Twenty-four films into its 50-year run, the James Bond series has become the equivalent of cinematic comfort food: the flavor may sometimes vary slightly, but the familiar ingredients audiences crave are always present. With the secret agent's last outing, 2012's "Skyfall," director Sam Mendes was able to inject the formula with some emotional resonance -- rather new terrain for the Bond series. And though Mendes is back at the helm for "Spectre," it was perhaps inevitable that after the stellar "Skyfall," anything was bound to feel like a letdown.
Things start off in style, with a bravura opening sequence set in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead celebration. We follow Bond (once again played by Daniel Craig) as he makes his way through a parade, into a hotel, up the elevator, into a room, and up to the roof to take out an enemy -- all in one dazzling tracking shot. The opening concludes with Bond engaging in a bit of fisticuffs while dangling precariously from a flying helicopter, and nothing else in the movie quite reaches the same heights.
As the film proper begins, Bond heads off on a globe-trotting mission to discover who's behind a shadowy terrorist organization known as SPECTRE, and the trail eventually leads him to square off against the syndicate's nefarious leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, oddly underutilized considering that "Bond villain" is a role Waltz was born to play). Along the way, Bond must also contend with a smug new superior (Andrew Scott) who plans to shut down the outdated approach to global security favored by M (Ralph Fiennes) and update it for the age of global surveillance and drone warfare.
The fourth James Bond picture to feature Daniel Craig, "Spectre" furthers the mythology that has been building since "Casino Royale." Loaded with callbacks to the previous three films, the script bends over backwards to tie its disparate threads together, but it all feels like lip service to fans of the series; tacked on and unnecessary. "Spectre" continues Craig's gradual evolution into the familiar old Bond, and in keeping with that trajectory, the film takes a back-to-basics approach, complete with nutty high speed chases, casually random sex, and evil henchmen. Dave Bautista fills that role as Mr. Hinx, who continues the Bond tradition of henchmen with impractically pointy appendages. A luminous Monica Bellucci appears as an ex-bad guy's not-so-grieving widow, though she only gets a couple of scenes before Bond has moved on to psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who after "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" now only needs to appear in the new Bourne movie to complete the modern spy franchise trifecta).
It all starts to feel routine, and as far as spy films of 2015 go, I'm not sure "Spectre" even lives up to the simple, tongue-in-cheek pleasures of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." But it looks gorgeous thanks to the lovely work of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and there's some great action -- including an expertly staged fight sequence aboard a train between Craig and Bautista.
Craig has made it clear in press leading up to the film's release that he's grown tired of playing Bond and you can detect a hint of that weariness on screen, though it fits with his brooding take on the character (and the man can still wear a suit -- bless you, Tom Ford). If you believe the actor's recent gripes, he may be giving up his license to kill, though he's contracted to appear on one more film. But as the end credits seem to threaten, one way or another, Bond will return.