Spectre is the first James Bond film to open with the classic gun barrel sequence in 13 years. The level of excitement you experience reading the preceding sentence will tell you everything you need to know about whether or not you’ll enjoy his 24th adventure, a film which finds itself caught between following the more sophisticated trajectory of Daniel Craig’s darker, more emotionally grounded entries and trying to be something of a throwback to the days of Roger Moore’s tenure and some of Sean Connery’s later entries. It does not succeed with flying colors in either regard, but, despite this, it still manages to succeed as a fun, throwaway action film.
In other words, it’s more like your standard Bond film.
Let’s face it, Spectre was always going to live in the shadow of its predecessor. A film like Skyfall comes around once every…well…once every 50 years. Sam Mendes’ first directorial contribution to the Bond series raised the bar so high there was little hope for whatever followed in its footsteps. It not only stood as a superb celebration of the long-running franchise, it pushed Bond’s character into new thematic territory, offering a thrilling and deeply moving tale that wasn’t like anything that had come before it.
When Mendes decided to return to the series, the dilemma he, Craig, and the Bond producers faced was how do you top something that simply can’t be topped? Their solution: Go old school. And in many ways, Spectre is more of a celebration of Bond’s 50+ year history than Skyfall was. It’s a bit goofier, a bit more outlandish, a bit more focused on impressive action sequences, and it contains many of the staples that have made the series so popular over the years (Car chases, gadgets, hulking henchmen, maniacal villains with evil fortresses, etc.). It’s also, unfortunately, less compelling and not nearly as emotionally involving as either its predecessor or Craig’s first entry Casino Royale. (Though it is unquestionably superior to the nonsense that was Quantum of Solace, which barely qualified as a Bond film, let alone a decent one)
The problem lies in the filmmakers’ inability to settle on the right tone. I think at this point Craig’s Bond has proven that he works better when his films focus on emotion and character, giving the audience something to invest in beyond the level of surface entertainment. As much as Craig might want to do a more stereotypical Bond flick (and he has said as much time and time again), he has to face the music and realize that his Bond has changed the series for the better and there’s no going back. Spectre reinforces this theory and then some. Despite its great action, its fun quips, the beautiful women, the gorgeous scenery (Roger Deakins jumped ship this time around and while Hoyte Van Hoytema does an admirable job filling his shoes, Deakins’ presence is sorely missed), the film feels unmistakably hollow. Coming off of a film as emotionally rich as Skyfall, it’s easy to understand why some fans would be disappointed.
But, I’ve beaten up on Spectre enough. Let’s take a look at the positives, and there are many of them. The opening scene is one of the best of the entire series. Daniel Craig is great, as always. He seems completely settled into a comfortable rhythm as Bond. The supporting cast is just wonderful. Ralph Fiennes makes for a solid M, and Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris, returning as their respective characters Q and Moneypenny, are actively involved in the proceedings. While in the past, they’ve functioned as window decoration in the MI6 offices, now Bond actively seeks out their aid, even going so far as to call on Moneypenny for assistance during a car chase. Dave Bautista is fantastic as the standard, super-strong evil henchman that Bond must inevitably go toe-to-toe with. Their fight scene on a train is not only a great throwback to Bond’s fight with Red Grant in From Russia With Love (still in my humble opinion the best fight scene of the entire series) and his fight with Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me , it’s just a kickass fight scene in general – brutal, fierce, and fun.
The Bond gals are as lovely as ever with Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux filling the roles this time around. Bellucci is effective, despite not getting much to do, and Seydoux, who is given far more to do, is rather wonderful, though I’m not sure I buy into her relationship with Bond, which is set up as being something akin to his relationship with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, but lacks that relationship’s depth or believability.
We’ve also got Christoph Waltz as the main villain this time around and, sadly, he just isn’t given that much to work with. He never (ever!) lives up to Javier Bardem’s Skyfall baddie Silva, and it’s such a shame because anyone who’s seen Waltz’s work in a Tarantino film knows the guy is perfectly capable of delivering the goods. He’s just fine here, but one can’t shake the feeling that this was a wasted opportunity.
Now we’re going to go a bit into SPOILER TERRITORY. You may want to turn away from these next couple paragraphs if you haven’t seen Spectre yet.
Still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So Waltz was Blofeld. Did anyone not see that coming? As a Bond fan, I’ll admit the reveal was a fun moment. The problem is that other than serving as a nice little reference for fans, it doesn’t contribute anything to the story whatsoever. Blofeld was never hinted at in previous entries and now, all of a sudden, he reveals himself as the man behind every single villain Craig’s Bond has fought over the past few films. There’s no way to go in that direction and not have it sound incredibly stupid. Plus, if you look at past villains in this light, it weakens their impact. None of them were acting with their own agendas in mind; they were all serving Blofeld!!
Also, I kind of hated the notion that Bond and Blofeld knew each other as kids. Not only is the whole idea presented in nonsensical fashion, it further pushes the ‘Everything has to be connected!’ agenda. Why, though? Why did Bond and Blofeld need to know each other as kids? It seems like a cheap, lazy way to try to add some depth to a relationship that has none and it fails miserably.
Blofeld only exists in this film to serve as a nostalgic reference. He contributes nothing to the plot and lacks the compelling emotional connection that Bardem’s Silva provided in spades. Again, when you look at the talent involved, it is a crushing disappointment that they didn’t try to make Blofeld more interesting than he is here.
So, where does James Bond go from here? Mendes is emphatic that he will not be returning to direct another outing and Craig’s future with the character is totally up in the air, though he is technically contracted for one more picture. Personally, I would love for Craig to come back for one last go-round and I would love for the filmmakers to take the same risks they did with Casino Royale and Skyfall, risks that ultimately paid off in spades. Give Craig’s Bond a definitive ending. Bring back director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye; Casino Royale) and it all comes full circle.
As far as where Spectre falls in my ranking, I’d put it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (Spectre-um? So sorry), resting comfortably with the likes of Thunderball and For Your Eyes Only. Sure, it’s a bit disappointing, but not nearly enough for me to not recommend it to Bond fans. Here’s hoping the next film finds a more consistent tone, a more compelling story/character arc, and, if Craig returns, that it serves as a fitting departure for his tenure as Bond, a tenure which has offered us the most fascinating take on the character in this franchise’s entire history.