some inevitably better than others, but all adhering more or less to the same basic template—makes the prospect of a new film featuring Agent 007 both challenging and liberating. It is difficult by now to impress us, we who have watched Bond consistently outfight and outwit his foes, whether via car or plane or parachute. But familiarity can breed opportunity as well as contempt, and recent Bond pictures have illustrated the franchise's capacity for growth, even as they have dutifully paid homage to their forebears.
Spectre, the fourth James Bond movie to star Daniel Craig (and the second directed by Sam Mendes, following his superb Skyfall),
is both the most traditional and the most ambitious of his quartet. It
conforms to the established formula with jovial style, bombarding us
with outlandish action sequences, beautiful women, luxury cars, and
exotic locations. But it also attempts to serve as a conclusion of
sorts, a culmination of the franchise rebooting cultivated by the first
three Craig-led pictures. The aspiration may be admirable, but the
results are decidedly less so. As a classic Bond movie, Spectre
is perfectly adequate, a collection of reasonably impressive moments
that do little to distinguish themselves from prior entries. But as a
piece of serialized storytelling, it is startlingly misguided, a poorly
judged attempt to retcon the previous films into the building blocks of a
larger scheme. Spectre raises itself up as the Big Bad, but it really just brings the Craig era to its low point.
That is not an overly cutting putdown, relatively speaking. Two of Craig's earlier movies—Skyfall and especially Casino Royale—are
marvels of modern action filmmaking, robust works of unadulterated
entertainment that also throb with tension and danger. (The middle
installment, Quantum of Solace, has its problems but also its underrated virtues.) And if nothing else, Spectre
ably advances the franchise's newfound commitment to visual artistry,
further proof that genre flicks are perfectly compatible with true
craft. Consider the film's showstopping opening shot. Set first on the
clamoring streets of a Mexico City parade, the camera (operated by Hoyte
Van Hoytema, the cinematographer on both Interstellar and Her)
drifts through a throng of darkly clothed celebrators until it finds a
masked man in an ice-cream-white suit; it follows him for a time before
it grows restless and drifts to another masked man, this one clearly
eyeing the first figure the way a cat stalks a mouse. The predator, of
course, is Bond, James Bond, and the camera can't help but gawk at him
as it follows him indoors, up an elevator with a striking female
companion (Stephanie Sigman, from Netflix's Narcos), then back
out into the bright Mexican sun as he clambers across a
rooftop. It's a ravishing single-shot opening, a bracing reminder that
even if Mendes is finally letting loose outside the art house, he still
takes his work seriously.
Seriousness has always been Craig's M.O.; despite his lighter hair, his
Bond runs a touch darker than past incarnations, hinting at the
metaphysical weight underlying 007's repeated dances with death. He
lightens things up considerably this go-round, an understandable
approach—excessive dourness would flatten the character—that
nevertheless suggests, for the first time, that he's going through the
motions. It also results in a tonal inconsistency, as a significant
subplot of Spectre revolves around Bond's murky childhood (a theme explored more effectively in Skyfall). In general, the screenwriters—including Skyfall's troika of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, along with Edge of Tomorrow
co-writer Jez Butterworth—are busy bees, continuously trying to
retrofit the Bond mythology while simultaneously honoring it. There's
even a pronounced political subtext to one narrative strand, which
involves a snake-oil bureaucrat named C (Sherlock's Andrew Scott)
attempting to institute a coordinated global surveillance program that
would make the NSA jealous. C deems MI6's "00" program, with its
high-powered weaponry and old-school fieldwork, to be a relic from a
bygone era. This is, of course, a patently wrong opinion, one that marks
C as a threat to Bond's beleaguered boss, M (Ralph Fiennes, solid but
lacking the spark of Judi Dench), not to mention as an object of
derision for any self-respecting fan of spy-soaked cinema.
There is a whiff of topicality to this concept, but it's largely peripheral. The meat of Spectre
involves Bond's unauthorized investigation into the shadowy criminal
organization that gives the movie its title. After some welcome banter
with Q (a very fine Ben Whishaw) and some standard do-you-trust-me?
rhetoric with Moneypenny (an underserved Naomie Harris), Bond heads to
Rome, searching for an underworld figure known as the Pale King.
(Presumably, the screenwriters are fans of the late David Foster Wallace.) And here, surrounded by the timeless beauty of Italy, Spectre does its best work. Bond first encounters a grieving
widow (Monica Bellucci, nicely cast) who shares an enemy with our
favorite rogue agent, leading to a gorgeous moment where Mendes places
Bellucci in the center of the frame and simply watches as two assassins
emerge from the background, guns drawn, only to be quickly foiled.
Better yet is the terrific introduction of Spectre itself, the kind of
extravagantly officious enterprise whose members meet in an abandoned
castle and seat themselves at a table that seems to be a half-mile long.
That table is headed by a terrifying, black-hearted man named Franz
Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz); when we first meet him, he spends
virtually the entire scene hidden in shadow, effortlessly dominating the
room while saying absolutely nothing.
Waltz's lack of pop is a critical problem, because the central conceit of Spectre—its
entire narrative foundation, really—is that Oberhauser has been
manipulating Bond ever since Daniel Craig obtained his license to kill.
We learn, through a surfeit of exposition, that the de-facto villains of
the past three films were mere placeholders, peons acting in accordance
with Oberhauser's grand, evil conspiracy. This kind of retcon is a
dubious proposition generally, and it's even more suspect in the context
of James Bond specifically; one of the pleasures of the series is that
its installments are self-referential but also self-contained,
dispensing with the tedious obligation of franchise world-building.
Still, it's arguably a bold move by the writers (as is the dangerous
decision to insistently evoke memories of Vesper Lynd, the
all-time-great Bond girl played by Eva Green in Casino Royale), and one can envision a scenario where Spectre stands as the magnum opus of Craig's Bond career, the film that reshapes our understanding of the actor and the character.
That's plausible in theory, but for the gambit to work, the movie has to be legitimately great. And Spectre
just isn't good enough. There is an alarming lack of urgency to its
storytelling, a sense that it's marking time, waiting for something
interesting to happen. The cognitive dissonance is jarring; the movie
repeatedly tells us how sweeping it is in its scope and vision, yet it's
a strangely impersonal experience, one that feels completely bereft of
stakes. Spectre hopscotches through the usual Bond formula, hitting
all of the standard beats, but where familiarity in a Bond film is often
soothing, here it feels perfunctory. "It's not over yet," Bond intones
solemnly at one point, and the statement is doubly damning: It
underscores both how little impact the movie has made and how much more
we have to trudge through.
Blue Is the Warmest Color's
Léa Seydoux plays the requisite Bond girl, and while her romantic
chemistry with 007 isn't nearly as electric as the movie claims, she
still manages to project frailty and fearlessness at once, a beauty with
a brain. (Mendes isn't shy about exploiting her looks; a single shot of
Seydoux sashaying down an aisle in an aquamarine dress is infinitely
more heart-pounding than an interminable, leaden sequence in which Bond
uses a biplane as a battering ram while pursuing a trio of automobiles
through the Austrian Alps.) Dave Bautista, who rocketed to fame as Drax
in Guardians of the Galaxy,
is a suitably glowering henchman, the type who never speaks but whose
stature and demeanor exude menace. A hand-to-hand combat sequence on a
train is appropriately kinetic (and is noteworthy for its initial lack
of music), and there's also a fairly thrilling car chase (Aston Martin
alert!) alongside the Tiber that playfully subverts the franchise's
historical overreliance on ludicrous gadgets. This is all fun stuff, but
its impact is diluted by Spectre's relentless agenda, and its insistence that it is an epic Bond film betrays a baffling lack of self-awareness.
Prior to that aforementioned, glorious opening shot, Spectre
begins with an ominous title card: "The dead are alive." This theme—of
resurrection, of past figures returning to life to disturb the
present—comes to dominate the film, but not in the way Mendes intends.
He wants the movie to operate as the franchise's apex, but in
continually harking back to Bond pictures of yesteryear, he merely
proves this one's inferiority, highlighting its constant cannibalism. At
one point, Oberhauser forces 007 to stroll through a corridor adorned
with giant portraits of recent Bond villains—Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu
Amalric, Javier Bardem—who were all significantly better than Waltz, and
the irony is too much to bear. The same is true of the film's title.
Hardcore Bond fans may recognize "Spectre" as an acronym for a
mealymouthed organization conceived by Ian Fleming ("Special Executive
for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion"), but the
word's more common definition—phantasm—is far more fitting. Rarely has a
movie been so haunted by its own ghosts.