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Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux wait for a train in the Moroccan desert in "Spectre".

Forming a neatly rounded-off tetralogy with the previous three James Bond movies, Spectre sure feels like the end of the line for Daniel Craig as the storied secret agent. If it indeed is, the 47-year-old actor can depart proudly. For starters, three of the four movies that he headlined have turned out very good (the exception being Quantum of Solace), which is a better average than any previous Bond could boast of. More important is the shape he leaves the series in. Before he came in, the Bond films had become a joke as bad as one of Pierce Brosnan’s one-liners, a lame, weightless, casually racist, more than casually sexist relic of the past. Now it’s a layered, complex, high-quality spy series that’s relevant to a post-9/11 world without stinting on its trademark glamorous locations and action thrills. Certainly Craig didn’t do all of that, but it came in with him, and his commitment to playing 007 as a hard-living, tormented loner helped it along.

Taking place some months after the events of Skyfall, this movie finds an annoying new British intel chief (Andrew Scott) preparing to kill off the Double-O program entirely, replacing the agents with drones. With that in the offing, Bond goes rogue, following up a posthumous tip from his old boss (Judi Dench) and finding SPECTRE, a shadowy international terrorist organization linking all his enemies dating back to Casino Royale and headed by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who has a special connection to Bond’s childhood. Only Bond, his loyal friends in London, and a SPECTRE agent’s estranged daughter (Léa Seydoux) can stop the organization from learning the entire world’s classified secrets.

Director Sam Mendes returns to the series and delivers even better action set pieces than he did in Skyfall: 1.) The opening sequence in Mexico City, which features a five-minute unbroken shot snaking through the streets, a hotel corridor, and a series of rooftops overlooking a Día de los Muertos parade. It all ends with a helicopter doing multiple barrel rolls. 2.) A car chase through the streets of Rome that has Bond trying to figure out the controls on his new car and temporarily getting stuck behind a slow-moving Fiat. 3.) A chase through the Austrian Alps in which Bond continues pursuing the bad guys in a small plane even after its wings are sheared off. And 4.) A brutal smackdown on a train between Bond and a burly assassin (Dave Bautista). With all this, we can overlook the climactic sequence on the Thames River not quite living up to everything else.

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Harder to overlook is an alarming and unexplained bit of sloppiness from Bond that allows SPECTRE to use some video footage against him or the new intel chief telegraphing his shadiness from the start. Even though Oberhauser is so powerful and smart enough to dredge up Bond’s romantic past, he still makes an underwhelming baddie, especially with memories of Javier Bardem’s Silva so fresh. Waltz might have a second crack at this part given this movie’s indications that he’ll be back, but this actor who seems born to play a Bond villain disappoints here. The lack of a memorable foil to Bond keeps the movie from Skyfall’s exalted heights.

At least Seydoux (the snub-nosed French actress from Blue Is the Warmest Color) provides a worthy counterpart as a Bond girl who doesn’t stand by helplessly while he’s fighting for his life. Mendes and his team of writers give us tasty little peripheral glimpses of things like Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and her life outside the office, as well as the dislike that Bond and the new M (Ralph Fiennes) retain for each other. This Bond remains charmingly aware of his own limitations — when a doctor asks him how much alcohol he drinks, he evenly replies, “Too much” — and there’s a great joke when Bond tries to order one of his martinis at a juice bar that doesn’t serve liquor.

The graceful close that Spectre brings Bond’s story to is the most rewarding thing here. So often when James Bond falls in love, it ends badly. After all we’ve been through with this 007 who’s so damaged and out of touch with his emotions, seeing him find someone who’s worth walking away from the spy trade for is satisfying in a way that no car chase or massive explosion could ever be. It’s impossible not to wish both him and Daniel Craig well, not to mention good luck to whoever tries to fill his immaculately polished shoes.

 

[box_info]Spectre
Starring Daniel Craig and Christoph Waltz. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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