This Spectre review contains spoilers. We’ve hidden some of them, though, so you can highlight to read.
With Spectre, the 24th film in the official James Bond canon and the fourth to feature Daniel Craig as 007, the franchise takes essentially a victory lap after rebooting and reinventing the character over the course of the three previous films. Whereas Casino Royale (2006) found Bond stripped to his essential nature, and Skyfall (2012) saw him trying to figure out just who he was and how he fit into the world, Spectre sees him in a much more traditional light.
With all his classic components restored – the M/Q/Moneypenny support team, a few more gadgets and a little more humor – the film often plays as a celebration of the entire Bond legacy. It’s only when that approach clashes with the more character-driven development of the last several films that Spectre falters and its flaws – of which there are at least two glaring ones – take center stage.
The film kicks off with one of the series’ best opening sequences, as director Sam Mendes (returning from Skyfall) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) follow Bond with a tracking shot that’s several minutes long as he and an unnamed female companion (Stephanie Sigman from Miss Bala) weave their way through a Day of the Dead parade on the streets of Mexico City. Bond, of course, is doing his own tracking, and the scene unfolds into a bravura action setpiece that features a collapsing building, a tense chase through the streets and a panic-inducing fight aboard an out-of-control helicopter.
All that chaos lands Bond in hot water back at MI6, where we learn that he was acting on his own and not under orders. A chagrined M (Ralph Fiennes) grounds 007, telling him that his antics will give the new head of British security, the oily C (Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarty), the excuse he needs to shut down the 007 program and initiate his own total global surveillance initiative with the help of several other major countries.
Bond, naturally, disobeys and heads back out into the field, where we learn that his foray into Mexico City was on behalf of a cryptic message from the past, and that the road he’s on leads to a confrontation with SPECTRE, a shadowy criminal organization run by a man named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) – a man with whom Bond shares a deep and surprising connection.
Although some of the inciting elements – Bond going rogue (again), MI6 being reviewed (again) and the global security/information backdrop that is used in so many thrillers these days – are shopworn, Spectre rolls past them with solid pacing, a tense atmosphere, and a series of action sequences that form the core of the movie’s homage to Bonds past. There is a mountaintop ski sequence that pays tribute to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (albeit with Bond in a plane instead of on skis), a torture sequence that plays like a high-tech remake of the laser scene in Goldfinger, and a brutal fight aboard a train between Bond and SPECTRE’s killing machine Hinx (Dave Bautista) that is straight out of From Russia With Love (there are a lot of smaller Easter eggs as well, including a reference to one of the few Bond stories that has not had its title slapped on a movie at some point).
All of this is instantly recognizable to Bond fans and, in the case of this writer, immensely enjoyable: as a 2015 take on the classic Bond films, Spectre is thoroughly entertaining. Craig is completely comfortable and confident in the role at this point, and his slightly more humorous take is a tip of the hat to the later exploits of Connery and Moore without being too goofy.
The triumvirate of Fiennes, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q is as terrific in its own way as the original trio of Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn, and it’s nice to see Q in the field while M gets his hands dirty as well. As for Waltz, he’s almost too obvious a choice to play a Bond villain, and he does largely what you would expect him to do – but there are issues with his character that we can only get into through the heavy use of spoilers.
So yes, Spectre is thrilling and fun in a way that makes it different to some degree from Craig’s earlier efforts, but as we hinted earlier, there are two major problem areas. The first is with the movie’s “Bond women.” Casino Royale provided one of the series’ best female leads ever in Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), but the series has been on a downward trajectory ever since (we can barely remember the women of Skyfall, frankly). The first in Spectre, played by Italian actress Monica Bellucci, is underused terribly, especially considering that the production employed a major European star for the role – she’s in and out of the picture in under 15 minutes. But the second, Dr. Madeline Swan (Lea Seydoux), presents more serious problems.
Swan is the daughter of a character from one of the earlier films, and Bond pledges to protect her from SPECTRE (whose reason for going after her is never made especially clear). A relationship inevitably blooms between the two and becomes what is supposed to be a crucial part of the film’s climax. But unlike Casino Royale – where Bond’s romance with Vesper felt real and electric and powerful, giving that film’s ending real weight – the relationship with Swan never feels quite as developed and real, and only serves as a perfunctory plot device that seems off balance with the decisions Bond makes in the movie’s final act. Seydoux has a great look for a Bond woman and is a fine actress, but she can’t do much with what she’s given either: the supposedly self-sufficient Swan all too quickly becomes a damsel in distress right out of the Moore era.
The film’s second major issue is with Oberhauser, SPECTRE itself and the nature of both, and we now need to plunge into serious spoilers. Some of you might be familiar with this if you followed any of last year’s Sony Pictures leak scandal, through which at least one version of the SPECTRE script got out, but if not, now’s the time to either skip the next three paragraphs or proceed at your own risk…
(highlight to read)
It’s revealed late in the film that SPECTRE has been behind every previous nemesis this version of Bond has faced – Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Mr. Green in Quantum of Solace and even Silva in Skyfall – which in itself is a viable proposition: after all, the original SPECTRE and its mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, were behind Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Red Grant and Emilio Largo in the first four Connery movies. But it also turns out that SPECTRE head Franz Oberhauser, Waltz’s character, is the son of a man who raised Bond for a while after Bond’s parents were killed. And although the two boys were meant to see each other as brothers, little Franz grew resentful that his father seemed to clearly like young James more. So Franz killed his father (making it look like an accident), faked his own death as well, and went off to found his criminal empire under a new name – can you guess what it is?
The idea that SPECTRE and Blofeld were created indirectly through Bond himself is an insult to all three, not to mention the spirit of the original Ian Fleming novels. Making an evil organization of global reach and ambition the result of petty childhood envy makes Blofeld himself smaller, but tying it to Bond’s family history (something that Craig and Mendes were apparently keen to do) is even more egregious and the kind of lazy storytelling that has permeated other franchises like The Amazing Spider-Man and the recent Star Treks. Even the way in which Oberhauser/Blofeld reveals his current identity is as ineptly handled as the Khan reveal in Star Trek Into Darkness – it will mean absolutely nothing to anyone watching who does not know the full history of the series (which will be a lot of people: Blofeld’s last major appearance in a Bond film was in 1971).
It’s outrageous to posit that everything SPECTRE has done, all the chaos, killing and destruction it has wrought over the years, has all been essentially to get James Bond because someone had daddy issues. First of all, that undercuts the original concept of Bond himself, and second – enough with the daddy issues in these franchises. They’re tired and clichéd and ridiculous, and they have no place especially in this series. We know Craig likes his Bond to have a haunted past, but to have him be the center of the universe from which all this other activity springs forth – that’s taking it way too far.
Okay, spoilers are over, but the fact is that the reveal discussed above lets the air out of the movie during its climactic scenes, especially when coupled with the Bond/Swan dynamic. So what exactly is Bond doing at the end of this film? At the end of Skyfall, he was supposed to be the fully formed, classic 007 we all know from history. But what he does at the end of Spectre (and yes, that’s the official way the movie title is spelled, although we never even hear what it stands for) doesn’t really make sense in terms of what has come before, especially since we know he’ll be back three years or so from now.
So yes, Spectre has those tremendous issues, but we can still honestly say we were entertained and even gripped by the film for at least two-thirds of its running time. The celebratory aspects of the movie are its best parts, and it’s only when the story tries to wrap this Bond, his previous adventures and his overall history into one little package that the movie sells its hero, its villain and its legacy short. Spectre may indeed be a victory lap for a franchise that has gone around the track just about longer than any other, but it stumbles just before the finish line.
Spectre is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 6).