Spectre is a Bond fan’s Bond movie. This is the 24th film in a series spanning over 50 years, and after a talk with an expert in the field (my own editor), I was given a breakdown of the myriad homages the movie makes to its own legacy. If you have only a basic working knowledge of the Bond mythos (like me), or even if you know next to nothing about agent 007, Spectre still works as a thrilling spy-actioner. The film is certainly not without its flaws, but on the whole it delivers on several levels, and if nothing else is two and half hours of spy-movie fun.
Daniel Craig is the sixth actor to portray British MI6 secret agent James Bond and he begins his fourth outing in Mexico City, during a huge Día de Muertos celebration. The skeleton motif – think giant skeleton parade balloons and participants decked out in skull masks and make-up – is a direct callback to another Bond film, specifically the tops-and-tails sporting henchman Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die. It’s a great signal right at the start to let the initiated know that this is a Bond film steeped in its franchise’s lore.
For audiences who don’t know or care about any of that, this virtuoso sequence directed by Sam Mendes is still amazing on a purely technical level. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera magnificently swirls around the parade and up several floors of a hotel in a tracking shot that remains unbroken for almost five minutes. The tension that is created in the shot doesn’t just remain intact after the first cut, but actually ramps up with a fist-fight on a flying helicopter that is dazzling. Even if the rest of the movie was a disappointment (it’s not), the opening would be enough to redeem the whole film.
The Daniel Craig Bond films resurrected an aspect of the franchise that has been long dormant. From the early 1980s through 2002’s Die Another Day, each film has been a self-contained unit. Each villain and plot is disconnected from the others. With this latest series, the writers and producers have revived the oldest foe MI6 and Bond have ever faced: the shadowy criminal cabal known as Spectre. It’s a throwback that links the very first 007 adventure with the latest one, and fans of old-school spy craft movies, especially the Bond series, should love it. Simply put, Spectre is the Bondiest Bond film to come along in forty years.
Since that’s the case, the film needed a villain as quietly cool as James Bond, and as diabolical as the secret agent is heroic. Actor Christoph Waltz delivers on both counts. We initially meet his mysterious character under the name Franz Oberhauser, and he reveals himself to be the mastermind behind all of Bond’s troubles from the events of Casino Royale up to the present. Waltz never chews scenery, but instead quietly explains his role as puppeteer with maniacal menace. When he delivers the line, “It was me, James, the author of all your pain,” with just the right hint of insanity in his voice, it’s clear this is a Bond movie that wears its history on its perfectly tailored sleeve. An especially delightful callback (at least to this Bond fan), is a fluffy white cat sauntering around the complex where the evil villain expects Mr. Bond to die. Another aspect that Spectre resurrects are the numerous death traps 007 must escape, a characteristic that’s been missing of late.
The Craig Bond series is somewhat unique in that this Bond has a character arc over the course of his four films. In the first, Casino Royale, screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade gave Bond a woman to love in Vesper Lynd that made him want to give up the secret agent life. Her demise filled James with regret, anger, and a lust for vengeance that continues in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall finds a Bond that outwardly denies personal attachment, but who is committed to helping those close to him who are in trouble. Ultimately, it was the writing of how Bond and Vesper fell in love that made most of what followed compelling.
Where Spectre falls short is in taking the time to make the crucial emotional connection between Bond and his love interest believable. Written by Purvis and Wade, in addition to John Logan and Jez Butterworth, the love story between Bond and Madeleine Swann, the daughter of an old MI6 foe, is established, but that’s about it. Craig and actress Léa Seydoux have chemistry, not as potent as that between Craig and Eva Green in Royale, but the problem is in the writing. Too little screen time is spent showing their relationship grow beyond one passionate moment, which makes the climax between the two shallow and insubstantial.
The writing team uses a similar shortcut when Bond asks his tech specialist, Q, to help him escape the prying eyes of the boss at MI6. Q has no special allegiance to Bond, and no personal reason to want to help him, especially since being caught could cost Q his job. We’re asked to believe it when he agrees to help, but with so few scenes devoted to their relationship, it just doesn’t work.
Those failings in the writing only detract a little from Spectre’s overall effect. It’s a thrill ride of a movie, with sumptuous set pieces that deliver spectacularly crafted action sequences. This installment in the franchise brings back the unique spy movie elements that make a Bond movie a Bond movie, a genre unto itself. When you add that to the emotional arc Daniel Craig’s 007 has traveled over the course of his tenure as the iconic secret agent, Spectre is the most fun Bond movie in decades.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Spectre is pure entertainment from start to finish, but those weaknesses in the writing (not taking enough time to develop the relationships between Bond and Swann, or Bond and Q) hold it back from being a 4 or even 4.5 star movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The opening title sequence is good, but not great. Daniel Kleinman, who designed seven of the last eight Bond openings, creates a moody, dark vibe. The real weakness is Sam Smith's song Writing's on the Wall. The numbers for Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall are all catchy and memorable. Writing's on the Wall is forgettable.
- There was much hand wringing by fans when the announcement was made that Monica Bellucci would be a Bond girl. Every ageist, sexist troll on the internet screamed that she was too old for the part. She's in the movie for approximately five minutes, and while I was left wondering why she was cast at all, she is absolutely smoldering in the role.
- The villain's compound sits in the center of a crater. It's a set design masterpiece.
- I'm a sucker for scenes in which characters face-off with words. Spectre delivers such a scene between Bond and Oberhauser that is riveting. My only complaint was that it didn't last long enough.