SPECTRE Movie Review – Never Say Craig Again
Although he’s worn many faces (six if we ignore a certain non-canon, mid-sixties spy spoof), we’ve called him Bond, James Bond for more than fifty years. Since he debuted in the modestly budgeted Dr. No in 1962, Bond quickly became a permanent part of the pop-culture landscape. The first big-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s British super-spy and trained government assassin (he used his “license to kill” frequently, sometimes indiscriminately, almost always mercilessly), Dr. No created the Bond template or formula generations of moviegoers repeatedly embraced, hyper-masculinity defined by physical prowess and serial womanizing, imperviousness to physical injury or emotional harm (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service excepted), either a defender of Western-style democracy or the living exemplar of Western imperialism and postwar colonialism (depending on your political perspective, of course), and elaborately choreographed, stunt-heavy set pieces shot in “exotic” (non-Western) locales (if nothing else, the Bond films functioned as ultra-expensive travelogues/travel brochures).
Once again directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, The Road to Perdition, American Beauty), Spectre opens with a spectacular single take, a continuous shot in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead as Bond, James Bond (Daniel Craig, making his fourth and possibly last appearance), makes his way through surging crowds of masked revelers into and out of a hotel in pursuit of a terrorist, an Italian this time. The chase ends as it always ends in a Bond film, with Bond triumphant and the villain dispatched, but we soon learn that Bond lone-wolfed it to Mexico City, pursuing an unsanctioned agenda that not only leads to a tense exchange with the new M (Ralph Fiennes, replacing the much-missed Judi Dench), but also the possibility that Bond’s heroics in Mexico City — caught by cameras and thus making headlines around the world — will lead to the replacement of the “00” program with a new, drone- and surveillance-based program (Spectre’s attempt at topicality is nothing if not a decade too late) led by M’s bureaucratic rival, C (Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarty).
Putting Bond on administrative leave, of course, gives him what he’s wanted all along: the time to pursue the titular super-secret, international organization dedicated to the principles of disaster capitalism and profiting thereof. In a move short on character or narrative logic and long on re-embracing Bond’s ill-fitting pulp origins, Mendes and his four-man screenwriting team, John Logan, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth, not only make Bond’s connection to Spectre (the organization, not the film), personal through Spectre’s CEO, Franz Oberhauser (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), but also retcon the titular organization into heretofore unknown connections with the events of Craig’s first three Bond films. Oberhauser’s motivations won’t be spoiled here, but they’re of the petty, juvenile kind, a beta male striking out against his alpha male superior for real and imagined slights. Oberhauser, and by extension, Spectre’s schemes lack the grandiosity or scale of the best Bond villains (they’re defined by their megalomania, not their pettiness).
Formulaic plot points come and go over Spectre’s overlong, occasionally exhausting 2 and ½ hour running time (the longest Bond yet), characters drop in, share key expositional info, then leave, none more egregiously than Monica Belluci’s character, Lucia Sciarra, the wealthy widow of the man Bond dispatches in the opening scene. She may not be a traditional Bond girl (she’s a woman for one, age appropriate for another), but she’s still another in a seemingly endless series of disposable, one-dimensional female characters, present to remind moviegoers of Bond’s sexual charisma (i.e., men want to be him, women want to bed him, presumably). As Madeline Swann, Bond’s obligatory romantic partner, Léa Seydoux fares somewhat better, if only because she’s written to resist his charms (until she doesn’t, of course), stripping Bond of his cool super-spy status to call him what he is, a government assassin, but before long she’s pulling the “you can choose not to kill” line on the formerly merciless killing machine (he’s always killed because he’d been ordered to kill or in self-defense against enemies of the crown).
Like so much else in Spectre, it’s an unconvincing, self-consciously serious turn for a rebooted series that was finally finding the right balance between action and drama, between drama and humor without slipping into the self-parody that doomed previous incarnations of the Bond character (e.g., Roger Moore’s Bond, Peirce Brosnan’s interpretation). On the other hand, if giving Bond a character arc, an emotional arc spread across four films of varying quality, Spectre certainly succeeds, albeit at the most basic level, but Bond has been headed in this direction since Casino Royale essentially gave Bond an (unneeded) origin story, Quantum of Solace turned him into a remorseless, revenge-fueled killer, and Skyfall dug into his tragic backstory (an orphan plucked at an early age for the “00” program by his morally ambiguous mentor, M). Given the obsession with serial storytelling on TV and in film series or franchises, Bond’s levels-deep reinvention shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but the flaccid, turgid end point — assuming Spectre is an end point — should be.
For all of its story- and character-related disappointments, Spectre doesn’t disappoint where the globe-trotting set pieces are involved, from the opening scene in Mexico City to a car chase in the streets of Rome putting Bond against one of Spectre’s henchmen, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a visit to a medical clinic in the Austrian Alps, a side trip to Tangiers that ends with a train ride that all but name checks Russia With Love complete with a knock-down, dragged-out fight sequence, the villain’s middle-of-nowhere super-secret base (a Bond villain isn’t a Bond villain without his or her own super-secret base and his or her tendency to monologue away their plans for world domination), and a return trip to London for Mission: Impossible-inspired, team-based, parallel-action heroics (a first for the 24-film series). Spectre even lets Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond’s gadget man, out of the office and into the field (their flirtatious verbal interplay offers one of Spectre’s few dialogue-based pleasures).