There was a distant time when Hollywood made what it called "prestige pictures," films of all types and genres produced with the biggest budgets, highest production values and greatest star power a studio could muster to burnish its "dream factory" image. The prestige picture lives on in Spectre, the 24th entry in the James Bond movie series produced by Albert R. Broccoli and his heirs since 1962 — and a unique example of a lavish, no-expenses-spared 21st-century production.
In fact, Spectre's $300 million budget ranks it among the three most expensive films ever made (amazingly, the other two are Pirates of the Caribbean sequels), which appears to be a direct response to the creative success and box-office magic of the last Bond film, 2012's Skyfall. Led by returning director Sam Mendes, the creative team behind Spectre had a stated mission to make it "bigger and better" than Skyfall, which is a tall order given that film's widely accepted status as the best Bond movie since the series' early heyday.
An even tougher problem is that bigger seldom leads to better in Hollywood, and Spectre provides the proof. It has all the elements that make Bond films so much fun: gadgets, cars (extraordinary concept-vehicles from Aston Martin and Jaguar), Bond girls, colorful villains and truly exotic locations. The story takes us from Mexico City to Morocco, the Austrian Alps, the Sahara desert and a nighttime sequence in which those incredible cars careen through the ancient streets of Rome. There's more than enough here — actually too much, spread out over almost two and a half hours — to satisfy longtime fans of 007. But the pieces don't come together as they did in Skyfall, and Spectre suffers significantly by comparison.
The almost unprecedented opulence of Spectre is put on display in the film's obligatory opening action sequence. Before we even get to the helicopter stunts, Bond (Daniel Craig in his fourth turn in the role) and Bond girl Estrella (Stephanie Sigman) walk through the center of Mexico City on Day of the Dead. A long tracking shot without visible edits lingers on the more than 1,500 extras, each with unique costumes and makeup, before landing on a rooftop where the action begins. There's never been anything quite like it, but most striking is Mendes' luxuriously unhurried presentation of Spectre's opening pageant. The film positively brims with confidence and ease.
That deliberate pacing doesn't always serve Spectre well. The screenplay delivers more plot than story, with one event leading logically, but not meaningfully, to the next. There are some quiet moments where you may begin to lose the thread, often interrupted by sudden bursts of violence that seem designed mainly to distract.
It's hard to fault Spectre's cast. Craig finally brings some humor to his famously serious portrayal of Bond, and Christoph Waltz appears to have a ball as perennial Bond villain Blofeld. There's a major surprise in the series' first instance of an age-appropriate Bond girl in the form of 51-year-old Italian actress Monica Bellucci. That sound you hear is women across the globe applauding this long-overdue innovation.
Like Skyfall, Spectre earns a lot of points by bringing Bond into the 21st century. The plot hinges on the threat of widespread, state-sponsored surveillance, along with a possible end to Britain's entire spy program thanks to an agency "merger" that intentionally smacks of today's corporate culture. Bond and his MI6 colleagues, including M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), are ready to go rogue in the face of government malfeasance, and there's nothing remotely wrong with that.