(SPOILERS) The appearance of Spectre supremo Hans Oberhauser (who are they trying to kid, right?) in the trailers for Bond 24, announcing himself as the author of all 007’s pain gave some who watched it, myself included, understandable pause. That, and the shards of photo pointed to the Bond series yielding to that ever-unwanted obsession of Hollywood, the accursed backstory. For Bond this is particularly numbskulled, as he’s one of the shallowest characters ever to grace the silver screen – something to be celebrated, rather than rooting around for blusher to bring out his pallid texture. Fortunately, Spectre mostly doesn’t make too much of a meal of this retro-fitted personal history, as unnecessary as it is, and while the picture is typically over-extended, for a good two-thirds of its running time its mystery elements and set-pieces are sustained in a largely satisfying manner.
As such, this a more accomplished piece of work than its over-feted predecessor Skyfall, less dedicated to adversely rooting around in Bond’s emotional baggage or distracted with celebrating his 50th and happier too just get on with it. Ironically for a picture built on the rubble of Bond’s childhood, Spectre is surprisingly content to keep its lead character from self-indulgence, perhaps more so than any Bond outing since Moore. Craig seems more comfortable with this state of affairs too; the forays into humour are much better balanced this time and, since he’s not a natural comedian, what there is is wisely eked out from droll reactions rather than banter.
Both Sam Mendes’ outings are rather frontloaded, but Spectre gains on many earlier escapades, initially at least, by having Bond in pursuit of pieces of a puzzle, pieces that, even though we know they will lead to the titular organisation, engage in terms of how precisely they will be pieced together.
Looked at plainly, this is another perfunctory string of set pieces as Bond goes from clue/person to clue/person who will propel him to his confrontation with Oberhauser, and in some cases the joins show; Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann is never more than a contrived inclusion to give Bond his hot totty, and Seydoux is able to do little with what she’s given. Her occasional moment (saving Bond from Mr Hinx; is he related to Halle Berry’s Jinx? Perhaps they’re the siblings of Leon Spinks) can’t disguise that she is there to be protected and rescued (most flagrantly at the end); as such, one can only assume making the final set piece all about Bond saving the girl in the most flagrantly retro way is designed to parade the well-worn device as a virtue. Unfortunately, it succeeds only in being narratively disappointing.
Which isn’t to say the London-based finale doesn’t have its merits, but it dovetails the two plot strands (Bond’s and M’s) without the finesse one might hope for. The main feeling one gets is that the quartet of writers have successfully retooled a version of Spectre for the 21st century but then allow it to crumble, rather than stand tall, right at the end for the purposes of easy/classic solutions (the Nine Eyes programme is stopped just in the nick of time) and devices (Oberhauser and his rather silly revenge scheme makes him look far from a criminal mastermind, and personalising his history with Bond further reduces the extent to which he can be perceived as force to be reckoned with).
Waltz’s performance is fine as these things go, and I like that he’s playing a villain who really enjoys being a villain, but Oberhauserfeld never really comes across as a serious threat, nor does he seem like the type to successfully run a criminal organisation (not that I’m the best judge). So too, his dialogue is too frequently based on what a Bond villain sounds like, rather than having a life of their own (“And I thought you came here to die”).
One can almost see Mendes and co lapsing into a “Who cares, it’s a Bond movie” repose when it comes to the crunch. Blofeld (Oberhauser suits him better) inviting Bond into the old MI6 building at the end assumes 007 will have killed his captors en route, or the graffiti and directions are for nothing (likewise, the hidden room at L’American seems to be there so Bond can discover it, rather than any practical reason it would have been left intact all that time with paying patrons using the premises). The result is a throwback to Bond villains, and villains generally, of yesteryear, with the baddie having not only survived his last encounter but set up an elaborate trap for his enemy along with the old “You have three minutes to save the damsel in distress” routine.
So it’s reasonably throwaway fun, but it isn’t a good fit with the rugged posturing the Craig era has laid down previously, and it’s a step down on the ramping tension and intrigue earlier in the picture. The earlier trailers intimated at Spectre redux as an elaborate, Illuminati-like organisation of shadowy meetings and members. Some of that is made good on; we see its tentacles extending into various governments, as personified by Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh/”C” (Scott’s suitably irksome, but he’s never more than a brat, and so lacks any real menace when set against M; in some respects this is a similar problem to that of Bond and Blofeld).
There’s also Spectre’s main goal of ensuring a nine-nations intelligence pact (Nine Eyes) that will vastly increase their operating capability. Likewise, the meeting Bond nonchalantly walks in on sees them blithely discussing their various moneymaking plans in a manner that is much like any board meeting, just with more atmospheric lighting and more neck snapping.
In that sense, then, Spectre serves the function of a traditional Illuminati-type conspiracy, the real power behind the thrones, but this isn’t really any more thought-out than Mendes and his team attempting to get in their comments on the perils of the surveillance society; the actual heads of this organisation appear to be little more than assassins, standard villains, in order to join the dots between prior Craig outings (the Quantum organisation, and the title sequence roll call), rather than the vaster scale and more banal level the meeting is actually angling at; Spectre is a vast shadowy conglomerate.
Frankly, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon were operating in a rarefied environment being able to carry this kind of thing off with the Bourne films. Bond trying to do it is tugging against its naturally pro-establishment seams, and it can only go so far before it begins to implode like one of Oberhauser’s timed explosions. So M cautions C about unfettered access, drones and the encroaching Orwellian state while the latter makes snide remarks about the encumbrance that is democracy. The problem is, this serves to re-position MI6 – from which Craig’s Bond keeps having to go rogue so as not to make him too much of an establishment figure for essentially leftie filmmakers to stomach; he goes rogue here, of course – as the defender of all that is good and right and the arbiters of a truly free society. The suit doesn’t quite fit.
Fair play for at least trying to make Bond someone who cares about the proles, though. A definite benefit of the storyline here – far more so than any its recent predecessors, duty-bound to inflate M’s role purely because Judi Dench was playing her – is the parallel business going on Blighty. It’s not something the series has done (much) before, probably because actual bona fide mysteries and puzzles to solve aren’t really high on 007’s list of priorities, which start and end with big set pieces and quick shags. Of course, this falls apart once the true identity of Franz Oberhauser and that of his stooge have been revealed (yes, I suppose Franz isn’t actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld; he’s just some guy who changed his name to Blofeld by deed poll, so Mendes’ et al’s fibs concerning this aspect aren’t as egregious as Abrams’ regarding Cumberbatch not being Khan – no really, they aren’t, they didn’t tell porkies at all).
This means you can only pull the corrupted state card the once before the status quo is resumed (see also The Winter Soldier and Hydra). Next time out, presumably Bond will be engaging in more traditional still romps, with Spectre out in the open stealing satellites and the like… and a scarred villain with a penchant for cats who considerately gives Bond deadly scenarios he has sufficient time to escape from. Like I say, that’s all fun, but it’s a night on impossible task to pull of both successfully; political commentary within the realm of Craig’s dour presence and whacky world domination hijinks.
But the action is mostly top drawer, and Mendes has noticeably come along since Skyfall. It’s also clean and clear for the most part. The opening Day of the Dead sequence is split into three “movements”. While it’s possible to discern where some of the joins are in the impressive “one shot” first stage, the confidence on display is irresistible. If it peaks with the exploding building (Bond landing on a sofa is a particularly winning, non-laboured sight gag), and lapses into unnecessary shakycam subsequently, while the intended high of the helicopter business flourishes evident green screen close-ups, the sequence as a whole is dazzling.
Hoyte van Hoytema takes over from Richard Deakins as cinematographer, and while there’s nothing here as sublime as the Tokyo silhouette fight, with the palette more muted, the images are still often gorgeous, showing off Alpine peaks and African expanses; it’s a ridiculous price tag, but one can at least see where this $400m has gone. Mendes takes his time but the benefit of this is a sense of elegance in the action, such as the composition when a pair of assassins come up behind Lucia (Monica Bellucci), only to be casually dispatched by Bond.
It’s disappointing that Bellucci’s role is so brief, as she makes more of an impact than Seydoux and Craig isn’t old enough to be her father; there’s also more of a frisson in having Bond bed the wife of the man he just murdered, rather than saving the daughter of the man he didn’t just murder. Nevertheless, it’s testament to Bellucci that her character, basically a bint who can’t resist Bond’s bulge, has any presence at all.
The extended road chase following Bond’s exit from the Rome meeting has its moments, mostly of the humorous variety, from Craig’s exasperation with the variable gadgets his auto has been equipped with (I hope we meet 009 at some point, particularly after hearing his “atmosphere”) to the unhurried pensioner who requires a bit of cajoling. The waste of a perfectly good car is disappointing, but at least it has a decent showcase, unlike the swift entrance and exit of the latest Brosnan Bond BMW in The World is Not Enough.
Craig appears to have been watching Brosnan pics for tips on how to move. Either that or he viewed the playback of how his haemorrhoid-pants running looked last time out (there’s still a bit of that in Mexico, balanced by his treading daintily over rooftops), since he he’s got down pat the cool, daper Bond moments, here exemplified by his post-car ejection, parachuting to land in a nearby street and disengaging himself from the chute without so much a s a pause.
The chase starting at the Alpine clinic is also good fun, embracing the broader, dafter side of a Bond set piece (think more Lewis Gilbert era Moore, but without double-taking pigeons) as Bond is unbowed by his plane gradually losing more and more pieces (there’s also a nice bit with Q having his own problems, and as with the M/C plot Mendes seems naturally attuned and engaged by juggling such dual scenarios; more could have been made of this, and it’s slightly disappointing that Q isn’t given his own brainy means of evading his aggressors, rather than just legging it).
Then there's the train fight with Mr Hinx, which is superbly staged, earning its place alongside those in From Russia with Love and The Spy Who Loved Me (obviously, it has to be longer than both put together, it’s that kind of movie). Dave Bautista, aside from being physically imposing and having a memorable entrance, sadly doesn’t etch himself out a classic status in the henchman pantheon. Hinx doesn’t get to be quirky or funny, he’s just gets to be built like a brick shit house.
And since the set pieces are consciously engaging in call-backs to earlier Bonds, the torture scene is pretty good as they go, suitably painful (it’s nice – or nasty – that the device actually connects with our hero, rather than a Goldfinger-esque nick-of-time evasion). For all that, one of the best scenes is non-action, as Bond visits the dying Mr White (radiation poisoning), both the wintry location work and the (not altogether justified) expectation it creates for Bond’s adversary.
The iconic elements and characters fare variably. I’m not slavishly devoted to the Aston Martin, so Bond raring off in it at the end left me non-plussed (is it bad to say I preferred the new model; they ought to bring back the Lotus, which would certainly have been handy during the Rome chase). It’s also one of the few Craig moments that falls flat, since he doesn’t really do cheerful. Fiennes is quite handy, and I didn’t mind M’s significant presence, mainly because it was germane but also because having a new M made it feel fresh (they had to get Dench back for a cameo, of course).
Naomie Harris is probably too good for he role, as nu-Moneypenny’s only function is that she isn’t besotted with James; it might be a step up of a sort, I guess, but an inversion isn’t really a character and the void created by her lack of flirting hasn’t been filled by anything memorable. Felix Leiter is only name-checked, which is a shame as Jeffrey Wright is probably the best Leiter, while Bill Tanner (his seventh Bond appearance, and third from Rory Kinnear) is at least notable for not giving Bond the benefit of the doubt and going by the book.
Craig’s probably at his best since Casino Royale here, as these things go. As noted he’s not preoccupied with putting Bond through the wringer (“I don’t stop to think about it” he refreshingly responds to Swann fishing for a deep analysis of his lifestyle choices), or engaging in forced jolly banter with M, so he comes across more prototypically. His interactions with the regulars show solid chemistry, but there’s nothing with Seydoux, and we don’t really feel his connection to Oberhauser.
I’ve mentioned my misgivings about his reincarnated Blofeld, and Waltz doesn’t quite feel like the right sort of adversary for a Craig Bond. He might have been a piece of lazy casting when all is said and done. It’s nice not to have Craig’s Bond brooding over revenge (although its referenced) or his sell-by-date; his biggest problem is the rather irrelevant (since it’s introduced to be ignored, and doesn’t have a crucial role in the plot) nano-blood. More perplexing are the endless changes of suit he has in that one little case. Crucially, that Craig can pull off an agreeable exchange with a rat shows how much more comfortable he is here than in Skyfall.
Thomas Newman’s scores for Mendes have been effective, and probably benefit from not adhering so rigidly to the Bond formula as David Arnold, but at times they also seem a little churlish in not embracing the thematic legacy and lushness of the series when given a prime opportunity. There’s also nothing in this one as striking as his accompaniment to the Tokyo sequence in Skyfall. As for the titles: nice octopus, but apart from that it’s just a little bit CGI-bland. Rather like the theme song in that respect.
How does Spectre compare in a glut of a year for spyfare? Well, they’ve all been pretty good, and all have had their flaws. For sheer breathless, dynamo thrills, Rogue Nation is the clear winner, and both Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Kingsman have provided (very different) stylistic and humorous takes on the genre. Spectre is bigger and more lavish than any of those, and in consequence struggles slightly for its own personality. The political commentary is a token gesture rather than anything deep felt, and the reintroduction of the series biggest adversary is successful only up to a point. But it does successfully navigate the tricky territory of making Craig’s movies part of a continuous whole (something that wasn’t called for, but now they’ve done it’s fairly painless) while integrating humour and archetypal Bond tropes with more success than in the last outing.
They may have boxed themselves into a corner in terms of where they can go from here, though, as it already feels as if Spectre and Blofeld could be a millstone keeping Bond from exploring new ideas and scenarios, and formally counteractive to Craig’s more down-to-earth persona. But then, this is such a (legitimately in some respects, although slack plotting is never an excuse) risk-averse series, it’s amazing we’ve got to a point where too many traditional influences might be deemed a bad thing. Eon would probably be wise to do only one more Craig and Blofeld outing (and perhaps recast Waltz; after all, his face has never been the same twice in the series) and then leave Spectre out in the cold for another decade.