In the fourth James Bond outing for Daniel Craig, and the second for director Sam Mendes, the filmmakers are clearly trying to pull out all the stops, but the trouble is, they’re the wrong stops.
Spectre has what we want from a Bond movie: A lot of action as our super-spy attempts to foil the world-changing plans of an over-the-top adversary, carried out through an uneasy alliance with a beautiful woman, where uneasy turns to romantic. Attempting to dial the show to 11, the filmmakers also give us another woman who, like Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lind, Bond is so taken with that we might believe it’s actual love.
In giving us the biggest adversary yet for Craig’s incarnation of Bond, the filmmakers concoct an absolutely ridiculous backstory for the villain in another attempt to make Bond seem more personally invested. Then, they claim that this new villain, whom Christoph Waltz underplays (relative to Waltz’s history of entertainingly expansive performances), is behind everything that happened in Craig’s past three films.
Not one of these layers placed on top the standard Bondian action really works. All seem underdeveloped, overwrought, unconvincing and wrongheaded. And they all conspire to noticeably derail the second half of the sprawling two-and-a-half-hour film.
On the plus side, Léa Seydoux. While Skyfall’s “Bond Girl” was got minimal action and a vicious death, Seydoux’s character is better developed, and given significant screen time. “Madeline Swann” feels fairly realistic–her father’s a global criminal, but she’s some kind of shrink, and she feels like a competent, couragous woman, neither a superhero nor a wallflower. As such, she sometimes feels a little … small, for Bond’s outsized world, but that’s not to say Seydoux lacks glamour, either.
Another plus: There’s some excellent action. The opening sequence in Mexico City has some amazing stunt and effect work, including some amazing stunt-copter work that was reportedly done live over a crowd of very, very trusting extras. The locations are often quite interesting, especially the opening in Mexico on the Day of the Dead; the film feels big, as a Bond movie should.
An interesting element of the action was its visible discomfort with Bond gadgets. Our protagonist is driving a new, tricked-out Aston Martin, and the joke is that most of the gadgets and guns built into it don’t work. And when Q gives Bond a wristwatch, he asks, “Does it at least do anything,” he’s told, “It tells time.” (At a key moment, it turns out to do something else, as well.) Eventually, Bond gets the car’s gadgets to work. So while the film is clearly uncomfortable with the more fanciful elements of the Bond canon, Mendes is able to make fun of the tropes before then giving them to us. Fair trade, especially since the use of comedy in the action scenes, without undercutting their tension, is not exactly new to Bond pictures, and it’s done well here.
It was also interesting to watch the film deal with today’s geopolitical realities. Bond is referred to here not as a spy, but an assassin, which is closer to the role a double-0 agent (or its equivalent in Le Carre novels or the brilliant TV series, Sandbaggers) is meant to play. The enemy in this first post-Snowden Bond flick is global surveillance. While the U.S. is not a player, and the NSA is not mentioned, we see a world in which the villain’s plan to control the world through total surveillance and the British Secret Service’s plan to do the same are morally and practically indistinguishable. Though the film doesn’t sufficiently flesh out Spectre’s actual plans once it creates its surveillance mechanism, this choice feels topical (if cartoonish), and it helps validate the modern trope of making the hero abandon professional duty to act as a rogue or vigilante.
In summary, then: Spectre is a good midlevel Bond film buried beneath layers of story complexity that undermine the film and the character. It cannot be regarded as a great Bond film, and considering its story weaknesses, it’s hard to call it a good movie. This is despite it frequently doing a fine job of scratching our collective Bond itch, and therefore succeeding on certain Bond-specific terms. We go to a Bond movie for certain thrills, and this film delivers most of them, in the current Craig flavor. It just doesn’t hold together as terribly solid cinema.
A final flaw: The film casts Monica Bellucci as the widow of a criminal slain by Bond. Though she gives her scenes her all, her work in the film amounts to less than five minutes. People, if you’ve got Monica Bellucci in your film, you don’t give her a mere five minutes of screen time.
Spectre as a stealth remake, Daniel Craig’s four-picture story, and other spoiler-ridden musings
Reviewers seem to be making an effort not to spoil certain aspects of the plot, and I’ve made the same attempts in the top section. But from here I’m going to spoil, because I want to talk about the manner in which this film is a stealth remake of one of the best, but most reviled, films in the Bond canon: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
As with Spectre, OHMSS is the one where Bond finally confronts S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and its evil overlord, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. In OHMSS, Bond falls in love with a beautiful woman who, though honest herself, is the daughter of a criminal. In both films, Bond falls so hard that he decides to give up his life of espionage to be with her. OHMSS shows Bond doing just that, only to have his bride, Tracy (the ineffable Diana Rigg) murdered by Blofeld in the finale. With Spectre, Bond defeats Blofeld and leaves him to be taken into custody, pointedly walking to be be with his lover, and turning his back on Ralph Fiennes’ M. (I wouldn’t put money on Léa Seydoux surviving beyond the opener of the next film–assuming they don’t just reboot with a new Bond.)
Although the romance with Seydoux is entirely unbelievable–the interaction is far too underwritten, and Craig’s Bond is far too damaged, for this to be real love–it makes a fitting end for the story of Craig’s Bond. In his first film, Craig earns his double-0 status, and loving and losing Vesper is the thing that finally makes him dead inside–the cold-hearted assassin that this incarnation of Bond must be. In the underrated Quantum of Solace, Bond pursues his revenge (while helping the film’s main character, Camille, achieve her own). In Skyfall, the scar tissue over Bond’s heart is penetrated, as he faces his own evil doppelganger in Javier Bardem’s Silva, who both underscores what a truly heartless Bond could become, and explores his emotional relationship with Judi Dench’s M, who dies in his arms. We explore Bond’s past, and discuss the holes in his childhood. (Very therapeutic film, Skyfall …)
Now, in Spectre, he confronts the source of all of this–the unseen global puppeteer behind Vesper’s shattering death, and M’s–and in defeating another kind of “evil twin” in a Blofeld rewritten as young Bond’s foster brother, he heals enough to leave this world behind. The quartet of film’s become James Bond’s descent into the darkness of the double-0 world, and his eventual rise from those shadows.