Notwithstanding Dublin’s Savoy Cinema’s unfortunate decision to lose their digital copy print and have to delay the start of the film by an hour, it was with great expectation and not a small bit of excitement that I sat down to watch Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Sir Ian Fleming’s iconic spy and Sam Mendes’ second time behind the camera for the same. Skyfall got Bond back onto the right track after the unfortunately humdrum Quantum Of Solace, bringing more of the “classic” Bond staples back into play – Moneypenny, Q, an incredibly over the top villain – while trying to maintain the more serious realism-based surrounding introduced by Casino Royale. Would Spectre be a refined improvement on this formula, or would it mark Craig’s tenure as a metronome swinging between the best of the best and mediocrity?
From Mexico to North Africa, James Bond (Craig) is on the hunt for a mysterious organisation that has its fingers – or, rather, tentacles – in every diabolical pie in the planet, headed by the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) a dark figure from Bond’s past. With the beautiful but enigmatic Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), daughter of an assassin, at his side, Bond relentlessly chases “Spectre”, while the put upon “M” (Ralph Fiennes) butts heads with “C” (Andrew Scott), the new surveillance obsessed head honcho of Britain’s security, with the existence of the Double-O division on the line.
I did find myself enjoying Spectre, but it is accurate to say that it is loaded down with its fair share of faults. In the canon of Daniel Craig Bond films, it would have to be placed, in my estimation, behind Casino Royale and Skyfall, but ahead of Quantum Of Solace. In the larger canon, it would slot comfortably into the second tier of Bond films without too many reservations. What we have in Spectre is a flawed beast, something akin to Skyfall in many ways but underdoing it in many important aspects.
Not that you’ll be thinking that in the first ten minutes or so, as Spectre opens up with a lovely faux one-shorter, following Bond and an unnamed female acquaintance as they wonder through Mexican masses during the Day of the Dead. You don’t have to look too far to see the symbolism in Bond being dressed up as a skeleton: only a few minutes in and he’s doing his license to kill thing, in a helicopter based set-piece that would form the finale of other films, such is its death-defying presentation and adrenaline level. Indeed, it is possible that Spectre, chasing an immediate thrill to get the audience situated, blows its load too early, with subsequent action sequences, while exciting, not quite matching the levels of what the opening serves up.
After a tentacle filled opening title sequence (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one imagining hentai jokes), we get into things properly. Craig’s Bond loves going rogue – he did it a bit in Casino Royale, did it a lot in Quantum Of Solace – and he’s off again in Spectre, tracking the titular organisation over the objections of a chronically stressed out M. In fact, Ralph Fiennes’ version of the spymaster gets a sort of a bum deal when it comes to the main plot, out staged by a video message from Judi Dench’s version, delivered to Bond from beyond the grave, propelling him on the search for Spectre.
Unfortunately, while this central plot could never be said to be lacking in style, it’s fairly lacking in substance. A very odd and thrown together connection between Bond and the head of Spectre, that leads to territory I will discuss in more detail below, fails to really land as well as it should, and the same can be said for the various connections Spectre tries to draw between it and the other Bond films. Le Chiffre, Quantum, Silva, it turns out that Spectre was behind every last bit of it, with Waltz’ Oberhauser describing himself as the “architect of all your pain” when he finally has Bond where he wants to. I suppose the intention is to really craft an image of all powerful evil organisation in the style of Connery’s SPECTRE, but the execution is lacking.
Since the rights issue was only cleared up a short time ago, it’s obvious that this over-arching domination has been cooked up on the fly, with Quantum, the organisation that was created as a replacement for SPECTRE, being cast in the role of a subsidiary suddenly. Spectre is at pains at times to show Bond as moving on from the past – at one point, he pointedly ignores a video tape purporting to show Vesper Lynd – but it just won’t stop with the referencing of the last few films, and beyond that as well: plenty of elements here have popped up in 007 films of the past, with From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service particularly well represented.
Mendes tries to get beyond this referencing with a sub-plot surrounding Bond’s internal dilemma over his lifestyle and career, and how long it can continue. It’s been a while since he told M that Double-Ohs had “a very short life expectancy” after all. But this is retreading too, of the physical and mental crisis that engulfed the character in Skyfall, it just finds more traction with the Madeleine Swann character, a love interest who moves beyond the shallow title of “Bond girl” and helps bring Bond through his adventure with Spectre, all the way to a finale that seeks to bring things full circle for 007 and the Craig era.
But unfortunately, that brings me onto another major problem, which is the films female characters. Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny essentially stops doing anything of importance after the first act while Monica Bellucci is, shamefully, only in the film for all of five minutes, with a character designed to hop into bed with Bond alarmingly fast and just point him in the right plot direction before vanishing. Seydoux’s Swann has much more potential: the daughter of “Mr White”, she’s connected to Bond’s world as much as she is disconnected, and carries the same capabilities of Olga Kurylenko’s Camille Montes from Quantum Of Solace along with the same raw appeal and dazzling back and forth exhibited by Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. For a while, she’s a great presence on screen, Seydoux giving a fine performance as a women both terrified by and attracted to the situation she finds herself in.
But then she turns up to a train dinner in a dazzling dress, again retracing old ground in the form of a similar scene in Casino Royale, and from there, she is just there, a woman without agency, to be ferried around by Bond and occasionally rescued, her importance to proceedings diminishing sharply. It’s a surprising flaw that I thought the Bond films were over: Vesper Lynd’s complex relationship with Bond, Montes’ quest for vengeance clashing with her mental fragility, and M’s motherly relationship with 007 have all marked out Craig’s tenure in terms of interesting roles for women. But, in that respect, Spectre is an unfortunate and disappointing step backwards.
And while I am talking flaws, I should also say a few words about the surveillance state sub-plot that accompanies the man action. While I will pretty much watch Andrew Scott in anything, even as he plays a slightly less threatening Moriarty in this, the sort of anti-government, pro-Snowden style thing on display here is just sort of awkward to watch. It isn’t that I would deny Mendes the chance to enunciate a political point, it’s just I wish it would be done with more subtlety and less cartoonish characterisation: when Scott’s “C” declares the stupidity of resisting mass surveillance because of “democracy, whatever that is” you can only roll your eyes and pray for it all to be over soon. Much better is the more personal killing machine fronted by Bond and M I suppose, and you’re left in no doubt what the filmmaker thinks by the conclusion. The banality of this evil is matched by the glimpses of Spectre itself, an organisation that talks about fake drug production and its involvement in human trafficking/sex trade with a casualness that is just sort of laughable as opposed to chilling.
Having just laid down an avalanche of criticism, it is only fair that I talk good points. The most obvious is Craig himself, stepping back into the spy’s shoes as if he had never taken them off since Skyfall. I described that film once as the best acted Bond film ever: for Craig’s part, he maintains that into Spectre. Here is the Bond of Ian Fleming, with a little more joviality mixed in just so things don’t get too serious. He’s hard, he’s dangerous, he’s impossible to not notice. He radiates confidence and charm, along with that incredibly capability to deal with whatever challenge comes his way, memorably exhibited when he deals with one security guard with the single word “Don’t”. It’s a cliché to describe Bond as a character that men want to be, and that women want to be with, but Craig really does perform Bond in a manner which brings that to mind, in a way that nobody has since Connery’s day. I think it is now more than fair to say that Craig is doing it better than the old master did. There is no other praise that I could give that would be as high as that. Daniel Craig *is* James Bond.
Despite its length – I suppose it could have been trimmed down a tad – Spectre rarely bores, with the same pacing perfection that characterised Skyfall, the film switching between old-school action in the vein of Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, and the more low-intensity spy stuff – secret rooms, decoded messages, meetings at midnight – of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy bent. Like Skyfall, the second act is where much is placed, with the third act left for a more streamlined, exciting finale.
A better blend of humour has also been inserted, with a resistance to quips and more letting the audience make their own joke: a recurring emphasis on what “C” might mean for Andrew Scott’s character, or Bond’s overly polite and understanding reaction to what is, in essence, governmental downsizing at MI6 spring to mind. Bond, and Mendes, have learned well that things can maintain a serious dark tone and still allow the occasional levity, with one moment involving a rat a rather nice bit of self-evisceration in terms of the genre.
It’s also good to see the minor, but permanent, players get involved in a way they just weren’t before the reboot. Notwithstanding Moneypenny’s lack of anything to do – hard to overlook, but I shall – it is a good thing that the likes of M, Ben Whishaw’s Q and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner actually play a role in the film beyond the opening 20 minutes, taking a proactive approach to the war against Spectre and C, and actually being a part of the grand coming together in the third act. Judi Dench is presumably, finally, done with this franchise, but the way her M remained pivotal to things right up to the final moments of Skyfall has hopefully laid the groundwork for the MI6 background crew to actually remain a key part of subsequent plots.
And there is Christoph Waltz too. As a bad guy, it is only to be expected that the mind might wander back in the direction of Hanz Landa in terms of drawing comparisons. And while Franz Oberhauser – more than he appears, and read more below for more on that – is occasionally hamstrung by some odd dialogue and efforts to give him an iconic line (a particular exchange seems like an attempt to ape the famous “I expect you to die” interaction from Goldfinger). But this is Christoph Waltz. While he may not reach Landa-levels of quality, he’s still a chilling and potent villain, not Bond’s physical equal like Silva, but more like Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Green done right: a head honcho who doesn’t get his hands dirty, but who carries with him an tremendous aura of power and threat at all times, in every movement and in every utterance.
And there are Sam Mendes’ visuals as well. While the colour scheme might get a bit repetitive (the Austrian snow really does stand out), matching what we have seen in Skyfall, it’s still a well presented film. The action is expertly choreographed, notwithstanding a bit too much fall back into the world of the shaky cam in nearly every scene with Dave Bautista’s Red stand-in “Mr Hinx”, and there is a nice enough variety in locales and the way they are shot: seething masses of people in Mexico, grey and stoic England, pillared Rome, icy Austria and the pristine desert of North Africa. In Spectre, in keeping with the central plot, Mendes seems to want to play around with light and shadow, with the titular organisation portrayed as one that prefers to be bathed in darkness, especially its enigmatic head, whose initial introduction is practically faceless.
Musically, Thomas Newman steps back into the breach after his fine work on Skyfall, with a similarly sweeping effort this time round. While watching some action sequences, with the backing track “Snow Plane”, I found myself thinking of Serenity’s score, with the percussion mixing with sudden violin intrusions, and a sort of echoey feel to many things. Serenity’s composer is David Newman, Thomas’ brother as I have subsequently found out, and a common musical pedigree is clear to see (or rather, hear). Newman’s work fits really well throughout, building on past work and inventing some nice cues of his own. More debatable is Sam Smyth’s “Writing’s On The Wall”, which has been the subject of some, ahem, mixed opinions since its release. It is a bit odd for a Bond song, most of which start slow, then reach a more up-tempo crescendo by the time of the first chorus and then never look back. Smyth instead starts slow, goes briefly up, and then goes back to slow, and noticeably quiet, for the chorus, giving Spectre’s song an oddly funereal feel, as if it is to be the last Bond song. I think that I appreciate Smyth’s effort to craft something a bit different, and his variances in tone and pitch are to be applauded, not derided.
Some brief spoiler discussion follows.
-The “Cuckoo” nature of the central plot, and Oberhauser’s motivation, was under-developed for me. Maybe we needed more on that from Bond’s perspective, or even a flashback or two, because the idea of Waltz’ character launching his bid to create Spectre and maintaining an intense hatred of Bond the whole time over a fatherly dispute just didn’t seem strong enough.
-And OK, Oberhauser is Blofeld, right down to the fluffy cat and the scar by the conclusion of the film. Wasn’t hard to see that coming, and the actual reveal felt a little clumsy. I don’t think this version of Spectre actually needed to be headed by Blofeld, and it all feels like more unnecessary retreading. Waltz is a good enough actor that he should have been allowed to craft his own unique Bond villain.
-Still, he got to be centre stage at a classic Bond torture scene, more old school than the visceral stuff we saw in Casino Royale, though no less horrific.. And hey, Bond even had to use a gadget – his only one – to get out of it.
-A never-endingly bitter Blofeld leaves Bond with the sadistic choice for the finale, and by then I felt like Mendes was harping on about Bond’s relationships with women a bit too much, Blofeld taunting Bond with the decision to either die with Swann or live with the pain of losing her. He’d known her for only a few days.
-Meanwhile, M took care of C. C really was the trifecta of right-wing strawman: politically connected nepotism, a disdain for human rights and democracy, and in bed with non-governmental agencies. It was impossible not to be happy when he took his tumble off his building, but for me it was more to do with the fact that we wouldn’t have to put up with his presence anymore.
-So, Spectre attempts to craft a narrative of Bond not liking where he is in life, and looking for a way out, having run “out of bullets” in more ways than one. But it is executed fairly late on, and it isn’t hard to see the decision Bond makes leading to more trouble down the road for both him and Madeleine.
-Bond walking away from the life, like he was in the middle of doing in Casino Royale before Vesper’s betrayal, is not a bad thing, but it loses something in how we know it won’t stick. Unless they reboot Bond again – maybe not the worst idea, thinking about it – this is not going to be the happy ending for Bond that it appears to be, Craig or no Craig.
-What is the future? You’d imagine something akin to The Bourne Supremacy I suppose, Bond drawn unwillingly back into the life, presumably under the threats of Spectre and a still alive Blofeld, with Swann in the firing line. That would be predictable to a fault, but I don’t see another way, barring a reboot, for it to occur.
I said at the top that I enjoyed Spectre, and I did, very much so. Craig is immense as always, and one will never get tired of seeing James Bond do his stuff on screen with this much style and this much panache. Christoph Waltz makes for a fine villain, and most of the supporting cast is doing good stuff to. The film is paced excellently, and balances the required seriousness with some welcome humour. The visual direction is superb and the script is, for the majority, something to enjoy. The music is great. The action is well placed and well shot.
Whether all of that is enough to make up for the shallowness in parts of the plot, the hammer-like lack of subtly in the surveillance debate that takes place, the constant and lack of confidence-exposing references to the past of the franchise, or, worst of all, the incredibly poor treatment that the female characters get, will be in the eye of the beholder.
It doesn’t live up to what this Bond and what this director have done before, which is to be regretted. But it is not a total disappointment in my eyes. I was entertained, and at parts I was engaged fully. I’ll watch Daniel Craig as 007 again, without a moment’s hesitation. But perhaps it is for the best that Sam Mendes now walk away from the world of MI6 and leave it for someone else (dare I wonder what I female director might do with Bond? That would be something to get excited about). If Spectre is to be Craig’s swansong, so be it. He’s had an amazing run. Spectre might not be his best offering, but it is one that long-standing Bond aficionados are bound to like, despite its flaws. For that reason, I can recommend it fully.
(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures).