To legions of 007 fans in Fresno and all over the world, this marks (possibly) the end of an era. Ever since his debut as the legendary secret agent nearly a decade ago in 2006’s spectacular reboot Casino Royale, Daniel Craig has become the face of James Bond for anew generation. In fact, some have argued that Craig’s interpretation of the character is the single best incarnation since Sean Connery. But now, regrettably, Craig’s tenure as everyone’s favorite British spy may or may not be coming to an end with his latest adventure.
Spectre is the 24th film in Eon Productions billion dollar and now over 50 year old franchise based on the classic character created by Ian Fleming. As the fourth installment in a reboot of the franchise, it serves as a continuation of the events first begun in Casino Royale and later continued in 2008’s disappointing Quantum of Solace and in 2012’s epic Skyfall. As such, it brings the narrative arch of Bond’s journey seen across these films to a close in a complete and satisfying way, though sadly not without some major stumbling points.
The film opens up with Bond on a mission in Mexico City during the Festival of the Dead. Bond has been unofficially ordered by the previous M, who had been killed during the events of Skyfall, to kills two men arranging to blow up a stadium; but in doing so the building they are in explodes and collapses. Bond gives chase to his primary target whom survives the blast, but his actions cause an international incident in the process; although Bond does recover something from his target, a ring with the mysterious emblem of an octopus. Upon his return to London Bond is indefinitely taken off field duty by the current M (played by Ralph Fiennes), who is in the midst of a power struggle with C (played by Andrew Scott), the head of the Joint Intelligence Service, which consists of the recently merged MI5 and MI6. C intends to create the “Nine Eyes” intelligence co-operation agreement between nine countries, and close down the ’00’ section in the process, considering it to be obsolete in favor of drones and more recent surveillance technologies.
Bond disobeys M’s order with secret aid provided by coworker Eve Moneypenny (played by Naomie Harris) and tech specialist ! (played by Ben Whishaw) and travels to Rome to attend his target’s funeral. That evening Bond visits the man’s widow Lucia (played by Monica Bellucci), who tells him about a criminal organisation to which her husband belonged and where they are meeting that evening. Bond enters the meeting by showing the ring, where he sees the head of the organisation. Though he sits in the darkness, the aura this mysterious leader radiates is powerful. Bond concludes that this leader is Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz) and man with ties to Bond’s past and who was believed to be dead. Oberhauser knows that Bond is there and sends his assassin Mr. Hinx (played by Dave Bautista) to give chase. Bond escapes, but after consoling with former enemy Mr. White (played by Jasper Christensen), he learns that this enemy far, far more powerful than he had ever realized and promises White that he will protect his daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (played by Léa Seydoux) from the evil organization known as Spectre.
Together, Bond and Madeleine find themselves on the run front, confronting, and ultimately in the clutches of Spectre and of Oberhauser. But what exactly is the connection this shady villain has to Bond’s past? How far do his connections to Bond’s previous missions really go? And what care Bond do now to finally stop him?
In my review of Skyfall, I credited that film with being an efficient bridge between the modern era Bond with the more larger-than-life versions seen in the past. Spectre continues that flow as well, but unfortunately with less success. Much of this has to do with just with the script, which despite its best efforts fails to mean much or hold the audience’s attention in the same way that Skyfall had done three years prior. There simply doesn’t feel like there is a whole lot of originality here despite some standout element that I will get into in a moment. Because of this, the film feels longer than it needs to as 007 almost aimlessly follows one lead, then another, and another until he arrives at the main villain proper (excluding his initial reveal from the shadows) far later than would have been the ideal, especially considering the film’s 148 minute run time.
Many of the classic Bond tropes are certainly to be found here; the attitude, the villains, a few of the gadgets (primarily the car), and of course the Bond girls (three of them this time). But somehow, unlike last time, the classic elements don’t seem to mesh as well with the modern version that Craig first introduced us to in Casino Royale. In particular, of the four film that Craig has stared in, this particular script may be the most demeaning and shameless in how it handles the female protagonist. We all know the cliché that Bond is going to sleep with every woman that moves but until now we have rarely seen that side of him; honestly, this Bond may be the most monogamous take on the character yet. And yet this time we not only see him courting a women through Mexico City at the beginning only to ditch her a in a hotel room while he begins his mission, but midway through the film he seduces his target’s grieving widow. This might have worked in the sixties and seventies, but today to have Bond go to that tasteless a level (especially if you still remember his love for Vesper in Casino Royale) doesn’t quite feel right…mainly because of how sudden it is.
Maybe that is the core of the problem here: so much of the adventure we can see coming a mile away. I mentioned Bond sleeping with the widow, but halfway through we finally meet the primary Bond girl and I enjoyed her because of how openly stand-offish she is to Bond, not putting up with his behavior and showing that she can take care of herself pretty well. And yet, after disposing of one of Spectre’s goons on a moving train, she literally asks Bond “What do we do now?” And what does the scene immediately cut to? The two of them getting ready to have sex of course!
It is possible that this sense of nostalgic throwback to the flare of the past 007 is intentional since, as the title outright reveals, this film finally does bring a key element of the Bond universe back to the franchise that this examiner has been waiting to see for a long time. For those who don’t know, the criminal organization Spectre has a long, long history with the Bond franchise, going all the way back to the 1961 novel Thunderball and the very first James Bond film Dr. No from 1962. This group is THE group that you think of when you think of evil organization in this franchise and I remain impressed that it took them this long to finally bring them back into the fold.
In fact, the film is satisfying to fans in that regard in that it utilizes the ‘its-all-connected’ methodology that has become more and more common in major franchises by revealing that all of the previous villains and villain groups from the previous Daniel Craig films have all been linked to this one group and have somehow or another been masterminded by this one shadowy puppet master at the top of it all.
And that brings up to the principal villain of the film, Franz Oberhauser, who is simultaneously the most promising and most underwhelming aspect of the film. Christoph Waltz’s casting in this role offers plenty of promise, especially as he offers up his signature mix of, as IGN puts it, charm and dry humor, the character is far, far below the menace and uniquely different threat offered by Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva in Skyfall, who so far far has been probably the best villain of the Daniel Craig series. This is especially disappointing when one learns the full story about who Waltz’s character really is.
Oh yes, you heard me, there is a substantial twist to the character that occurs in the third act which, if you know your Bond history, will surprise absolutely none of you. While I freely admit that the reveal was a great delight to me because it was a character I have waited four films to see brought back into the series, there really is no surprise given the very title of the film and Waltz’s position within the titular organization. Let me put it this way, if you had a problem with the big reveal seen in Star Trek Into Darkness, then chances are you’re going to have a problem with this as well. I will say that I did like how he character was dealt with a the end for the possibilities it offers up for later use in further films.
Staying on the topic of things that work, there is some very good cinematography here. I was especially impressed with the pre-credit sequence in Mexico City where Bond is walking the streets in skeleton costume to a toe-tapping percussive score, weaving in and out of thousands of extras, and scaling the outside of a building in what looks like a single unbroken take that goes on for what feels like a full three minutes. There is some inspired use of lens blur that helps keeps the shots interesting to look at, not as much as, again, Skyfall was with its use of color, but the distortion and use of colors and shadows is appreciated.
The performances here are not the best of the Bond franchises, but there are absolutely some stand out. Daniel Craig continues to show why he is the face of James Bond for the current generation, but if his recent comments in the press are any indication it is no surprise that he doesn’t seem as enthused with his character as he has been in the past. Don’t get the wrong idea, he’s not phoning it in, but something about this performance just seems to be missing something that he has demonstrated before. Christoph Waltz is, I think, well cast as Franz Oberhauser, as I said bringing that dry humor and charm to the role to make him a fun villain to watch. But sadly, through no fault of his own, I think Waltz is burdened by some weaker writing and motivation that could have been better fleshed out…although, again a lot of this could be do to the criminally limited amount of screen time he is allowed here. Léa Seydoux holds her own as Dr. Madeleine Swann, coming off as strong in spirit and in fist beyond just being easy on the eyes, although, again, it might have helped her character and her relationship with Bond had she been allowed into the film earlier and not have to share the film with three other women. In speaking of whom, Monica Bellucci appears as the widow Lucia Sciarra in what sadly does not amount to much more that a glorified cameo, and Naomie Harris reprises her role as Eve Moneypenny in what is now essentially a desk job (obviously a callback to the Connery era of Bond), but she does provide him with some behind-the-scenes back in a very Mission Impossible style setup. Working beside her in that part is Ben Whishaw reprising his role as Q, given more screen time now ans even getting to go out into the field for a few choice scenes. The dynamic between him and Bond develops further here allowing the character to become an effective comic relief. Ralph Fiennes also reprises his role as Gareth Mallory, alias M, taking over for fan favorite Judi Dench (who appears in a brief cameo). He now gets to do more in the role as he appears at odds with Bond and at even greater odds with the new way of approaching homeland defense. That new way is embodied by Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh, alias C, who plays the part both softly and yet menacingly, sadly not enough to cover up a fairly obvious reveal about his role later in the story. Other performances include Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx, Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner, Alessandro Cremona as Marco Sciarra, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White, one of Bond’s old enemies who returns for a very well acted and engaging return scene after his previous appearances in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Overall, Spectre is definitely not the greatest Bond film ever and a far step down from the standards set by Casino Royale and Skyfall, though is absolutely a more enjoyable film than Quantum of Solace. It works well to bring the story lines of the Daniel Craig films to a close and continues the job of bridging the classic vision of 007 with this newer, gritter interpretation, though this time with noticeably less success. The story feels quite uninspired and the ambition does not meet the reportedly extravagant budget and with not a whole lot of truly memorable action. Still, for fans of this new version of Bond it is still entertaining and a must see for the wrap up alone. This examiner gives it an average three stars of five.