On its own, I can’t argue that Spectre is the weakest of Daniel Craig’s outings as 007; it’s entertaining and, at times, quite stylish…but it’s also overlong, a bit short on humor, and seems to waste as many opportunities as it seizes upon. But taken as the final (?) chapter of its own mini-saga within the greater Bondiverse, it’s a satisfying send-off for Craig’s take on Bond, and though its attempts to tie the previous three films together don’t hold much water, they are delicate enough to not insult the viewer’s intelligence.
The chilly critical reception aside, Spectre is never less than watchable and merits its place in the series. And as a big fan of the series, it most certainly did not break my heart.
We begin in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, as Bond tracks down a terrorist named Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), and kills him–but only after setting off an explosion in an apartment block and engaging in a fight inside a helicopter flying over the revelers. Back in London, an incensed M (Ralph Fiennes) suspends Bond from active duty, as Bond’s actions were unauthorized–but it’s not just insubordination which motivates M’s wrath.
Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), a government official, has been working to set up a multinational surveillance program called Nine Eyes, which collates the intelligence operations of nine different nations. To facilitate Nine Eyes, Denbigh is pushing for the dissolution of the 00 program, and Bond’s rogue activities only play into his hands.
Bond reveals to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he tracked down Sciarra based on a message left by the previous M (Judi Dench) shortly before her death, urging him to kill Sciarra “and don’t miss the funeral”. The funeral is in Rome, and with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond attends the funeral, where a man seems to notice him but does not reveal his identity.
Bond speaks to Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), and later saves her from a pair of assassins, whereupon she reveals that, with her husband dead, she is marked for death. She reveals that he was a member of a secret organization which meets but rarely–and is doing so that evening to resolve the issues raised by his death. Bond goes to the meeting, using a ring he took from Sciarra to pose as a member of the organization, but its shadowy leader (Christoph Waltz) reveals that he knows of Bond’s presence–and knows Bond personally.
Bond escapes, pursued by the silent, brutal Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), while learning from Moneypenny that a figure referenced in the meeting, “The Pale King”, is none other than Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Bond finds White hiding out in the Austrian Alps, mortally ill, and makes a deal with White to protect his daughter in exchange for her taking him to “L’Americaine”. White then commits suicide.
Bond travels to an isolated clinic where White’s daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), is working as a therapist. He tells her of White’s death, whereupon she tells him to leave. He then is met by Q, who urges him to return to London lest their careers (and Moneypenny’s) be terminated. Bond then sees Madeleine be abducted by Hinx and his henchmen, and gives chase.
After rescuing Madeleine (who initially wants nothing to do with him), Bond convinces her to take him to L’Americaine, which turns out to be a hotel in Tangiers. They stay in White’s favorite suite, which Bond picks apart for clues, finally discovering a secret room where they discover co-ordinates for a location deep in the desert. They set out by train and are tracked down by Hinx, who is finally disposed of after a lengthy battle.
Arriving at a remote station, they are soon met by a driver who takes them to an installation hidden away in the desert, where it turns out they have been expected. And who should be expecting them but the organization’s–or should I say Spectre’s–mysterious leader, a man hailing from Bond’s past, Franz Oberhauser…
…and here I will drop the shoe and say that yes, Oberhauser is none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as I had suspected from the moment the title was revealed. As with Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” or Marion Cotillard’s “Miranda Tate”, the studio strove to convince us that Oberhauser was Oberhauser. Unlike those other examples, Oberhauser is indeed the character’s real name (Blofeld is his mother’s family name, we learn), but the basic idea remains; the studio tried to fake us out, and anyone who knows the series well enough to know who Blofeld is should not be the slightest bit shocked by the revelation.
But that’s a matter which ceased being relevant the moment the film was first screened to the public. What matters now is the quality of the film itself, and it’s a mixture of highs and lows more in keeping with Skyfall than with Casino Royale or the terribly underrated Quantum of Solace.
The film begins with a bang which virtually every review cites: a stunning long-take which begins on the street amidst the Day of the Dead celebrations, follows Bond and Estrella (Stephanie Sigman) into their hotel, into the elevator, into their room (where Bond postpones their lovemaking to stake out Sciarra), and across the rooftops as Bond makes his way to Sciarra’s location. It really is a dazzling bit of work, and the battle which follows is nearly as good; the editing is a touch choppy at times, but the fight inside the helicopter, with Bond and Sciarra barely hanging on as it careens around the sky over a crowded square, is a thrill.
But then we get to the credits sequence. I had listened to Sam Smith’s ballad “Writing’s on the Wall” when it first bowed, and was not too impressed; the instrumental isn’t bad, but Smith’s vocals just don’t work for me. The credits themselves are adequate, foreshadowing the film’s attempt to connect Craig’s previous outings, but Daniel Kleinman (who’s been doing Bond credits since GoldenEye) does not top or even come close to his work on Skyfall; he never quite settles on a motif, and the result lacks the distinction of the best Bond titles.
From there on out, the film is more uneven than I would like. There’s some fine action–the train battle, widely considered an homage to From Russia with Love, is superb–and some stylish filmmaking–Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t match Roger Deakins’ awe-inspiring work on Skyfall, but he pulls off some lovely shots, like those of the train set against the Saharan dusk.
But at 148 minutes, it feels too large for its relatively simple story–many reviews have suggested the story lets the film down, and it’s not one of the great Bond narratives, to a large degree repeating the obsolescence theme found in Skyfall (though, to its credit, it never hammers its themes home quite as awkwardly as that film did). Much of the film feels on the dry side, and if it avoids some of Skyfall‘s weaknesses, it also lacks the flair and invention which made so much of that film so good.
A number of missed opportunities make it a more frustrating experience. Just as virtually every review cites the long-take at the beginning, so the majority of them lament Bellucci’s rather tiny role. And they’re not wrong. She has maybe 5 minutes of screentime, and while she does a strong job in those few minutes, giving her scenes a kind of weary glamour, it really amounts to nothing but a glorified cameo. Even Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies had more to do, and given the potential of having a Bond girl who was not only mature but age-wise a match for Bond (Bellucci is 51 to Craig’s 47), the film’s failure to do much with her rankles.
The prospect of having Dave Bautista playing a Bond henchman excited me after his wonderful comic work in Guardians of the Galaxy, but in Hinx the film also falls dreadfully short; he’s a mostly silent and completely anonymous brute, imposing because of Bautista’s inherent presence but with none of the character or humor of Oddjob or Jaws. He isn’t even given much room to make his reactions memorable; he’s just there to be a hulking body, and that the film wasted Bautista’s charisma is truly baffling.
Then there’s the matter of Waltz. Here the reviews reach less of a consensus, some claiming he repeats the same tricks he used in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, others suggesting he makes a solidly effective Blofeld. I lean more toward the latter; his work here is surprisingly subdued, given the campy potential of the character, and while he doesn’t get all that much to do (even if Craig doesn’t return, I can’t imagine Waltz is done with this character), he shows to fine effect how his soft voice can conceal a storm of emotion.
We learn that Oberhauser was once a kind of foster brother to Bond, his father having taken in the recently orphaned Bond, and his feelings of being supplanted led him to bring about his father’s death in an avalanche, which he used to give out that he too was dead. All this is to say that Waltz tinges Oberhauser’s keen malice with a sense of genuine resentment; he tells Bond he is “the author of all your pain”, but one guesses that in his mind, Bond is the author of his.
Seydoux at times feels a touch lost, as the role of Madeleine doesn’t offer the same opportunities for spunk and humor that her role in Blue is the Warmest Color did, but as the film progresses and Madeleine’s connection to Bond deepens, she finds her footing and becomes one of the better overall Bond girls, especially in acting terms, though even she can’t make the bizarre, contrived moment where Madeleine parts ways with Bond right as he’s setting off on a mission (only to get captured almost immediately) work. And her entrance into the train’s dining car in a pale blue (or…light green?) gown is truly striking.
The rest of the supporting cast does reliably strong work, from Fiennes’ embattled M to Harris’ steadfast Moneypenny to Whishaw’s nebbishy Q, and Scott is suitably arrogant as Denbigh (though I feel like he’s a touch young for the character). Christensen gives White a poignant send-off, a nice contrast to the character’s soft-spoken wickedness heretofore.
That leaves Craig, who may or may not be bidding the role farewell. I wouldn’t mind it if he does; he does just fine here, refining his Bond’s particular sense of hard-edged snark (there’s a great moment where he fights off one goon and yells at another “NO! STAY!”) and brutish determination. It feels as if he’s brought his take on the role to a fitting conclusion; having finished the arc which began in Casino Royale, at film’s end he rides off with Madeleine (the first time Craig has gone off into the sunset with his leading lady), and you could almost believe he doesn’t need to return.
But as we all know, James Bond Will Return. Just…maybe with a fresh interpreter?
Sam Mendes’ direction may not make quite the same visual magic with van Hoytema as it did with Deakins, and it may coast more than it soars, but when his work shines, it does shine (that prologue really is amazing). Dennis Gassner provides some fine sets, especially for Blofeld’s desert installation, which includes a torture chair which Blofeld uses to drill into Bond’s head, suggesting that a drill in the right place could wipe out his memory or his senses.
Lee Smith’s editing packs a punch at times and sags just a touch in others. Thomas Newman’s score is crisply effective. The visual effects and sound design are as good as one could want.
The script is by series veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan (who worked on Skyfall) and Jez Butterworth (who worked on Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up, and Black Mass). Early word suggested the film would be heavy on the inside references, which worried me, as such nods can be overly self-conscious; Skyfall was marred by such winkery. Luckily, Spectre is mostly devoid of the cutesy.
It is not possessed of a great deal of depth, though, and when Blofeld states that he and Spectre (or will they still call it SPECTRE–the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion?) were behind Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva, it feels a little dubious, and the subtler nods to series continuity, like Bond discovering a tape left by Mr. White of Vesper Lynd’s interrogation, are much more successful. (And that’s without mentioning the weird house of memories Blofeld builds for Bond near the end.)
In the end, though the story is a typical Bondian point-to-point adventure, it gets the job done and ends with a decent sense of closure. And it’s the satisfaction of that resolution, with MI6 hopefully saved and Bond truly happy for the first time in years, that leaves me feeling as positively towards Spectre as I do. It will probably never be one of my favorites in the series, but it is ultimately worthy of the Bond name.
P.S.: So, now that I’ve seen Spectre, where would I squeeze it into my overall series ranking? Let’s see…
Let’s say, for the moment, it goes at #13, between GoldenEye and Thunderball, like so…
- From Russia with Love
- Licence to Kill
- Dr. No
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
- Quantum of Solace
- Casino Royale (2006)
- The Spy Who Loved Me
- The Living Daylights
- The Man with the Golden Gun
- For Your Eyes Only
- Never Say Never Again
- Casino Royale (1967)
- You Only Live Twice
- Diamonds are Forever
- Live and Let Die
- A View to a Kill
- Die Another Day
- Tomorrow Never Dies
- The World is Not Enough