This film gave me the weirdest Mandela effect I think I've ever had. I spent the entire movie utterly convinced that Remi Malek's character had already appeared in a previous entry in the franchise. And not just in a slightly wink-nudge, who is that in the background kind of way. As in, I swear that the third film in the Craig Bond franchise was centred on Malek's character. That it ended with Bond saving a woman that Malek had taken captive, on an island, with a garden at the centre, that they then blew up. And yes, I realise that the plot I just described was the second half of this film, but I cannot have seen it before; it only just came out! Nor are these plot points in the trailer (I've rewatched all of them to check 😂). Plus, it's not like I was watching this movie and recognising it; the underlying plots between the (apparently) imagined film I swear I've seen and this one are completely different, as is the ending, and the girl, and just about everything else. It's more that I've "seen" a film that sets up this plot, and these characters, more completely. I was so convinced by this that I made a mental note of how clever the partially-finished "poison garden" was and how that was a clear callback to Malek's previous base, whilst giving a backstory to it that seemed plausible enough, thereby retconning more context into the previous film.
Except that film doesn't exist! I'm losing my mind...
So now that I've got that review of the movie in relation to a film that I invented (apparently) out of the way, how does it fit in the actual Bond franchise? Well, as the fifth film that Craig has been in (something I also dispute; I'm completely sure that Skyfall was the fourth Craig Bond, and this was the sixth, with my phantom movie filling in between Quantum of Solace) it really goes out of its way to tie up all the loose ends. Bond returns to the grave of the first Bond girl in this version of the franchise; we get cameos or mentions of most of the previous villains; there's a whole Spectre subplot that doesn't really go anywhere; and it's a veritable who's-who of cameos, many of whom die, I guess to permanently close off any and all loose threads?
The problem is, if all of this is building to a previously established villain having a final act of retribution for Bond ruining his previous plans, then the whole meta-narrative stuff and frequent callbacks kind of works, but considering that Malek is apparently a new addition to the canon, what it actually means is that we get a villain with no screen time, no exposition, and no real threat profile. I mean, sure, it's fun seeing Christoph Waltz again, but I feel like Malek is given a short straw. He does well enough with what he has and I have no issues with the way he embraces the role, but it's all so weirdly meaningless. Why does he need to have a history with Spectre? Why is he connected to the girl Bond has fallen for? What are the chances of any of this? Is it necessary for the plot? Not really, no, none of it. So we get a really long film that's very pretty, but just a bit meandering.
Oh, and of course, we have to give Craig's Bond a fitting send-off and final heroic act. And it does need to be final. Dude has to be dead. But Bond is a survivor, able to beat incredible odds every dang day, so he can't simply lose. No, Bond has to choose not to fight, so they had to have a reason for him to give up. The result is a villainous plot that just so happens to provide exactly the kind of ridiculous MacGuffin that they need to set that situation up, and then they throw in the whole "surprise child" element to ensure that the sacrifice is manly enough. Lord knows, Bond can't simply give up because he's a threat to just any old person, but his own child? What man would ever do anything less! Make death a sweeter option than life, make it heroic, make it somehow about fatherhood, and then I guess no one can complain.
It's all... fine. Not great, but good enough. Which is a bit of a shame, because elsewhere the film shines. There are some genuinely brilliant action set pieces (that opening car chase and bike stunt! 🤯) and decent acting all around. Plus, I really enjoyed that female CIA operative; she was great, want more of her! But then they throw in a subplot about M being shady, a backstabbing Homeland Security agent, a dude with a bionic eye whose name we never find out but apparently is important enough to keep around even after Spectre are all killed, and my word this film has so many threads it becomes absurd. So many, in fact, that one of the most important ones feels like a complete nothing: the new 007. Though, of course, by the end of the film Bond is back to being 007 and then they briefly suggest the number might get retired which, well, boooo! If you're going to bother casting a kickass black woman as the new 007, in an obvious storytelling move to point out that the damn number is just a job title, you don't then get any inclusion points if the end result is "oh no, Bond is too much 007 that even the new 007 agrees that only he can be 007"... Also, maybe give her a little bit of character development and dialogue, y'know, just to make her a little likeable and human, rather than just having Bond upstage her at every moment.
So the result is entertaining enough, but the moment you let the (admittedly solid) pacing let up you realise that it's all just a bit pointless. They clearly had an ending and some plot points they had to hit, and wrote everything else to get them there, realised it was all too long, and just shaved it back to the bare minimum to make coherent sense. And yet, there is so much here that could be cut, it's baffling that they ended up with such a ridiculously overstuffed movie. It is pretty, though.