It’s somewhat hypocritical to hear several critics panning the new James Bond film, Spectre (opening today), based on the film’s plot…as if Bond films of the past have set the bar for deep story-telling and complex character study. However the backlash might have been inevitable following the last film in the series, 2012’s Skyfall, a film that is widely considered the best of the Daniel Craig Bond films and quite possibly one of the best 007 movies of all time. Spectre definitely represents a giant leap backwards for the series, now on its 24th chapter. But the major disappointment comes in that it doesn’t seem to want to move the James Bond franchise forward, and instead it chooses to rest firmly on the past. Where at the beginning of Skyfall, a rear-view-mirror was ripped off during the opening car chase that had Bond metaphorically commenting, “We weren’t using that anyways,” it can be argued that the new Spectre film has swung the car back around, re-attached the rear-view, and has decided to focus only on it. Which is a shame, considering the potential and momentum the franchise seemed to have going for it.
In this newest adventure, Bond (Daniel Craig, in what may be his final role as the famous secret agent) receives a message from beyond the grave from M (Judy Dench), his former boss, whom he lost at the end of Skyfall. This sets him on a path that leads to insane jumps through collapsing buildings, fist-fights aboard helicopters spiraling out of control, fist-fights aboard trains with bull-headed thugs and of course, car chases through narrow city streets. It’s as if this was a Planes, Trains and Automobiles re-boot, as imagined by Michael Bay. Of course in-between all of the feverish action, Bond manages to get laid a few times, to flirt with secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), to butt heads with newly-minted M (Ralph Fiennes) and to check in with gadget-master Q (Ben Whishaw), who supplies him with the latest round of corny contraptions that we know will save Bond from danger later on in the film. Oh and of course, Bond also manages to order his favorite drink, a martini “shaken, not stirred.”
And look no further than at how he orders this drink in Spectre, to separate this film from director Sam Mendes’s more successful Skyfall. Bond getting his drink on is a dull and gimmicky moment, but one that we expect to take place in every single film, right along with the famous “Bond. James Bond.” utterance. In Skyfall, Mendes decided to innovate slightly, as we never hear Bond order his drink…he only receives it and says, “Ah, just the way I like it.” In Spectre, he says the famous “shaken, not stirred” line, only for the bartender to say, sorry we don’t serve that here. It’s almost as if Mendes is saying, “Look. I’ve got nothing left.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into Bond’s drink order, but its these artificial exchanges that, to me, have always trapped James Bond films in the cage of being nothing more than formulaic cinema. Pure speculation, but I feel like Skyfall was well-received because it made an attempt to move the character forward after all these years…it tried to break Bond free from the chains of the past, while at the same time respecting the nostalgia inherent in a 007 adventure.
Daniel Craig is still an effective Bond, but the story makes zero sense, not that this is a requirement. The action scenes are worthy of the franchise, if the gadgets and supporting characters are not (Lea Seydoux is especially banal as the newest Bond girl, Madeleine Swann). There are a lot of easter eggs to unpack for long-time Bond fans, but very little substance. Still, to say this movie doesn’t work as a Bond film would be inaccurate. It works, it just isn’t one of the better ones…it’s not Quantum of Solace bad, but it’s not even remotely in the Skyfall ballpark.
So perhaps it’s unfair to have expected Spectre to continue trekking forward into complexity. How much further could they have brought Bond anyways, without continuing to distance the character – and the franchise – from the successful formula of the past? It seems that they decided to abandon the growth of Bond, and they doubled-down on what they felt were the staples of any good Bond movie: Action. Danger. Women. Villains. Nostalgia.
Spectre though, seems to violate the patience and trust of Bond fans by introducing , Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, who was born to be a Bond villain), as a blast from the double-oh-past and as a character responsible for all of the bad things that has happened to Bond since Daniel Craig took over the mantle in Casino Royale. In an effort to keep a plot-twist a secret, they instead keep their villain out of the film for the vast majority of it. It’s a disservice to the movie and to this famous, iconic character from the Bond canon. Newer fans, who may have been brought in during the Daniel Craig era and who don’t have much knowledge of the older movies, will feel especially disappointed in the film’s “big reveal” moment, as it means absolutely nothing to those not in the know.
And while all of the ingredients of a good Bond movie are present, Spectre still feels under-cooked and empty. Just as Skyfall made us lean-in to the possibilities of a deeper, fuller Bond experience, Spectre is discouraging in more ways than one, proof that the apple will never fall too far from the tree. There’s not too many more places this franchise can go, but regurgitation should no longer be an option.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Run Time: 2 hours, 28 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Belluci, Naomie Harris, Andrew Scott, Ben Whishaw, Jesper Christensen, Dave Bautista
Directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Away We Go, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, American Beauty)
Opens locally on Friday, Nov 6, 2015 (check for show times).