The name is Bond. James Bond. For over five decades, Bond has been a staple of action cinema, spawning 24 theatrical films, and jump-starting the careers of six classic actors. After a rough patch in the Brosnan era, the timeline was rebooted to feature a grittier version of the character. Played by Daniel Craig, this era of Bond has given us thrilling and (refreshingly) psychologically inventive films the likes of Casino Royale, and 2012’s smash hit Skyfall from Sam Mendes.
At this point, it goes without saying. I am a huge fan of the 007 films. I have loved this series for years, constantly make callbacks to it, listen to its theme songs obsessively, and even if I don’t end up liking an entry of the series, that still won’t stop me from being the first one in line to see it (Well, first in line in America, that is).
After being blown away by Skyfall, which became my new favorite Bond film to date, I was beyond eager to see what director Sam Mendes would bring to Bond 24, Spectre. I love the Craig films for heeding to the classic tropes of Bond, but also having the smarts to deconstruct them and bring new meat to the table, which is what I hoped this new entry would bring me. Needless to say, it gave me exactly what I wanted… but only in the first fifteen minutes.
In the aftermath of the attack on Skyfall, James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been following a breadcrumb trail left to him, which guides him through a series of events that pits him against SPECTRE, a dubious worldwide criminal organization with sinister business and government control. Bond eventually meets with a young daughter of one of SPECTRE’s former operatives, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and the two find themselves banding together to uncover the mystery of the organization’s figurehead, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who not only has ties to Bond’s past, but may even be a phantom architect to it.
One thing I will say about Spectre is that the film starts off with incredible promise. For the first time in Craig’s tenure, we actually get the film starting off with the traditional gun barrel sequence. This eventually gives way into an extended Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, with a five minute tracking shot that follows Bond through streets, hotel rooms, and even nonchalantly walking across various rooftops to Point B. All of it is stunningly shot, with DP Hoyte van Hoytema making fantastic use of environmental flavor and sublimely choreographed movement. We then jolt into a thrilling shootout, chase through the streets, and a tussle aboard a helicopter. There’s a lot going on in these sequences, yet at no point does any of it become overwhelming, with Mendes confidently escalating the tension with infectious adrenaline. This then leads into the film’s anthem “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith (which works much better in context), and left me pumped for everything that would follow. But despite it all, I would argue that the film ultimately peaks there, with the rest of the following film never living up to the unrealistically high expectations.
Another great thing about Spectre is that, technically, the film is near-perfection. Mendes left an unmistakable personal stamp when directing Skyfall, and he continues to develop that same stamp in new and enthralling ways. Largely veering away from shaky cam whenever possible in favor of steady and swift photography, actually allowing you to absorb every onscreen detail, Mendes proves a wholly unique action director. Once again having the film be driven by character and performances, there’s definitely a feeling of high stakes and tension every time a new set-piece begins. Almost everything in the film is accomplished through flooring practicality, with Mendes only relying on CGI as a last resort, and stunt coordinator Gary Powell’s excellent choreography and fight sequences once again become highlights, including a train sequence where Bond faces off against Oberhauser’s muscle-man Hinx, played by Dave Bautista. He also makes fabulous use of the sound design, and draws another sleek and pulsing score from Thomas Newman.
However, technically brilliant as Spectre may be, its screenplay is far too busy for its own good. While staying true to the harsher, more psychological style of Bond that’s made the Craig films a success, but also blending them with more classic Bond trademarks, Spectre often heeds to both of these elements to a fault. With SPECTRE reinvigorated for the new timeline, they play a very direct, and potentially interesting role in Bond’s history, being a representation of the actions Bond has committed, and the enemies and friends that died because of him, coming back to haunt him. The problem is that - the way the film handles it - it feels like well-trodden territory by this point. There’s a lot of potential still left to be tapped for this interpretation of Bond, and Daniel Craig is still excellent as always as the worn and icy agent, but much of this film’s usage of it doesn’t feel new, and with the film spending more time on it than necessary, it gets a bit tiring.
A talented, but underwritten supporting cast doesn’t make up much for that. Lea Seydoux, while a natural fit with Bond, is undercut by her character’s rocky back and forth between damsel and action-heroine, and there’s not much to her after that. That’s exactly the same for Christoph Waltz as Oberhauser, with the actor providing serviceable work, but nothing from him that we haven’t already seen in similarly typecast work. Even with the character playing a series of malicious and visceral mindgames with Bond, the threat of the character isn't always properly felt, with Waltz completely vanishing for stretches of up to an hour in the film, and playing more of a behind the scenes role with obvious sequel bait in mind. In fact, the character’s ultimate motivations and ties to Bond proves to be one of the more nonsensical screenplay elements, raising far more questions than providing answers, and without me giving anything of significance away, unforgivably goes as far as to negate the impact of events in previous Craig outings.
This isn’t even mentioning the several diversions with Q and Moneypenny (Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris, respectively), the unbalanced tie-ins to previous entries, constant cute callbacks and fan service that border on overuse, oh, and did I mention that there’s also a subplot involving the potential shutdown of the double-0 program? The newly appointed M, played by Ralph Fiennes, consistently finds himself at odds with Joint Intelligence executive Max Denbigh, played by Andrew Scott, who sees the program as archaic, and prefers that the British government opt in favor of drones. The entire ordeal feels like a weak mixture of Person of Interest meets Rogue Nation. Yet even with all of that, it can't even give QUANTUM a proper send-off?
Such things may not sound like too much to handle, as previous Craig movies dealt with similarly complicated material, but the content as is doesn’t really justify the film spending so much time on them. At two and a half hours long, the film moves at a very uneven pace, often progressing at sluggish speeds, and barely holding together at the seams. By the time the film makes its way into its thirty minute climax, it’s lost almost all of its earlier momentum, and runs on fumes for the entirety of its remaining running time.
There’s much that I love about Spectre, and even more that I want to love just as much, but even the most die-hard Bond apologist in me can’t deny that this is to Skyfall what Quantum of Solace was to Casino Royale. As far as technical accomplishment goes this could arguably be considered the most gorgeously-produced film yet, but all of that is unfortunately wasted on overexposed padding. The extended running time slowly begins losing all of its steam, playing all of its best cards early rather than escalate to them, and even as pure popcorn entertainment, while certainly fun, doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessors.
Still, there’ll be plenty new Bonds to follow, and no misfire big or small will be able to kill my excitement for them. See you next time, James…
***1/2 / *****