SPECTRE | ★★★½

Over the past few decades, Hollywood has seen the rise and fall of numerous blockbuster franchises. In the case of James Bond, it doesn't look like we'll be seeing the last of him anytime soon. With 24 films released in 53 years, the 007 franchise, based on the popular books by Ian Fleming, has seen many ups and downs. It is perhaps the only franchise in existence where its successes outweigh its failures, proving itself to be one of the strongest film series of all time. Expectations for Bond's newest adventure have never been higher thanks to the surprise mega-hit that was "Skyfall," so naturally, "Spectre" ups the ante with bigger set pieces, better stunts, and more explosions. What we have received is one of the best-looking Bond films ever made, but it doesn't hold a candle to "Skyfall" or other previous entries.

After an explosive episode in Mexico, James Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a trail of bread crumbs that ultimately leads him to his first encounter with SPECTRE, a global terrorism organization led by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz). The discovery of Oberhauser and the organization prompt Bond to realize that his past, both professional and personal, is connected to this dangerous new threat.

"Spectre" opens in typically marvelous fashion for a 007 flick. The scope of the entire film is defined by one of the coolest opening shots in recent memory, which tracks Bond through a Day of the Dead parade, a hotel, and finally a rooftop where he takes point to eliminate his target. The rest of the sequence, along with the impressive main titles featuring Sam Smith's equally impressive Bond song, do well to prepare the audience for the remainder of the film's two-and-a-half hour runtime (the longest of any 007 film). What follows is a polarizing mix of the old and the new.

Sam Mendes, who directed "Skyfall" three years ago, is sure to keep in tune with the dark undercurrent of the rebooted Bond, but he also mixes in various elements and references to the older, more formulaic Bond. It's an enjoyable, albeit questionable effort since most of the callbacks come off as silly, robbing the film of some of the emotional depth it clearly shoots for.

Other than the film's spectacular cinematography and production design, which are some of the best seen in any Bond film, Mendes and the cast seem to play everything a bit by the numbers, resulting in a few scenes containing a few disinterested faces. Craig's expressions stick out like a sore thumb, particularly in the opening sequence where he seems to be unfazed by collapsing buildings. Waltz is as captivating as he usually is, even though he appears to recycle a few quirks from his Tarantino-written roles. What's really disappointing here is that Oberhauser has only about 10 minutes of screen time. Had Mendes and the screenwriters managed to fit him into more of the plot, Oberhauser would have been as menacing as his role suggests.

Even though "Spectre" leaves a little to be desired in terms of characterization and plot development, it delivers just enough to satisfy long-time fans. As for viewers new to the Bond legacy, there's no denying that they will be won over by the franchise's 24th entry. On its own terms, "Spectre" stands as a film that could have achieved so much more, but at least it isn't a total disaster.

(7/10)