The way I see it, the character of James Bond has always felt a little like that ‘cool’ uncle or cousin, you know, the one who disappears for years on end, but returns once every so often with stories of his worldly adventures, where he details the exotic locations that he’s traveled to and the women he’s met. Just like most family members, he can be little unreliable at times but we’ve grown to love him so much so, that his slip-ups are generally forgiven.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I really wasn’t sold by the new moody, broody direction Bond took in 2006’s Casino Royale, ditching the fun, admittedly cheesy formula from those glib Roger Moore installments of the ‘70s, which in essence, have become the spirit of the franchise. But, I went with it. Furthermore, this darker vision allowed filmmakers to humanize our front man; all the characteristics from Ian Fleming’s British spy saga were there — the music, the technology and the ladies — but we got a different leading man this time around, a Bond who felt pain, exhibited real emotions and even bled. And while I didn’t love it, I was okay with it.
In that regard, it’s surprising to discover that Spectre, working as a direct sequel to 2012’s Skyfall, mostly pulls from the Bond playbook of old, abandoning some of the bleak Daniel Craig era aspects and attributes that filmmakers have tried so hard to instil in their new take on 007. Not that I’m complaining, but Spectre — the 24th entry in the James Bond series — feels slightly off and a little too retro, seeing as it picks up directly after Skyfall, with returning director Sam Mendes, clearly going for a lighter approach, tarnishing some of the previous installment’s continuity with Spectre’s muddled tone.
Spectre opens in Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival, with James Bond (Daniel Craig) honoring the wishes of his late boss M (Judi Dench), by means of tracking down a man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) in an unofficial mission. After a jaw-dropping battle in a helicopter above the streets of Mexico, Bond stumbles onto a clue — a ring with an octopus insignia on it — that leads him to Rome. There, he finds his way into a shadowy meeting of a secret society named Spectre; an organization headed by an ominous figure, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man presumed dead. Determined to gather as much information as he can, Bond travels to the snowy paradise of Sölden, Austria, and tracks down an former advisory Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) who reveals that Spectre had been pulling the strings behind all three of his earlier escapades. Pledging to protect White’s daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), Bond sets out to find Oberhauser and bring him to justice, that’s if he can evade the clutches of his silent henchman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). All the while, back in London, the new M, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), finds his hands full dealing with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) — who’s also known by his code name, C — the head of a privately-backed Joint Intelligence Service that wish to dismantle the ‘00’ program in favor of a new system named Nine Eyes.
Filmmaker Sam Mendes doesn’t waste any time with Spectre as the picture opens with an impressive single-take shot that follows Bond through the crowded streets of Mexico City’s Día de Muertos celebrations, all the way to a building roof top, where he attempts to assassinate a handful of thugs; it’s a tremendous technical achievement and a hell of an opener. The subsequent helicopter battle sets the tempo for the rest of the film, which gleefully pays tribute to classic Bond films from the past. Long time 007 aficionados will no doubt sneer in delight at the sight of a criminal lair built inside of a hollowed out crate — indicative of vintage Bond films such as You Only Live Twice (1967). There are other 007 references sprinkled throughout too, nods to flicks including Goldfinger (1964) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977); heck, they even brought the gun barrel back to the start of the film! On that note, the opening credits — which play over Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ — are rather interesting also, being built around octopus tentacles, evoking Lovecraftian imagery while unintentionally suggesting some kind of big budget tentacle porn, either way, I dug it.
On the contrary, Spectre only falters when it attempts to connect Craig’s entire series into one interwoven storyline (you know, sort of like The Avengers chain) where faces and names from Casino Royale and other Craig flicks flash ham-fistedly in and out of the narrative in an effort to link all four adventures together. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the tone had remained consistent; for instance, when asked how he’d like his martini back in the grim Casino Royale days, Bond snickered, ‘Do I look like I give a damn?’ yet in Spectre, when he orders his martini, it’s back to ‘Shaken, not stirred.’ Bond’s reliance on silly gadgets has also been downplayed in the Craig era, yet now, they’re back with a vengeance, without any grounding or reason, again undercutting the previous entries’ seriousness.
I guess, when you stop and think about it, every Bond title reflects the period in which it was released, from its fashion trends to its political concerns — we’ve gone from the disco vibe of the Roger Moore flicks to the broader big-budget, late ‘90s blockbusters starring Pierce Brosnan. So it’s only fitting that the contemporary 007 films have been tweaked for a Bond Cinematic Universe, one that links all the films together in a thin blanket of continuity, seeing as audiences ‘apparently’ demand an overarching connection these days, even if it means tarnishing some of the principal ideas.
Given its wafer-thin plot, Spectre runs for far too long, clocking in at a whopping 148 minutes, finishing up with an unnecessary final act that takes place in the echoing halls of MI6’s former headquarters. To be fair though, Spectre gets ‘two thumbs up’ when it comes to action and entertainment, supplying the most thrilling sequences in Craig’s entire series. From a remarkable stunt involving a Britten-Norman Islander and a convoy of Range Rovers to a high-speed car chase through the streets of Rome, Mendes delivers handsomely. Furthermore, the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, Interstellar (2014), is another high note, suggesting a shadowy, haunted urban backdrop, full of mystery and ambiguity.
On a performance level, Spectre is generally excellent; Daniel Craig (in his fourth outing as the super spy) radiates with confidence and believability as James Bond — he looks tough enough to partake in a fist fight and suave enough to charm the socks off the ladies. The striking French beauty Léa Seydoux, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), play’s Bond’s newest love interest Madeleine Swann with Seydoux bringing a sense of self-confidence and poise to the role, in turn generating the most memorable Bond babe since Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Sadly, Madeleine is a tad underwritten, possessing the complexity of a thumbnail sketch who haphazardly falls for Bond’s charms; when she first meets James, Madeleine insists that she won’t sleep with him, then moments later, we see her impulsively jump into bed with the cocksure spy after the pair off a baddie, go figure. In any case, Seydoux is honestly one of the best parts of the film.
The devilish Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012), plays Franz Oberhauser, who eventually reveals himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, (the fifth actor to play the character, following the likes of Telly Savalas and Donald Pleasence), the mastermind behind the global criminal organization known as Spectre, last seen in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. While it’s hard to imagine any other performer who’s better suited to portray a Bond baddie, Waltz is wasted here with his character lacking that sheer malevolence he’s often able to display, what’s more, his villainous plans make little sense and are barely even explained.
With the absence of Judi Dench — having played M since 1995’s Pierce Brosnan starring Goldeneye — actor Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall (2012), steps into the pivotal role and gets to do a bit of fieldwork this time around, proving that the British actor could have made for a decent Bond had he been a few years younger. Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas (2012), steals most of his scenes as Bond’s gizmo creator Q, with the tech-savvy lad given an elevated part while Naomie Harris, Southpaw (2015), is mostly sidelined as MI6’s long-time secretary Eve Moneypenny. Elsewhere, former pro-wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), is forgetful as the silent slayer with a deadly signature move, Mr. Hinx, lacking the finesse of those wacky Bond henchmen from the ‘60s and ‘70s such as Oddjob (Harold Sakata) and Jaws (Richard Kiel). Finally, Monica Bellucci, Irreversible (2002), plays the grieving widow Lucia Sciarra, a part that’s so throw away, it’s easy to forget she was even on screen.
With leading man Daniel Craig stating that he’d ‘rather slash his wrists’ than play Agent 007 again, Spectre works as a sound wrap-up that could easily see a changeover in the James Bond role, concluding the story arc that began back in 2006 with Casino Royale. While the series’ tone gets jumbled in the process, director Sam Mendes veers Spectre in the right direction as it barrels headfirst back into the classic Bond tropes of old. Love it or hate it, we can all rest easy knowing that, ‘James Bond Will Return.’
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Spectre is released through Sony Pictures Australia