There’s a moment in Spectre, the latest James Bond film, that really sums up the movie for me. Mid-way through the picture, Bond finds himself in a high speed car-chase with a high-tech car– a seemingly regular occurrence in this franchise– only to find out that half of its gadgetry isn’t working. It’s still a fun scene, to be sure, and eventually Bond does find some features on the car that do work, but it feels a little underwhelming all the same. And that’s sort of how this whole movie is: it’s overall good, and certainly entertaining, but it lacks the spark of the truly great Bond pictures.
Spectre was somewhat sold as a return to form for the Bond franchise. The movies during Daniel Craig’s run as the character (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall) have all tried to break from the mold of a traditional Bond film. Casino Royale was a reboot of the franchise*, featuring a younger, less experienced James Bond; Quantum of Solace had the audacity to pick up right where its predecessor left off, a unique move in a series mostly seen as a string of isolated episodes, and Skyfall was nothing if not a complete deconstruction of the idea of the spy and its relevance in the 21st century. Ultimately, though, Skyfall, ended by affirming its franchise rather than negating it, with the final scene promising us that the series would make a celebrated return to a more classic Bond style in the next film.
Now I have enjoyed Daniel Craig’s Bond films overall (Skyfall in particular) and have nothing against their approach, but I was genuinely excited for the idea of the series getting back to something more like the Sean Connery or Roger Moore-era. The idea that Spectre, the evil organization of supervillains, and in particular Blofeld– arguably the quintessential Bond villain– would be making a return after a 40-some year absence** in the films, seemed to confirm that.
After seeing the movie, though, I have to say that Spectre both is and isn’t a return to the well for the Bond series. On the one hand, we do have more of the traditional Bond features in this picture than in Craig’s other films. This is Bond on a mission, going to exotic locales, using high-tech gadgetry, going to outlandish supervillain lairs, fighting henchman, etc. It’s nothing if not the stuff of classic Bond movies, and it mostly works.
On the other hand, the filmmakers weren’t willing to go all the way in giving us a traditional Bond film. We’re again treated to more deconstructive spy-themes, this time with a plot involving meta-data, surveillance, and more questioning of the necessity of human spies in this modern era; as well as the 00-program and MI6 being shut down (Q, M, and Moneypenny all have to go rogue in order to help Bond). Considering that this is all mostly stuff that was addressed in Skyfall, it feels very redundant for those who saw the last film and also seems to forget the last film’s conclusion that spies were still important in this day and age. I really don’t know why the filmmakers chose to include these things in the story, except maybe that some studio-exec wanted to put it in so as to make the film seem topical and self-aware, but it mostly backfires.
The other big problem on display here has to do with Blofeld and the Spectre organization itself. Overall, they aren’t badly done (Christoph Waltz is actually pretty good as Blofeld), but for some reason the movie tries to tie them in with the events and villains from Craig’s previous films, saying that all the past villains were really working for Spectre and Blofeld the whole time. It also tries to tie Blofeld personally to Bond, which is just strange. You can clearly tell that this idea was dreamt up for this film, and it wasn’t some long term plan that started when they made Casino Royale. As a result, connecting the likes of Mr. White and Silva to Spectre feels contrived, rather than organic, and, again, only seems to undermine what was going on in the previous movies. I think this might be an influence from the recent trend in Expanded Universes and overarching continuity in film series that has sprung up in the post-Avengers years. The idea of having a multi-film arc for Bond isn’t a bad one in and of itself, but again, it obviously wasn’t there from the get go, and it just comes off as hokey.
Between the meta-commentary and this multi-film arc nonsense, Spectre wasn’t quite displaying the archetypal Bond movie that I was hoping for. I don’t know why, but the filmmakers just don’t seem to want to commit fully to the essence of this series. I wanted a movie that featured Bond working for MI6– with no commentary on whether or not it should exist–having to stop a group of supervillains–who didn’t need to be tied into earlier films or Bond’s younger life– with Q, M, and Moneypenny all operating in their traditional capacities, not working as rogues on the fringes. I wanted a movie that really affirms the world of Bond, not feeling the need to justify and/or dissect him at every turn. Maybe next time…
So with that in mind, Spectre is somewhat disappointing as a Bond film, but again, to keep perspective, it’s pretty entertaining as a film overall. The action is certainly good: the opening in Mexico City, as an example, is pretty engrossing, with one of the best long-takes I’ve ever seen, and an awesome, mostly-practical, helicopter sequence. There’s also a plane sequence later on that is pretty creative to watch. The film’s song, “Writing’s On the Wall,” has also grown on me; and it sounds like a traditional Bond tune should.
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but I also really enjoyed Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld. I know some people are giving him a hard time for a lack of enthusiasm, but I actually think that his restrained performance is pretty good. There is something devious in his calm, all-knowing nature that is indicative of good villains. I only wish he A) had more screen time (it’s surprisingly little, all things considered) and B) they had come up with a better way for him to be defeated. Without giving too much away, his defeat comes as the result of him behaving in one of the most idiotic ways imaginable, something that, as a supervillain who supposedly knows everything there is to know about Bond, is hard to buy in the context of this story. Again, it’s a sign of sloppy story-telling. Thankfully, he…
….doesn’t die at the end of the movie, meaning he could come back in better form in the next entry in the series.
The Bond girls (sorry, Bond women), of which they are two, this time around are a mixed bag. Lea Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, the main love interest for Bond, is capable and determined, while also quite beautiful, and is one of the better Bond women of recent years. Monica Belluci, as the other interest Bond interest, garnered some attention for, at 50, being the oldest Bond woman ever, but she’s hardly in the movie at all; and the fact that Bond sleeps with her kind of undermines his later relationship with Swann. Then again, maybe we’re far too late into this franchise to be commenting on Bond’s sexual escapades.
To sum it up, Spectre is not the best Bond film; or even one of the better Bond films of recent years. But it’s still acceptably entertaining; and Bond fans will take it in stride. I’ll be curious to see where this ultimately fits in the ranking of best-to-worst Bond movies, once the collective fan community puts it in perspective of the rest of the series. To be honest, I’m not sure where it would wind up; probably somewhere in the middle. As of today, though, it’s worth seeing and I’ll even call it an overall good movie. So, go see it.
*To be honest, I mostly look at the series as being rebooted every time a new actor inherits the Bond role. I know that’s not really the case, but on a practical level that’s how I’ve always seen it.
**30-some if you count the non-EON Never Say Never again.