Let me preface this review by mentioning that I have seen every Eon production of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, at least twice, starting at the very inappropriate age of 7 from my father’s complete set of 007 VHS tapes. Which is to say I grew up looking up to who James Bond is, what he stands for, and the conversations these films are a part of without entirely understanding what they meant. Because it’s now 2015, progress has allowed some of those conversations to turn stale, and thankfully so.
But it still remains that the central protagonist of these movies is a misogynistic, womanizing murderer with a total disdain for authority who always, always gets his own way. In other words, James Bond is the rawest personification of male indulgence on screen or paper, making him frankly, super awesome and just the coolest. And of course, I love him.
I also believe that watching these movies and others like them is always fun, and ofttimes even cathartic, but when we do not recognize and understand the conceits of what we watch and why we like doing so, the same films can become dangerous. Understanding who James Bond is leads to the basic human realization that just because an impulse feels good or seems good, does not mean it is good.
Now I’m not saying the Bond movies are inherently bad or that you’re a bad person if you enjoy them. I enjoy them too, immensely so! But it’s always good to know what we like.
And because we know what we like after 53 years of Bond films, it’s disappointing how retroactive the latest franchise entry behaves in the worst ways possible. But before we get into all that:
Spectre’s impressive opening salvo is a gorgeous long take that cranes down a street crawling with people dressed as skeletons to single out a masked James Bond in the midst of the crowd. The take continues to follow him and the woman on his arm into a hotel, an elevator, and then a bedroom; where he flings said woman onto a bed, costumes out into a perfectly tailored suit, then climbs out the window to walk along the roofs of two other buildings, carbine rifle in hand, and takes position to perform an assassination while the colorful yet spooky Día de Muertos parade continues below on the streets of Mexico City.
Technically speaking, this might be the most impressive piece of filmmaking the Bond franchise has seen in years. The sequence accomplishes much with expertly executed precision and a classically foreboding sense of adventure that the rest of the film never matches again.
If anyone needs reminding, Spectre happens to be Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007. And following the sordid history of previous quaternary Bond films (looking at you Thunderball, Moonraker and Die Another Day), the 24th entry continues the franchise curse of being an overstuffed, mixed bag of everything that came before it.
Daniel Craig first took up the Bond mantle in 2006’s Casino Royale and helped deliver what is arguably the best film in the franchise’s history for more than a few reasons but mainly because: we started to see James as a real human being. Casino Royale’s 007 was younger, brasher, but just as formidable an agent of MI6. Yet he was vulnerable in his demeanor, a franchise first. He hadn’t killed, yet he was flawed. This allowed Daniel Craig to portray a Bond that was more human than his predecessors while modern blockbuster filmmaking made his movies all the more adventurous in every way.
This continued into its sequels Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, with both expanding and building upon a new definition of James Bond. Revealing a history. Unfolding an origin. Making him more superhero-without-a-cape than ever before.
The Bond movies have always chosen to imitate more than they innovate. So it’s unsurprising that the other modern blockbusters of today have influenced Spectre the way they have. In a Marvel-esque effort to develop connective tissue within its films, Spectre tries to do so with the barest of intentions by referencing and revealing links to past villains from the last three Craig Bond films. But all this falls flat because the connections seem to exist for no particular reason other than– well actually, there is no thematic reason for them to exist at all.
In a twist woefully reminiscent of Star Trek Into Darkness, it turns out that the shadowy head of the SPECTRE organization is not Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser but really (come on now) Christoph Waltz’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the most iconic Bond villain from the early days of the franchise. And unfortunately this “twist” is even poorly executed in Spectre because Blofeld is also revealed to be James Bond’s long lost foster brother. Again, a connection exists for no purpose than to serve as heavy handed and empty exposition. James and Blofeld spend so little screentime together that whatever relationship was being touted ends up having no significance or effect on the plot or any characters whatsoever. Not to mention that Christoph Waltz, masterful actor he may be, is tragically wasted just as he is in everything that isn’t written by Quentin Tarantino.
Speaking of wasted potential, Monica Bellucci arrives as Bond’s first sexual conquest of the film and is squandered in what is essentially a glorified six minute cameo. And the aforementioned conquest is weirdly forced and entirely unearned, with Bond disrobing her while she’s crying over her dead husband whom Bond himself had previously murdered. Yikes.
Continuing this trend is the misused Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, Spectre’s second Bond girl. With the script lending zero chemistry for Swann and Bond to work with, their romance feels misleading and illogical. Madeleine seems to fall for James simply because enough time had passed in the script for her to do so.
Not all of the cast is bad news though. Ralph Fiennes’s M rightfully suspends 007 from active duty (an order which he ignores, again, obviously) and simultaneously fights for the 00 program’s very survival in a sharp and convincing portrayal that would do Bernard Lee proud.
Ben Whishaw’s Q is wonderful as usual, and given their adversarial workplace dynamics the hilariously charming scenes he shares with Craig’s Bond are natural highlights of the film.
Even Dave Bautista stars as the intimidating new Bond henchman Mr. Hinx with an entrance so bloody terrifying it’s sure to be an instant classic. Hinx squares off against Bond in two legitimately awesome set pieces. The first being a thrilling chase on the cobbled streets of Rome with Hinx’s Jaguar C-X75 (the fastest Jaguar ever built) roaring after Bond’s gorgeous Aston Martin DB10 which was originally meant for 009 but was stolen by 007 because, you know, he felt like it.
The second being a Hinx vs. Bond train fight that would put From Russia With Love’s Red Grant to shame. In fact, Spectre’s train fight sequence also puts on display all of Daniel Craig’s easygoing swagger that comes with portraying James Bond for a fourth time. To be clear, Craig never actually disappoints in this film, except for when the script itself lets him down as it does with everyone else.
Over its entire runtime, Spectre remains maddeningly insistent on referencing set pieces from Bond movies of old, but this only makes for illogical scene transitions and half-hearted setups that never quite measure up beyond a moment or two. Burning through only the most established Bond tropes like a weak cigar sadly leaves Spectre as unremarkable as the worst of Bond movies.
Those of us who are fans of the James Bond franchise are no strangers to subpar entries made of thoughtless scripts. However, Spectre’s thoughtlessness has decimated everything the last three Craig Bond films had worked so hard to build. Which leaves fans with the desperate hope that the one last film Daniel Craig has left on his contract will save some semblance of his legacy. But till then, Spectre’s spectacular failure leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth not even a shaken vodka martini can entirely erase.