Note: There will be spoilers involved with the true name of Christoph Waltz’s character in Spectre. Despite how blatantly obvious this may be to anyone vaguely aware of the James Bond franchise, I figured I should still extend a common courtesy. No other specifics will be spoiled here.
James Bond returns for Spectre in many ways. This 24th adventure in the franchise is the fourth for Daniel Craig, who started with the grittier modern reboot of 2006’s Casino Royale that gave Bond an edge and genuine dimension after Pierce Brosnan’s era went completely off the rails. Yet, much in the same way Brosnan’s later films ended up referencing the typical traditions of earlier parts of the series without a personal touch, Spectre has a clear identity crisis on its hands. This entry has one foot in the more over the top past and the other in the character driven present mold of Bond. Nothing necessarily wrong with that in theory; after the previous trilogy dealing with James Bond growing into being a Double Oh, a bit more levity and fun could be a welcome change of pace. Still, it’s a hard balance, especially when this new edition of the franchise has actually taken continuity to heart. So, what does this spell for the potential of future of 007?
Well, for the immediate future, James Bond (Craig) has to deal with the fallout of Skyfall, which involves a mysterious ring that connects an assassin he takes down in Mexico City and the potential liquidation of the entire Double Oh program in favor of a global surveillance network. After interrogating the assassin’s widow (Monica Bellucci), James trails a secret organization known as Spectre, lead by a familiar face from Bond’s past (Christoph Waltz). So, while M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are desperately trying to protect their jobs in a world that seems to be nudging them out of a purpose, James must trace how far Spectre goes, with former target Mr. White’s (Jesper Christiensen) daughter Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) in tow. Explosions, references to older James Bond films and one liners ensue from there.
The Daniel Craig era of James Bond has largely been about exploring the man behind the suit. Casino Royale (my personal favorite of the entire franchise) saw his start as a confused young agent that grows into a bitter killer, Quantum of Solace centered around him finding the compassion to forgive and Skyfall gave him the perspective to realize what that bitter contention could have potentially festered into. Now we arrive at Spectre, which should set Craig’s Bond out to be more like the traditional 007 we know yet with a more appropriate modern twist. Unfortunately, that mostly falls apart in practice. Spectre spends so much time building toward Christoph Waltz’s big shocking reveal that he’s Ernest Blofeld –which should surprise no one who’s decently aware of that character’s iconography or has seen Star Trek: Into Darkness – but doesn’t sell the larger context of what Blofeld’s been doing as head of Spectre or the right reaction James should have to this revelation. The motivation that’s revealed for why the events of not only this film but the three others proceeding has no real weight to it. Nothing from Waltz or Daniel Craig around this reveal seems to have any lingering effect, with this clash between two major players in the franchise being boiled down to a mere petty squabble when it clearly wants to explore something greater and have a deeper symbolic meaning that ultimately amounts to bupkis within the story. At least Craig is in relative top form outside of this subplot, unlike Waltz who is relegated to waiting in the shadows until this dull reveal attempts to make up for lost time.
The way Spectre plays on other major Bond tropes usually falls pray to this similar lack of follow through. For example, our Bond girls are largely bottom of the barrel material. Gorgeous screen presence Monica Bellucci is largely sidelined with the typical minor Bond girl role, capturing the same brief fling for exposition without any sort of engaging twist. Up & coming actress Lea Seydoux is given a more supposedly tactile Bond girl with larger motivations at hand. Seydoux’s character serves as a mixture of multiple previous Bond girls, with dashes of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Anya Amasova, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s Tracy Bond and even Royale‘s Vesper Lind. She’s this reluctant badass of a character who wants to disavow that horrible things her father Mr. White did under Quantum. Not a bad premise for a Bond girl, but one they don’t really evolve beyond her blatantly telling the audience her motivations directly and constantly show her contradicting her goals in the film for plot contrivance rather than the subversion or complexity Spectre is striving for. This lackadaisical storytelling may have been more easy to excuse in earlier James Bond films, but Spectre attempts to set this Dr. Swann up with a more empowered backstory that never really seems to feel like more than the basic skeletal structure of an arc. This especially hurts when Seydoux is supposed to have a passionate romantic chemistry with Daniel Craig, when in reality their onscreen rapport is about as energetic as a wet blanket and fire hooking up in the backseat of a junked station wagon.
While Spectre largely falters to combine both modern and older style of James Bond, there are moments where those two methods actually jell together well. One element that serves as a solid stylistic bridge is Dave Bautista as a henchman that Bond fights, recalling iconic previous characters like Oddjob that Craig’s era hadn’t really touched upon previously. It helps that Bautista is involved in the film’s two best action sequences that have a similar balance of old and new; a car chase through Rome and a hand to hand combat fight on a train. Both to some degree implement the humor and gadgetry of a Roger Moore era while maintaining a tone grounded enough for Daniel Craig’s Bond. These sequences and the opening one shot in Mexico City show off director Sam Mendes’ proficient use of scale and character with action sequences, much like he previously did in Skyfall. I only wish the more choppily edited plane sequence or the incredibly blasÃ© double ticking time bomb finale could have had that too. The finale of Spectre is especially disappointing given that one of the two time bombs revolves around a subplot that tries to more heavily involve M, Q & Moneypenny fighting the Double Oh program’s irrelevancy, which could have served as interesting commentary on surveillance tech. Instead, it’s a background element that’s resolved in an underwhelming fashion, with the only solace being a few fun character bits for the still capable Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris.
All of this –good and bad– still speaks to that previously mentioned identity crisis that the Bond franchise is clearly struggling with. Spectre wants to have its cake and eat it too in terms of appeasing new and old generations of 007 fans, but more often than not Spectre rings hollow as a jarringly inconsistent bloated mess of ideas, with the metaphoric cake batter exploding all over the oven in a massive whirlwind of disappointingly overcooked goop. Our action is lopsided, the villain is wasted on a secretive build up that leads to nothing and the Bond girl is a half assed attempt at toughening up a female character for the series, all in an incredibly overlong package that feels like its relying on the well worn rails of both the Bond franchise and modern blockbusters in general. The most fascinating aspect of the James Bond franchise is how each film serves as a window into the time it was made, whether it be the blaxploitation dominated cinema that soaked heavily in the brine of Live and Let Die, the Soviet-Afghan War that domineered the conflict in The Living Daylights or the parkour craze that gave us the spectacular action in Casino Royale. With Spectre, the window shows a view of potential fun clouded by tired nostalgia, cliches and tonal inconsistency. To quote the appropriately bland Bond song sung by Sam Smith for the film, perhaps “The Writing’s On The Wall” for Craig’s era. I just hope that if he makes at least one more film, it’s one that manages to find a better balance of the old and the new than Spectre does.
Spectre: (2 / 5)