Daniel Craig's James Bond is my favorite James Bond, because he's the first one to really strive to seem dead inside.
It's something he pulls off while still doing everything a Bond should — wearing the hell out of a suit and ordering his incorrectly made favorite cocktail and taking down bad guys and boinking his way around the globe. He still gets scolded by M (embodied first by Judi Dench and now by Ralph Fiennes), destroys millions of pounds' worth of high-tech spy equipment from Q (Ben Whishaw), and is too important to the country's security to ever face any permanent consequences for it.
He's still this hypermasculine fantasy of cool under pressure, but it's not a mantle Craig wears lightly — his Bond visibly works at remaining unruffled. There's a scene in Spectre in which he rights a careening helicopter just before it crashes into a plaza full of people, and while he's impassive as he does it, he's also glassy-eyed and covered in sweat. It's not the face of someone skimming unflappably through the international spy biz — it's the face of someone trying not to throw up. Behind the pale eyes and the battered face and the 21st-century muscle mass, Craig's created the impression of a human being who's slowly being hollowed out.
The genius of the Craig reboot of the character, of which Spectre is the crushingly weakest entry, is that it managed to pull Ian Fleming's iconic but painfully dated agent into the present without significantly altering his character in any way. These films have just tilted the way Bond is framed a bit to suggest that someone who kills for his country (and for a living) and has no significant personal relationships or home life is either a sociopath or trying really hard to will himself into becoming one.
Because, until recent installments, everything that has traditionally made Bond movies fun has also made them, when looked on from farther away, the big-screen action equivalents of an old-fashioned sitcom in which everything resets to status quo at the end of the episode. For a man who's meant to be the epitome of cool, Bond sometimes also seems like a character trapped in a particularly glamorous ironic hellscape. He faces an endless supply of villains with baroque plans for world domination and ends stories in the triumphant embrace of love interests who aren't mentioned again. He never gets old, just reskinned. He got married once, but he doesn't like to talk about it.
Except that Craig's Bond was reset to freshly minted double-0 status and given both a soul to be chipped away at and, more pointedly, a history that kept accruing. He has actually been aware of the business of being Bond, from those qualifying kills ("Made you feel it, did he?") and the proto-Bond girl heartbreak of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), to the weird soulfulness of Skyfall, which excavated Bond's sad background. The showdown at his childhood home was a Bond finale turned personal, M as a replacement mother figure and Silva (Javier Bardem) as the agent's dark twin. It was this pop perfect convergence of Bond the concept and Bond the flesh-and-blood character Craig carved out.
But everything that made Skyfall work so swimmingly well goes wrong in Spectre, which shares the same director, Sam Mendes, and enough of the same ideas to feel like the franchise has already run itself aground again. Spectre sets Bond off on another unsanctioned revenge mission, to Mexico City — the movie's first and best sequence is an elaborately filmed bit in which the character attempts to assassinate someone during the Day of the Dead celebration, on the orders of the late M. And it pits him against another shadowy sibling played, this time, by Christoph Waltz, an actor who was basically born to be a hammy Bond villain.
He plays a doozy of one in Spectre, heading up a secret organization in charge of a lot of society's ills. He’s saddled with motivations and an identity meant to place him in the tradition of the older Bond and to fit him into this newer, more grounded one. But that reveal, when it comes, is meaningless — a curiously petty backstory created for a character who never begged for one. It's as arbitrary as the character's insistence that he's been in charge the whole time and is the one behind everything bad that's happened to Bond. Spectre retroactively places everything from the previous three films into a larger conspiracy that's so maddeningly capricious that it even seems to give the spy pause.
The trouble with having a Bond who remembers is that even four installments into this new chronology, Bond's life is already profoundly nuts and not up for the weight of any sustained psychology. When half the women Craig's Bond has slept with have gotten killed in front of him, for instance, it's hard to invest, as Spectre asks us to, in his new relationship with Blue Is the Warmest Color's Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, much less believe it would trigger the shift he makes on her behalf at the end. When the world's baddest bad guy confesses to having set up multiple murders and adversaries and global feats of crime, all to hurt Bond's feelings due to daddy issues, it's laughable.
Spectre is sloppier than other recent Bonds, but it also feels like it's exhausted the idea that fueled the franchise's relaunch — darker and more realistic can only last so long when it's paired with a rotating cast of Bond girls and supervillains. It's also exhausted Craig, who told Time Out London he'd "rather break this glass and slash [his] wrists" than do another Bond film, though he's still got one more on his contract and the lucrative franchise is in no danger of stopping. His indifference shines through in the final act of Spectre, which ends with an explosion and a whimper. The movie can't find a glimmer of logic in its final sparing of a life, other than that it leaves room for an actor to return. Dead inside, at last, and not in a good way.