It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since the release of the last James Bond movie. The gap even ties the near fatal six-year distance between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye. But it’s true, Spectre came out in 2015. And as we stand on the cusp of its follow-up, No Time to Die, finally arriving in theaters after a delay of 18 months, it’s strange to think back to the arrival of Spectre, and the polarizing response it received.
The last James Bond movie to star Daniel Craig still sits with a 63 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right in that vague netherworld between “fresh” and “rotten.” And while it was an enormous financial success ($881 million at the worldwide box office), it was considered something of a step back since its predecessor, 2012’s Skyfall, which grossed more than $1 billion. It might have been unrealistic to think Bond could hit that mark again, so in relative terms Spectre did quite well on its own terms and as part of the overall franchise.
There are, let’s face it, only a handful of truly great 007 adventures: Casino Royale, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and The Spy Who Loved Me come to mind. But there are likewise several that are almost all universally despised: Die Another Day, A View to a Kill, Diamonds Are Forever, and a couple of others tend to fall into that sorry category. The rest tend to exist in a mushy middle: fun to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon but instantly forgettable until the next time you turn it on while doing laundry.
And yet a pall hangs over Spectre, and it seems as if the fans and critics who found it disappointing are really down on the film. Yet I’d place it solidly in that middle category, and if anything closer to the top. With the exception of its third act (more on that later), it’s a solid Bond outing for the Daniel Craig era, with its star more terse than ever (watching it again, one is struck by how little dialogue Craig actually has), while its action and plot points are mostly in line with the “gritty” feel of Craig’s previous three outings.
It also stretches the Craig template a little, allowing for a few more gadgets, some homages to past films, and a little more humor. In other words, it lets Craig come as close as he ever previously had to the fully formed Bond played by the previous five actors. No, he’s not winking and letting his eyebrows do all the acting the way Roger Moore did toward the end of his run, and he’s not quite the cruel misogynist popularized in the beginning by Sean Connery. But this is Craig’s version of that man.
Some of the Bonds that fall lower in the standings tend to have overly complicated plots, like The World is Not Enough or Octopussy. The plot of Spectre is pretty simple and straightforward: following the death of M (Judi Dench) in Skyfall, Bond goes on one last mission at her request (via a message recorded before she died) and without official authorization from the new M (Ralph Fiennes).
He learns that the man he was sent to kill, an Italian terrorist named Sciarra, has taken his marching orders from an ultra-secret criminal organization—the same entity that was apparently behind the actions of Le Chiffre (Casino Royale), Dominic Greene (Quantum of Solace), Raoul Silva (Skyfall) and Mr. White (the first two). Bond also learns that he and the head of this organization, which is named SPECTRE, have a personal connection going back decades.
Although he’s officially suspended from duty, Bond goes in pursuit of SPECTRE and its chief, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), while also making a promise to the dying Mr. White to protect his daughter, Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux). To make matters worse, there’s also a mole in MI6 who plans to surreptitiously turn the entire surveillance apparatus of British intelligence over to (you guessed it) SPECTRE and Oberhauser.
The story has a linear, straight line: Bond must find and stop Oberhauser while bringing down SPECTRE. There’s plenty of action along the way, including a vertigo-inducing opening battle in a helicopter, a chase in which Bond steers a plane down a snowy mountain slope, and a brutal fight aboard a train between 007 and SPECTRE’s top assassin, the monstrous Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), which deliberately channels the classic train clash between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love.
Hinx and Bond also have a traditional car chase of their own through the winding streets of Rome, in which Bond utilizes some of the enhanced features of his Aston Martin, such as a rear-facing flamethrower and an ejector seat (sadly the machine guns are not loaded, much to Bond’s amusing chagrin). Speaking of gadgets, Bond also gets to deploy an exploding watch, just one film removed from Q (Ben Whishaw) asking him in Skyfall, “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore.”
It’s all in good fun, and most of the first two hours of this lengthy adventure breezes along with a bit less of the solemnity of Skyfall and a touch more (but not too much) of the old Moore and Pierce Brosnan swagger. We also thoroughly enjoy seeing Ralph Fiennes’ M, Ben Whishaw’s Q, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner work as a team and even get their hands dirty in the field.
But then that last half hour hits and it kind of all goes to hell.
We’re not here to yet again relitigate the ending of Spectre and the big reveal of just who Oberhauser is. We’ve done that in our original review and in another recent feature right here. But just to quickly recap: Bond and Madeline are captured by Oberhauser and brought to his lair in a giant crater in the Sahara desert (a crater that looks suspiciously like SPECTRE’s extinct volcano hideout in You Only Live Twice). There we learn that Bond was adopted by Oberhauser’s father after Bond’s parents were killed, and a jealous Franz killed his father, staged his own death, and launched SPECTRE while renaming himself Ernst Stavro Blofeld—all for the sole purpose of seeking vengeance on Bond.
The idea of SPECTRE and Blofeld being behind all the other villains Daniel Craig’s Bond has faced is a sound one—it was, after all, the basis of the first few Connery films—but the notion that Bond’s estranged foster brother started this deadliest of all criminal organizations just because his daddy made him feel sad is ludicrous. By all means, have SPECTRE target Bond, especially after he defeats some of Blofeld’s most fearsome lieutenants, but does it have to be a retconned family squabble?
On top of that, after Bond foils Blofeld’s plan to destroy MI6 and take over its intelligence operation, he leaves Blofeld on the street for M to arrest and walks off into the night with Madeline, a woman with whom he has no appreciable chemistry. Their romance isn’t nearly as well-developed as that of Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale. When Bond almost resigned from the service for Vesper, you believed it. His actions at the end of Spectre are a little more ambiguous. We don’t know if he’s leaving for good or just taking a holiday, and it’s hard to imagine that this Bond, at the height of his skills, would chuck it all away for a woman he barely knows. Which as we’ve since seen from No Time to Die is definitely what was supposed to happen.
If you take those two plot points out of the equation, Spectre is a good film and even an above-average 007 outing. Sam Mendes directs with flair, even if a few sequences are too long and the movie overall could be a little tighter. Meanwhile cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoots the hell out of it, and Thomas Newman’s score is propulsive and exciting. The cast is uniformly good, especially the MI6 crew, Waltz, and Craig himself, even as we wish the long-awaited return of Blofeld could have been… different.
But as Madeline Swann says to Bond, “I’m not going to ask you to change… you are who are you are.” Spectre is what it is. And we’re okay with that.