When Skyfall landed James Bond rose to a whole new level. We were treated to a Bond film that both embraced the new, hard edge of Daniel Craig’s Bond, but paid homage to Bond’s past as well. Unlike the dreadfully dour Quantum of Solace this felt like James Bond back in action.
Sprinkled throughout Skyfall were hints that Bond would be returning to his roots. Lines like, “Sometimes the old ways are the best,” weren’t just clever, but also metaphorical to Bond returning to over blown villains, world domination and crazed action. By the end of the film we had Moneypenny back in place, a new M in an old school office and Q back in his lab. The film concluded with Bond answering the question of if he’s ready to get back to work with, “With pleasure M. With pleasure.”
What’s that all mean? It means if you didn’t see Spectre, in all it’s incredibly traditional Bond glory, coming you weren’t paying attention. The question is are the old ways really better?
Director: Sam Mendes
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Spectre is relentlessly old school Bond for better or for worse. It harkens back to the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Moore, the swagger of Connery and even a bit of the romance of Lazenby. This is all pretty interesting since the Craig era of Bond has been marked pointedly by a intentional move away from such things as site gags and gadgets. The return to this style of Bond is both jarring and reassuring, but what can easily be said is this is Craig’s most Bond film, complying with all the stereotypes, tropes and action that one came to expect from Bond pre-Craig. It is repeatedly, and possibly a little overbearingly, wistful about Bond’s past. Almost every scene could be considered a throwback or nod to older Bond films. Then again when you’ve got more than 50 years of cinematic history under your belt it’s hard to avoid not paying homage, which is the nice way of saying copying.
The plot is definitely a repeat. In fact, much like Moonraker after The Spy Who Loved Me, Spectre is the same general idea as Skyfall, but bigger and more ridiculous. We open with Bond pursuing some extra curricular assassination in Mexico City. Turns out he’s hot on the trail of an evil organization, eventually revealed to be Spectre, who Bond must destroy in order to save the world from domination. Spectre is basically Quantum from the first two films, but now they’re calling it Spectre because old Bond is back (and legal reasons). Much like Skyfall the villain has a personal connection with Bond, is obsessed with collecting information for power and is looking to overthrow MI6. Bond proceeds to jump from one action sequences in a stunning locale to another as the movie attempts to unfold a lackluster mystery and develop an even more confusing relationship between Bond and Mr. White’s (remember him) daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). If you’re one for logic, pacing and avoiding plot holes this Bond is not for you.
However, if you’re one for fast cars, gadgets, one-liners, prolific actions sequences and a general sense of fun then strap in. This film is all style and no substance, but, man, does it have style. This is easily the most charming Craig’s Bond has been, which isn’t too difficult since the previous three films focused more on the man than the myth. The screenplay, full of the kind of one-liners and site gags that made Bond Bond, might fall through in many ways, but it gives Craig a chance to have a lot of fun. Thanks to the comments he’s made after shooting the film it’s hard to say if he actually enjoyed the process, but there are moments here that rival Connery in their flippant bravado including what might be the sexiest delivery of the line, “Bond, James Bond,” ever spoken. He an Seydoux have fantastic chemistry on screen, and if they’re taking the character the direction it seems they are then that’s going to be incredibly important.
The action is also easily Craig’s best. Casino Royale barely had any as it was far more a character study, Quantum‘s was shoddily directed and Skyfall featured some amazing set pieces, but nothing that compares to the brutal fights and overblown action of Spectre. The opening sequence is a stunning helicopter battle that’s an airborne take on the historic train fight from From Russia With Love. It opens the film with a bang, that is unfortunately followed by Sam Smith’s disappointment of a song and an opening credits sequence that involves some tentacle porn and will illicit giggles. Get through that, however, and you’re slam back into the action, which doesn’t let up until the very end of the film’s more than two-and-half hour running time. We’re treated to what is easily some of the franchise’s best action.
Sam Mendes’s direction is once again stunningly gorgeous and despite the departure of cinematographer Richard Deakins the movie is still one of Bond’s most striking. Bond has never looked sharper, with Craig going through more outfit changes than a female Oscar host and Mendes doing everything in his power to make him look awesome. A perfectly tailored white dinner jacket (this is the latter) in a train ripped from the 50s lit like it’s Casablanca pulls an entire scene together and makes you happy they went so old school this time around.
Unfortunately, when style isn’t a factor things start to fall apart. This is especially true for the villains of the film who are universally wasted. Christoph Waltz’s Hans Oberhauser spends the first half of the film in the shadows only to be revealed as a limp, uninteresting character who can barely muster up a convincing monomaniacal monologue. How can you so misuse Waltz as a Bond villain? It seems almost criminal in and of itself, and yet the character is flat and hampered with a plot line that doesn’t just make his character worse, but the entire movie. The sad part is this specific piece of the story is almost entirely unnecessary, and seems to have been stuck into the movie simply to attempt to put some of Craig’s Bond’s “emotion” into the story. It doesn’t work, and in turn detracts from where the true emotional focus should be between Bond, Swann and M — the true character conflict of the film that gets totally lost in the movie’s desperate attempts to offer up twists.
Even the movie’s henchman, another staple returning in true form for the first time in a Craig film, suffers from a lack of attention. Hinx (Dave Bautista) bursts on the scene showing off his metal thumbnails, giving off echoes of Jaws, and then is relegated to a large thug for the rest of the movie. It’s a completely illogical choice, especially with such a charming guy as Bautista. Imagine if Oddjob simply threw his hat once in Goldfinger and the decided not to use it again. Hinx does just this and spends the rest of the film running after Bond in cars. Now, he is involved in a fantastic train fight, but he really could have been replaced by any brute. It’s just another way Spectre wastes its potential to be a truly great Bond film.
SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPHS
I hate to write about spoilers for a movie most people haven’t seen, but it plays such a large role in this movie and fails so badly that I must bring it up. You’ve probably guessed it by now anyway: Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld. The film treats this as if we’re all supposed to be surprised, but they gave it away by naming the movie Spectre and so when the foot drops it lands with a dull thud. They may have known this as they attempt to pile on other plot twists from here on out to make up for it, but there are about a million different ways this could have played out better, especially if Waltz had decided to bring any life to his character.
This all concludes in an ending that is flat and disconnected. In a film filled with prolific action sequences the movie ends with nothing. Instead of an epic take-down of the villain we’re given a tepid gun shot that culminates more than two ours of action with no emotional punch. This is followed by a conclusion that feels confusing and out of character for Bond. That may be because the next film is going to bring back the Lea Sedoux character. If this is so it could make the ending work, but as it stands on its own it leaves an odd taste in one’s mouth.
It’s also odd that in a film that is clearly obsessed with bringing Bond back to his roots that they ignore one of the most unique aspects of the franchise: it’s almost complete disregard for continuity. Instead a ham-fisted attempt is made to connect Bond’s last three adventures to this one. Much like Obenhauser’s plot points it is generally not needed and only serves to convolute the story. The problem is this clearly wasn’t intended from the start. Yes, Quantum may have been a big, evil organization that the filmmakers originally intended to develop, but after they ditched it in Skyfall their plot line fell apart. Now we get a forced conclusion to the story that tries to tie up loose ends as if Bond wasn’t a film franchise that was built on completely ignoring whatever happened in the previous films. How many Bond girls have completely disappeared? How many villains are never mentioned again? Why force continuity on a movie that doesn’t need it?
The question becomes what do you want from your Bond film? If the hard reset we received when Craig took over the mantle was up your alley then this step back in time is going to seriously disappoint. If you’ve missed the days of ejection seats, gadget-filled cars and perfectly timed quips then Spectre is the Bond you’ve been waiting for. It’s a return to form for Bond, but that form was never for everybody. In the pantheon of Bond films Spectre is definitely on the middle-high end, but in Craig’s tenure it is an outlier filled with things that will either make you love it or hate it. The big problem is if you don’t love the things its brought back then it’s flaws are too great to get over. It’s ramshackle plot and poor villains make it incredibly difficult to enjoy if you don’t enjoy Bond.
When I wrote my review of Casino Royale many years ago I noted that Bond’s gun barrel opening had been changed, it was then shoved to the end of Quantum of Solace and again to the end of Skyfall. I noted that this was all well and good since these films were about Bond becoming Bond, but that eventually the gun barrel would have to return to the beginning of the film once the character had returned to has traditional ways. In Spectre the barrel is back at the beginning and Bond is definitely back to his old ways. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you. I think it’s a great thing, but it could have been done in a better movie.