I don’t usually do this, but it’s difficult to discuss Spectre without going into a couple of details that could be considered spoilers. The main one is what you doubtless already know, but just in case here’s a fair warning.
Spectre finds itself in a rather different position than its predecessor Skyfall did three year ago. Skyfall was bringing the James Bond series back after an unusually long hiatus fraught with financial difficulties threatening the future of the series, not to mention following up on the underwhelming Quantum of Solace. Spectre on the other hand has to follow Skyfall, a triumph that gave the series almost unanimous critical acclaim and an unprecedented $1 billion worldwide box office total. Expectations are somewhat higher, and the pressure is on for Spectre, and returning director Sam Mendes to deliver.
The film certainly kicks off in style, opening with a tremendous sequence set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Mendes chooses to craftily edit takes together to make the opening shot, as we follow a masked 007 (Daniel Craig) through the parade, up to a hotel, then out to a rooftop to commit an assassination, appear as if it’s all a single, unbroken 4-5 minute take. This brief mission leads to a foot chase and a spectacular fight scene inside an out-of-control helicopter. It’s quite the display of confidence from Mendes, beyond simply continuing the tradition of starting Bond films with eye-catching set-pieces, immediately reassuring audiences that this can live up to Skyfall.
Unfortunately, Spectre almost completely fails to keep up this level of excitement. It’s tempting to describe the film as going slowly downhill after the title sequence, which features some unusual and creative imagery involving tentacles (!), but is sound-tracked by a dull and instantly forgettable theme song courtesy of Sam Smith. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that though, as there are a couple of excellent later set-pieces as well.
All of these involve Bond being pursued in some way by a villain named Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista). It would be easy to see Hinx as just another silent, hulking goon in the tradition of many other Bond henchmen dating back to Oddjob, but Bautista brings a physicality to the role that feels genuinely threatening to Bond.
Making sure to cross off a number of international locations as all Bond movies should, these encounters each take place in different countries. The first is a car chase through the streets of Rome where Bond is driving a prototype Aston Martin he’s stolen from Q branch. The kinetic sequence actually amusingly plays up on previous such chases as Bond doesn’t know exactly what the car can do, and even then some of the extra features don’t function properly. The next pivotal chase involves Bond crashing down the mountains of Austria in a damaged plane and is also a great deal of fun.
The stand-out though is a brutal fist fight that takes place on a luxurious train coursing across North Africa. It’s obviously a call back to the Orient Express brawl in From Russia with Love but lives up to that very high standard. Making the most of its claustrophobic environment and emphasizing that Craig’s Bond is not some kind of superhuman, it’s as tough and memorable a fight scene as a Bond film’s had.
Mr Hinx is just a henchman though; he’s not the film’s primary villain. That honour goes to Christoph Waltz, an actor who seemed destined to play a Bond baddie at some point, and continuing the Craig era’s line of selecting acclaimed European thespians as antagonists. Waltz plays Franz Oberhauser, the leader of the shadowy international organisation whom Bond is tracking following the lead from Mexico.
Nope, I can’t keep this up. Waltz’s character is exactly who you thought it was following this film’s announcement; he is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE. Those familiar with the behind the scenes history of this series will know that Blofeld was intended to remain Bond’s nemesis for longer than he eventually stuck around for; Carl Stromberg, the villain from The Spy who Loved Me was originally supposed to be Blofeld for example. Copyright issues over the ownership of the character meant that Eon Productions were ultimately unable to use him in any future instalments, hence the bizarre sequence that opens For Your Eyes Only when Bond drops a gibberish-spouting “man in wheelchair” down an industrial chimney, intended to send the message that they didn’t care about losing the copyright.
Eon didn’t get the rights to the character back until very recently, and this is the first time they’ve actually had a chance to put him in a movie again. As such, Spectre attempts to ret-con key events in the previous Craig films to tie them into the character, making him, as he puts it “the architect of all Bond’s pain”. I appreciate the effort to create a through-line for all the Craig films, the first time this has really been done since the Connery era, but at the same time I wish they’d done a slightly better job at it. No real explanations are given as to how Blofeld was controlling things, we’re just shown some black and white photos of now deceased characters, including villains and allies and asked to take his word for it.
The revelation of his new identity, (Blofeld is a name he takes on) is one of those moments that, as many critics have pointed out, only means something to the audience, having none whatsoever for the characters in the scene. At least Mendes has Waltz announce it quite nonchalantly, rather than playing it up as some huge twist.
What is does play up more though, and not to its advantage, is the connection Blofeld has to Bond. Rather than simply having his dislike be the product of Bond continually thwarting his plans, Spectre opts to make them long-lost step brothers, Bond having lived with Blofeld’s father for 2 years following the death of his parents. This just didn’t work for me at all; it’s a needless backstory that raises more questions than it does answers. The film’s handling of this information is careless too, Bond knows this from the moment he first sees him but declines to mention it to anyone else until Waltz has a chance to explain it to the audience. I couldn’t help but be briefly reminded of 24’s terrible sixth season, where that once fresh and exciting show became turgid and irrelevant as it started bringing in Jack Bauer’s, previously unheard-of estranged family members.
On paper, Waltz seems like the ideal actor for a modern take on Blofeld, and his casting was likely one of the reasons so many people cottoned on to his real identity straight away. He’s fine here, but doesn’t really try to do anything particularly new with the character. He’s perhaps at his best in the earlier scenes when he’s more of a sinister mysterious figure, rather than when he’s un-ironically monologuing like a classic super-villain. Without doubt, Waltz does not manage create an instantly iconic villain in the manner that Donald Pleasance’s take on the character did in 1967.
The other eye-catching piece of casting in the movie was Monica Bellucci. Here was a chance for Eon to shake-up the formula for a bit, and have an older Bond (Craig’s 47 now) hook up with a woman around his own age. Bellucci seemed like an ideal choice, still stunning at 51, her and Craig make a pertinent couple. However she’s completely wasted in what amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. As the wife of one of Bond’s targets, she does little more than just have sex with Bond then give him some information. What’s worse, the manner in which this happens is quite uncomfortable and comes across as the rapiest Bond’s been since the Connery years. At least she’s not then unceremoniously killed off but that’s the most you can say for her appearance.
Bond’s main love interest is in fact Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the estranged daughter of Mr White (Jesper Christensen) who returns from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Bond promises to protect her once he knows she’s been targeted by SPECTRE and she winds up joining him for the bulk of the film’s latter half. Now there have been some terrible ‘Bond girls’ before, with A View to a Kill’s Stacey Sutton probably beating The World is not Enough’s Dr Christmas Jones for the top spot. Madeleine nowhere near as bad as that, and Seydoux’s a decent actress, but she’s just sorely underwritten.
Her main purpose in the film is to be rescued by Bond, which happens more than once. She also does the typical thing of informing Bond that he won’t be getting anywhere near her only to have a complete change of heart a short while later and throw herself at him. This isn’t just some final note to end the film on either, their romance is supposed to be taken quite seriously. When she first tells Bond that she loves him I honestly thought it was part of some act to help get him out of his current situation, but then later we learn it was supposedly genuine. There’s just nothing of substance in the film to sell them falling for each other in the way the film’s conclusion would like us to believe.
Similarly under-explained is the previous connection she is supposed to have to both Bond and Blofeld. Blofeld makes comments about their meeting being a “reunion” then never elaborates on what this refers to. Presumably she must then be older than she looks too if that’s to be believed.
In addition to Bond’s adventures abroad, the film is interspersed with returns to London where the new M (Ralph Fiennes) clashes with fellow Government operative C (Andrew Scott) over the future of the 00 program. Plot-wise these can be a little less-interesting but all the minor characters work well together. Fiennes has a tough job replacing the beloved Judi Dench (who turns in a very brief cameo in an archive video) but he makes a respectable go of it. Similarly Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny has not been relegated to secretarial work, both her, M, and Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear) play key parts out of the office.
The best of the supporting cast is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He gets a lot more to do this time around, including joining Bond for part of a field mission. Craig and Whishaw have a great rapport together, only hinted at in one short meeting in Skyfall, their exchanges here are some of the film’s most successful comedic touches (which are otherwise somewhat sparse ). Their relationship manages to both mirror and invert the classic Bond-Q dynamic, by them having similar opinions of one another yet now Q is the junior of the pair.
One of Skyfall’s stand-out features was it’s classy photography by Roger Deakins. He hasn’t returned here but is replaced by Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) who proves himself easily up to the task. The film is frequently gorgeous to look at, and of course boasts that show-stopping aforementioned opening shot. Someone who does return is Mendes’s regular composer Thomas Newman for his second Bond outing. He sensibly avoids overusing the main theme, and adds some interesting choral elements to the score in the Rome sequences. It does get a little bombastic as times (something I’ve never thought about Newman before) but is a solid score overall.
At 148 minutes, Spectre is the longest Bond film yet, and I can at least say that its length never bothered me. At the same time, the final hour of the film is unquestionably a lot weaker than the first. We have the Bond-Blofeld meeting in North Africa which features a creative yet rather silly torture scene that leads to an abrupt anticlimax. We’re then whisked back to London for the final act which contains the film’s least-exciting set-piece.
Contrary to what many outlets seemed to be reporting a few weeks ago, this is not intended to be Daniel Craig’s last outing as James Bond. He’s contracted for one more movie and is a producer, we already know this film hasn’t flopped so it’s hard to imagine Eon letting him go at this point. I certainly hope he does one more after this, it’s not the best note for him to finish on and there’s potential to further the overarching narrative. I’m interested to how the Craig era will view as a whole years from now, he has two movies that are contenders for the Bond top-spot, but Spectre is not one of them. I’ll openly admit I’ve been a big fan of this series since childhood and the only one I don’t like at all is Die Another Day. Spectre isn’t a flat-out bad movie, and has a fair share of moments that will likely become notable Bond scenes, but after one viewing I feel it’s more of a mid-level entry in the series.