Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci
After the debuting with the edgy and exciting Casino Royale and then stumbling with the grim but dull Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig took James Bond to new heights in 2012 with the help of director Sam Mendes. Skyfall shed some of the 007 tropes to delve deeper into Bond’s back story, humanizing him without dispelling his mystique. It also set a new box office record for the 50 year old franchise in the process, passing $1 billion worldwide. In the end, however, it reconnected the series with tradition, leaving Mendes with the difficult task of trying to come up with an encore.
So now three years later we have Spectre, a movie that maintains the same intense personal focus while also struggling to integrate more elements from Bond’s past (seemingly out of obligation more than anything else). It is quite possibly the most comedic of the Daniel Craig films (not that he ever cracks a smile) but it does not quite pull off the same tonal balancing act as its predecessor. It also falters when it reaches for something deeper because the emotional depth is missing this time around. On a surface level, this is a perfectly adequate entry in the series, but upon reflection it can’t help coming across as a disappointment.
The movie opens with a bang in Mexico City where Bond is attempting to track and eliminate some terrorists, leading to the collapse of a building and a dangerous helicopter fight. We soon find out that he was operating entirely of his own volition and the collateral damage from his mission has incurred the wrath of C, the head of the Joint Intelligence Service. Bond is taken off-duty and the entire Double O program is called into question, but he continues to investigate further. He is soon on the trail of a secret organization called SPECTRE and their mysterious leader, who may or may not have a connection to his own past.
It’s unfortunate that after such a strong cold open featuring beautiful Day of the Dead imagery, thrilling action and an impressive initial long take, nothing in the movie ever manages to top it. This is immediately followed by one of the most uninspired Bond opening credit sequences and theme songs in recent memory before the pace slows down to a crawl. There are still some noteworthy action sequences scattered throughout including a car chase in Rome, a savage fight aboard a train, and a controlled plane crash in the snowy Austrian Alps, but most of them feel perfunctory and feature a distinct lack of tension.
Roger Deakins did not return as DP for Spectre and instead he was replaced by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The movie looks great, even if it is somehow not quite as striking or memorable as Skyfall. It helps that Mendes seems to think about these movies primarily in terms of visuals and chooses a lot of locations that are interesting and beautiful on their own. Still, it does seem like the actual story suffers a bit as a result.
In many ways, they’re retreading the exact same territory as Skyfall by questioning whether 007 is outdated and obsolete in the digital age. Perhaps this is just a drawback to resuming story threads from the previous film, but they don’t really add anything new. There are some discussions about surveillance and the fear of an Orwellian future but that stuff is ultimately pretty thin. The majority of the film is just following a random trail of clues until we get to the expected climactic confrontation. On the plus side, the plot is surprisingly easy to follow for a Bond movie and the dialogue is at least snappy and fun.
It’s nice to have a bit more interaction with Ben Whishaw’s Q in this movie, while M and Moneypenny also get in on the action by the end. On the other hand, many of the new supporting characters feel neglected. Monica Bellucci barely gets two minutes of “sexposition” and Dave Bautista is mostly a fleeting presence who gets in just one word of dialogue through the entire movie. Lea Seydoux’s character isn’t introduced until halfway through the film, and as a result, her relationship with Bond doesn’t really have enough time to develop. Again, the filmmakers are victims of their own success here, because after focusing on Bond’s attachment to Vesper Lynd and M in previous installments, it’s difficult to build up something as meaningful here.
This brings us to Christoph Waltz’s role, which is obviously the key relationship in the film but also difficult to fully address while avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say, as much as I like Christoph Waltz, this is movie’s greatest shortcoming. Not only is the reveal pretty underwhelming, but Waltz’s performance is also a little too broad and predictable (not to mention far less memorable than Javier Bardem’s Silva). More importantly, his motivations are muddled, the personal connection is extremely forced and the idea of tying all of the previous films together really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Spectre also runs on too long, seemingly because they can’t figure out how to wrap things up with his character.
If you enjoyed Skyfall, there is a good chance you’ll like this movie too, because it is clearly trying to hit many of the same notes. However, you’ll also have a nagging sense of deja vu and the distinct feeling that something is missing. We should be seeing Bond grapple with an identity crisis, not the movie itself. Daniel Craig continues to bring a hard edge to the role but this time Bond is seemingly just as exhausted and fed up as he is. For better or worse, it feels like they’ve taken the character about as far they can along this path, which means a new actor and a franchise course correction are probably inevitable. Still, if Spectre ends up being Craig’s final mission, he can leave with his head held high and his cufflinks on straight… I think we were all just hoping for something more. — Sean