by Kristin Battestella
I was excited for Bond again after Skyfall, I really was. Unfortunately, the phoned in nature of Bond's 2015 twenty-fourth outing Spectre feels like a derivative, middle of the road, shadow of itself, indeed.
After going on a personnel vendetta for an old friend, 007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns a stand down from MI6 chief M (Ralph Fiennes). M has enough to worry about as C (Andrew Scott) would see the seemingly obsolete 00 program eliminated in favor of his new private streamlining of the intelligence sector. Bond has no choice but to go rogue – with the help of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Along with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – the daughter of former foe Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) – 007 follows the trail of the mysterious Spectre organization led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who is much closer to Bond and the River House than anyone suspects.
From the parade and the hotel room to helicopter peril, and you know, explosions, the extended tracking shot trickery and thirteen minute pre-credits sequence to start Spectre bode well for returning director Sam Mendes. Touches from Skyfall immediately address the changing of the guard plot points, for British intelligence is consolidating while Spectre is growing, and the parallel dossiers and secret organization meetings warmly recall the SPECTRE of old for longtime franchise fans. Underground lairs, secret passages, hiding veneers, and nothing being what it seems layer potential statements on surveillance intruding closer than we would like to believe. Are the smoke and mirrors of government and crime organizations readily interchangeable? In whom do we place our trust? Unfortunately, Spectre follows a very obvious textbook Bond pattern – the team meeting, a woman with a tip, the first villainous encounter. There's a former foe with info, a visit from Q, a helping Bond Girl, and a henchman fight or two before casual villain infiltration. Torture, escape, repeat, chases ensue. Mexico City to Tangier window dressings and thin clues from writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Jez Butterworth proceed from A to B just because they should, and dangerous ski lifts, airplanes, and more transportation perils can't compensate for the awkward attempt to both connect Spectre to Quantum of Solace yet retcon such ties. Clearly, they did not have this interconnected plan all along, and viewers may feel angry at such wool being pulled over our eyes. There is no reason to backtrack toward the stagnant, unsure, real world gritty compared to the fun floodgates opened after Skyfall. While Spectre is entertaining in individual scenes with some fine subplots and characters, this ill-paced predictability and overlong longest Bond movie ever gets redundant fast. Why cryptically beat around the bush for an extra ninety minutes? Unnecessary girls, superfluous action pieces, corruption plots, doubly weak villains – everything here seems cutting room floor fair game, even 007. Spectre's ironic half hour finale serves as a self-fulling prophecy on the 00 irrelevancy in question. Why was Bond globe trotting around for two hours if the MI6 team could take care of business at home without him?
Fortunately, James Bond still has slick banter for the MI6 staff, and that “Bond. James Bond.” introduction comes with a well done seductive wink. However, Bond's Kevlar attitude is about to change in Spectre. Though his apartment looks just moved in empty, this 007 barren but for a few choice mementos reveals more about the man behind the illusion. He can get the facts with suave easy, but that doesn't mean he won't mess up or let his emotions crack the surface. Reflective mirrors and hidden themes pepper all Bond's scenes, layering his duality as both the good and bad, for his country and rogue from it. 007 is an assassin just like the bad guys, why should anyone trust his word? Bond can't even get his martini shaken not stirred, and Craig has some wry quips this go around, telling a security guard he just hit to stay down rather than hit him again. He's still up to snuff and not phoning it in, but the going through the motions pace in Spectre doesn't strive for stellar performances, either. Whether the film is up to his par or not – and at times, it isn't – Craig knows the role by now and plays it as he should. I've warmed up to him as Bond since Skyfall, yet that feeling of wanted more of Craig in another role lingers, and I am more than ready for him to do something else. Not only does 007 not go back to the girl in the hotel room when he says he would – gasp Roger Moore would never! – but Bond actually did answer my wish and tossed his Dia de Muertos top hat onto the bed. Unfortunately, I had to rewind it to be sure, as this tiny piece of franchise fun was just kind of empty with no emphasis on what could have been a real winking fan moment. I'm not even sure they meant the action as a true 007 hat toss, so like most of Spectre, I'm left wondering if it really even counts. Boo.
The unevenness littering Spectre also hampers what could have been a meaty new rival for Bond. Christoph Waltz's (Inglourious Basterds) shadowed, ominous introduction as Blofeld is Voldemort heavy with fear – anyone out of line is going to get it in the eyes, ouch! Unfortunately, from the friendly tour of his ho-hum desert lair to the final forty-five minutes where Blofeld conveniently tells all his secrets, it is tough to believe this evil plan has been orchestrated through these latest, sometimes longest Bond movies. And all this Spectre puppetry has to be resolved in half a picture now, too? I dare say that Eon finally settled the Thunderball copyright case and felt obligated to use these trademark names, and this rush has reduced what was once a fun love to hate character into an Austin Powers “Daddy Wasn't There” parody. I kid you not, Spectre really goes there! At least Blofeld does earn that Dr. Evil scar, and there is a brief but cute cat. Poor pussy! Also in banal imitation of From Russia with Love, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Mr. Hinx is a silent thug henchman who survives every chase, crash, and explosion to inexplicably keep following Bond. If not for some cool action scenes, this character is another unnecessary element, and Spectre is already crowded with two bigger villains vying for worst finale in a confusing Blofield versus MI6 takedown. Andrew Scott (Sherlock) may have been miscast as the obvious behind the desk, power hungry River House enemy C. His mirrored building, the Big Brother hub – are we not supposed to see through this guy like a two-way mirror? The at home SIS plots add a parallel who watches the watcher battle to Spectre, and although such twists prove why espionage series with tight ensembles like The Night Manager garner critical acclaim, the weak villainous subterfuge compromises what's trying to be done here. And hell, if your going to make your 007 movie kind of sort of not about Bond versus Blofeld, then give us a M, Q, and Moneypenny Netflix series between Bond films.
Thankfully, the returning Ralph Fiennes as M is fittingly cranky and angry at Bond. In Spectre, he toes the line with changes to Her Majesty's Service while trying to save his program against government and bureaucratic intrusion. He's right that technology and instant information can't replace a human on the line making the espionage call. This is a fine storyline with Fiennes entertaining as always, and it is fun to see M do things himself without Bond. However, that doesn't make this element of Spectre any less uneven and ultimately contrary to 007's supposed main plot. Rory Kinnear also has a lot of exposition as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner – but he chauffeurs Bond around and then disappears until late in the game when we are reminded that he is indeed there. Hell, I hoped and almost half expected for Colin Salmon to join in the heroics as Deputy Charles Robinson, too! Ironic and quippy as ever, Ben Whishaw's Q wisely doesn't trust his branch's new intelligence measures either, and he has a cool waterside underground technology lair complete with creepy nanochips injected into Bond's bloodstream as a biological tracking device – a gadget plot point that perhaps rightfully exits the narrative. Like Q, Naomie Harris as M's new assistant Eve Moneypenny is caught in the middle of the MI6 power struggle. Initially, she is stuck merely opening doors in the office and chasing after Bond as he leaves. Though seemingly demeaning after her strong role in Skyfall, this Moneypenny isn't stuck in the office behind a desk and helps 007 on the sly. She meets Bond at his apartment, and hers is complete with a man in her bed to make Bond jealous. While this at home, Bond movie without Bond storyline both overuses and under cooks the charming ensemble, Spectre does have a surprise moment from departed M Judi Dench and a fun to hear but don't see him disappointing mention of CIA pal Felix Leiter. But my gosh, can we meet 009 already, please? Come on and let's see him – or her!
Yes, there should have been more of Monica Bellucci (Under Suspicion) as Lucia Sciarra in Spectre. She could have been a villainess in on the game, a henchwoman rather than a literal wham bam but still classy widow with damsel in distress flair. Ever lovely – did you see that corset? – it seems unfair to just pin Bellucci at 50 as the Oldest Bond Girl. However, it is pleasing to have someone match Craig's age. If Bond is going to be older, banged up, and rugged but not always wiser, then his women should rightfully compliment his potential maturity. Bellucci does just that – gracefully if briefly resisting Bond. Of course, if we keep to Bond formula as Spectre does, the first girl who gives anything up to 007 is always on borrowed time. Whether her exit is due to death or a bedroom finished depends not so much on the throwaway nature of the character herself, but the strength of the movie – and Spectre needed Lucia to stick around a lot longer. Fortunately, Lea Seyduox (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as psychologist Dr. Madeleine Swann pegs Bond with today's aware perspective and asks some very realistic questions regarding his extracurricular activity, alcohol consumption, traumatic past, and why he leaves his occupation blank on the medical form. She doesn't ask for his heroics and remains reluctant to have his protection because, as if she has seen all the other Bond movies, Madeleine knows 007 will lead the bads right to her. She sees through his tricks and vows she won't fall into his arms – but all that intelligent character potential feels more like a bluff, and Madeleine changes her tune on Spectre's whims. She wants nothing to do with her father, she wants to know what happened to her father, Bond is twenty years older than her and old enough to be her father. Superficial angst is what goes for female character development in this franchise, and the once smart enough to know when to leave Madeleine still ends up in need of rescue.
While there are subtitles on the Spectre rental blu-ray, the features have been removed, and the disc skipped – although I doubt I missed much in the jumped minutes. Fine balladry though it is with swift high notes, Sam Smith's “Writing's on the Wall” is too quiet, a swansong rather than full embodied memorable. It was a weak year and I'm surprised it won the Best Original Song Oscar. Truly, this weighed and found wanting as the scripture says is indicative of how Spectre feels. However, the flames and dames caressing Bond with kinky tentacles in the title sequence make use of the song's past lyrics with flashes of Skyfall and Casino Royale matching the hazy smoke and ice design. Unfortunately, the frenetic set piece scoring is uneven alongside underutilized Bond themes. 007 notes appear briefly before the title sequence then go unheard until the finale. What's the point of having theme music if you won't use it to punctuate something cool? Without these familiar cues even the well-actioned spectacles fall flat. Likewise annoying blue car lights contribute to an overly CGI, digitally graded, and omnipresent cyan scheme. Though suave, the skeleton disguises and Day of the Dead pomp feel too advantageous as well as New Orleans borrowing from Live and Let Die. Thankfully, the opening photography, building disasters, and dusty costumes add grit while sunset interiors and golden patinas make Spectre Old World colorful. Austrian Snowscapes and mountaintop clinics recall On Her Majesty's Secret Service while outdoor Thames boat rides and Londonscapes invoke the best of The World is Not Enough along with Italian, Spanish, and operatic flavors. The sweet DB10 tricked out for 009 instead of 007 provides for some dry jokes, and intense, nighttime chases on congested Roman roads yield fiery, wild exits. Train violence recalling From Russia with Love, countdowns and lairs ala Dr. No and Goldfinger – while not as copycat as Die Another Day, some Bond homages peppering Spectre aren't as subtle as they should be. Octopus motifs invoke the blasé of Octopussy, and the newspapers are dated right out of Tomorrow Never Dies. While less clunky and not as intrusive, the technology screens, phones, and laptops in Spectre will be dated soon, too. Besides, it is much cooler to see old equipment be useful. Imagine, a watch that almost does nothing but tell the time in hopes of making Our Man James punctual!
Is Spectre making winks on Craig's tenure? Certainly we would rather have him depart with a better picture, but Spectre both doesn't know when to end yet feels absolutely intended to wrap up this leg. Heck, they've tossed the grenade on what was left behind, blew up the River House, and burned every bridge upon leaving. Is the door now open for a race change for 007 with Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor? Maybe a retro abstract or sixties set Michael Fassbender? What of a lighthearted Moore-styled Tom Hiddleston? We shall see, for if nothing else Spectre spends all its gritty waiting for something else that never happens in a long, empty ciao. Spectre has action, but isn't an action movie. This is a thriller that isn't really thrilling, and an espionage picture without actual spy games thanks to broad storytelling, a troubled script, and transparent meta. Maybe the great individual character moments, action scenes, and Bond treats come together more in repeat viewings, but while I don't hate Spectre, I've no real desire to sit through this heavy handedness again. Bond fans can perhaps appreciate some aspects here and newer audiences may find merit, but there are better, less frustrating and disappointing films in the franchise. The gun barrel is back at the beginning, Bond takes his Aston Martin off the blocks, picks up his daughter – er girl, and rides off towards Big Ben. “Whoop dee do, Basil!”