I know the opening credits for a James Bond movie are supposed to be silly, but the start of “Spectre” achieves almost orgasmic levels of kitsch. A shirtless Daniel Craig is surrounded by a troop of extra-nubile interpretive dancers who subsequently appear to have sex with gleaming black octopi while the whole thing is varnished over with gold filters, black ink, and Sam Smith’s industrial-strength falsetto. If the sequence is intended as camp, it’s just too weird to work. If it’s not intended as camp, well, then, it is.
That uncertainty — are the filmmakers putting us on? Are we meant to be taking our martini seriously or with a wink? — permeates “Spectre,” the 24th official Bond movie and the fourth, and least, with Daniel Craig. Things started off so well, didn’t they? “Casino Royale” in 2006 debuted a rougher, grimmer, more grounded Bond that felt in line with the new world disorder, and the movie effectively jump-started the franchise back to life. “Quantum of Solace” (2008) was as busy and as meaningless as its title, but 2012’s “Skyfall” was a rebound: The stakes felt global even as Bond and villain Javier Bardem grappled with their Mommy issues.
MI6 leader M (Judi Dench) bit the dust at the end of that one, which leaves new agency head Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) holding the fort as the entire double-0 program is threatened with shutdown. A British intelligence upstart named C has a massive surveillance initiative in the works — drones and cameras everywhere — that would render secret agents unnecessary, and even if you don’t know actor Andrew Scott as Moriarty in the BBC “Sherlock,” it’s obvious he’s a runty mutt who can’t be trusted.
C’s not the real trouble, though. Directed by Sam Mendes (”American Beauty”), returning from “Skyfall,” “Spectre” knits all the Craig 007 films together by revealing a master plot led by . . . I can say no more. But I can tell you he’s played by Christoph Waltz, who keeps his elfin Austrian craziness mostly under wraps here.
It’s very strange: Nine years ago, “Casino Royale” successfully rethought what a Bond movie could be with added grit and muscle, but the series has been working its way back to the center ever since. With “Spectre,” the writers appear to have sighed, given in, and delivered everything we expect: Gadgets and gizmos with echoes of the Sean Connery Bonds, a hulking nasty (wrestler Dave Bautista) with deadly metal fingernails instead of Roger Moore-era jaws. Thomas Newman’s deft score is built up from familiar genetic samples of John Barry’s classic music for “Goldfinger” et al.
Moneypenny is back (Naomie Harris looks a little glum to be a glorified secretary this go-round), and the strict Bondian catechism of bad girl/good girl is observed, with Monica Bellucci to bed and Léa Seydoux (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”) to say things like “Don’t think for a moment that this is when I fall into your arms,” and then bed. There’s even a secret villain’s complex out in the desert and not one but two countdown-to-kaboom clocks at the end.
In the hands of filmmakers with a sense of play, this could be a pop hoot, as witty and cruel as the Connery films and as effervescent as the Moores. But Craig has never handled the series’ humor well and Mendes can’t decide whether he’s making a straight 007 movie or inviting us in for a goof. He even muffs the appearance of a certain talismanic house pet, staging its appearance with something close to subtlety. As if subtlety is what anyone has ever wanted from a Bond film. “Spectre” is a movie that wants to have fun but simply doesn’t know how.
After a while, the energy drains away; at 148 minutes, “Spectre” feels like this movie plus its next two sequels. (When, toward the end, Bond breathlessly tells Seydoux’s Madeleine “It’s not over yet!,” feel free to start checking your e-mail.) Craig has made noises that this will be his last turn in the white dinner jacket, and that’s fine: It has been an interesting and honorable run. But it also feels like time for a new actor to make James Bond relevant again — or maybe just let us revel in his irrelevance.
Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth. Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX Reading and Natick. 148 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality, and language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.