'Spectre': Latest Bond flick more satisfying than thrilling

Spectre cost nearly $300 million to make, and I suppose it was worth it. It's a good Bond movie, which will be good enough for many millions of fans. It's also the longest Bond movie in existence, clocking in at nearly 21/2 decadent, flamboyantly destructive hours.

This time, Ian Fleming's well-dressed assassin changes clothes from Mexico City to Rome, from London to the Austrian mountains, from Tangier back to London, where terrorist-entrepreneurs carrying the familiar handle of Spectre are doing dirty work on a large scale. Of the Daniel Craig 007s, director Sam Mendes' follow-up to Skyfall is not quite up to Skyfall or my favorite, Casino Royale. But it's a considerably better evil-quelling instruction manual than Quantum of Solace, a movie Craig himself admitted went before the cameras in rough shape, racing against time and the most frightening of cinematic adversaries: a writers' strike.

Here, Skyfall scribes John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are joined by Jez Butterworth, and the results reference nearly every previous Bond outing. Throw in a certain facially scarred cat-stroker whose origin story becomes a part of Spectre's narrative, and you have a hugely expensive hunk of nostalgia, more travelogue than thriller, more sunglasses-modeling session than acting opportunity. And yet it's satisfying.

The opening sequence is a pip. Bond's in Mexico City, just in time for Day of the Dead celebrations, putting his license to kill to effective if unauthorized use. His target: an Italian crime lord mixed up in Spectre, the venerable world-domination collective familiar from six previous Bond movies. Then to Rome, and to bed with Monica Bellucci (seen briefly as the gangster's widow). In exchange for a brief, scowly sexual encounter, she provides Bond with a tip about a meeting of Spectre, infiltrated by 007 because he has purloined an evil-insignia ring. There he, and we, meet the shadowy puppetmaster known as Oberhauser, though he really goes by the name of ... Uber-spoiler!

Mendes' brand of action lacks a distinct visual attack, but he's smart about pacing and rhythm and is an astute judge of when to go for the joke and how to let his actors run the show, as opposed to the explosions and murders and such flattening the actors.

Crucially, Lea Seydoux joins Bond's endlessly tortured relationship résumé as Madeleine Swann, the ravishingly sullen daughter of an old Bond enemy. Imperious yet almost immediately imperiled atop her Austrian mountaintop clinic, Dr. Swann swears Bond will never, ever, ever get anywhere with her. Yet soon they're on a train, chugging across the Sahara, and the wine is excellent, and it's clear that these two emotional cripples speak the international language of love.

Casting Christoph Waltz as Bond's insidious for makes much sense, given Waltz's comfort level with this sort of fellow. Waltz evinces a swell throwback quality that's strangely comforting. Spectre pretends to stand up against unchecked surveillance and data-gathering tactics, which also is comforting, although there's a moment when Ralph Fiennes' old-guard spymaster, M, scolds an inferior that a license to kill is "also a license not to."

For all its workmanlike devotion to out-of-control helicopters, Spectre works best when everyone's on the ground, doing his or her job, driving expensive fast cars heedlessly, detonating the occasional wisecrack, enjoying themselves and their beautiful clothes.

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