucci, who plays the woman in black, is actually four years older than Craig.)

Ah, but the main romantic interest is Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swan, the daughter of one of Bond’s former adversaries. Madeleine is brainy and beautiful and feisty, and about three days after she tells Bond she’s not about to fall into his arms seeking solace, she’s telling him, “I love you.”

Because he’s James Bond.

By my count, James takes the controls of a Jaguar and an Aston Martin, one boat, two helicopters and an airplane — and he boards a train for good measure. Talk about a man on the go. Some of these transportation vehicles seem to materialize out of thin air, as do a couple of plot twists that are confusing at best and cartoonishly convoluted at worst.

It takes a long time — a LONG time — for Christoph Waltz to get his moment of madness as Franz Oberhauser, the sadistic mastermind of SPECTRE. Once Franz gets Bond strapped in a torture device and has the opportunity to tell stories from his childhood and explain just exactly how he’s going to rip James apart, Waltz doesn’t disappoint. His Franz is wonderfully insane, and of course he constructs elaborate puzzles and even invokes the old Countdown Timer to Destruction instead of just putting a bullet in Bond’s head when he has the chance.

It’s nice to see Ben Whishaw’s Q out in the field, and I dig Naomie Harris’ take on Moneypenny. Fiennes of course is a first-rate actor, but the script doesn’t do justice to M, who comes across as a milquetoast, even when he’s holding a gun.

Craig is on point as Bond. He’s maybe the least refined version of 007, seemingly more comfortable when his suit is covered with soot and dried blood, relishing hand-to-hand combat, kissing women with almost violent passion. Even when he’s wearing a white dinner jacket, it’s as if he’s hoping a thug will barge in and grab him by the throat, just to jump start the night.

If this indeed is Craig’s final appearance as Bond, the last moments of “SPECTRE” are a fitting sendoff. Not counting the likes of Barry Nelson playing Bond on TV in the 1950s, or the great David Niven as Bond in the 1967 spy spoof “Casino Royale,” there have been a half-dozen Bonds, from Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan and now Craig.

Job well done, 006.

[s3r star=3/4]

MGM and Columbia Pictures present a film directed by Sam Mendes and written by John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Running time: 148 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language). Opens Friday at local theaters. 

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