Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)
Back in 2006, when the folks at EON Productions released Casino Royale and introduced the world to Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond, it felt like a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the long-running 007 series, which periodically, over the years, grows tired and needs reviving. Craig, all sinewy muscle and killer fiber, bursting through his tuxedo, made us feel like Bond was dangerous again, all the while delivering the emotional goods where it counted. Not since Sean Connery had we seen a Bond who looked like he had more than just a license to kill, but the will to do it when necessary. Director Martin Campbell (who had also introduced Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye) even had fun with classic Bond tropes, reversing the famous moment from Dr. No where Ursula Andress emerges from the ocean by now giving us a half-naked Craig in the water. That movie revitalized the franchise and gave hope that the famous British agent would successfully make the transition into the 21st century.
Then came Quantum of Solace – a disappointing sophomore effort – in 2008, followed by Skyfall, in 2012, which turned things around again, registering the highest-ever box office totals of any film in the series. I was not as much a fan of the movie as everyone else, but there was much to love in the craft of the filmmaking and Craig’s performance. What bothered me was that the elements that felt new and fresh for a Bond film – a darker color color palette, the exploration into Bond’s past – were simply borrowed from another popular franchise of the moment, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. What’s so innovative about copying someone else’s work? Then again, the Bond films have been self-cannibalizing since their inception, so perhaps choosing different cinematic flesh on which to feed was the only way to go. In any case, Skyfall was a superbly made action thriller with a climactic finale that was truly unexpected, and audiences responded.
Now we have Spectre. Directed by Sam Mendes – Oscar-winning helmer of American Beauty and the man behind Skyfall – this latest (#24) entry in the Bond pantheon picks up where the last film ended and leads us further into the history of its protagonist, filling in missing pieces of the puzzle first revealed in 2012. Until Craig’s turn as 007, we never asked where Bond came from (which, to be honest, was fine by me); by the end of Spectre, we know far more about the man than even his creator, Ian Fleming, may have. Is this good? You be the judge. Along the way, we get some very fine action sequences (my favorite is a car chase through Rome) – which is what we pay for – but, sadly, also a lot of bloat. At almost 150 minutes, this is not a briskly paced film.
Still, it is hard not to admire the attempt to add three-dimensionality to Bond through the character arc begun in Casino Royale and really developed in Skyfall. I may not have wanted “The Dark Spy,” but I respect the effort at something new. Here, though, Mendes and his four credited screenwriters try to tie the various story threads into too-perfect little knots, all the while trafficking in imagery and plots from previous films, creating a strange hybrid of old and new that was, indeed, most likely their intent, but which results in a bit of an unwieldy mess. Some of the allusions to Bond films past are fun – we have a train scene straight out of From Russia with Love that I enjoyed almost as much as the car chase – while others fall flat (such as Daniel Kleinman’s boring title sequence). And though they spend a lot of time explaining more of Bond’s origins, they neglect the basics of other characters’ developments, so that when one “Bond girl” says “I love you,” the result is a major disconnect. She loves him? Really? But she’s only known him for 20 minutes … In the past, when it was all caricature, such unmotivated sentiments mattered less; if you’re going to pursue a more dramatic vein, however, then you’d better get it right.
Spectre opens with Bond in Mexico. In an almost too-ostentatious opening single-shot sequence (though, after Birdman, who knows what is actually a single take anymore), Bond pursues an assassin through collapsing buildings and panicking crowds, eventually throwing him out of a helicopter above a crowded plaza (such disregard for the safety of the general public!). The consequences of this dirty deed lead him to SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a shadowy international criminal organization which was once the bogeyman of all Bond films, but from which we have heard neither hide nor hair since Diamonds Are Forever, in 1971 (though its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, made an uncredited appearance at the start of For Your Eyes Only, 10 years later). Meanwhile, back in London, MI-6 – Britain’s equivalent of the CIA – the intelligence organization for which Bond (ostensibly) works, is about to merge with MI-5 – Britain’s equivalent of the FBI – to form one single super-security apparatus. The leader – known as C – of this new entity is played, unfortunately, by Andrew Scott, and anyone who has seen his Moriarty on “Sherlock” will know how much that actor oozes duplicity. We do not need to wonder at his nefarious agenda (with shades of another recent film series, Captain America). All we have to do is look at him.
For the rest of the movie, Bond pursues the leader of SPECTRE, Hans Oberhauser – played by the usually reliable Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), hampered here by a poor script – while good old M – now played by Ralph Fiennes (The Invisible Woman), after Judi Dench’s departure – battles C for control of Britain’s future. Monica Bellucci (Irreversible) and Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) show up as love interests (it’s Seydoux who’s saddled with that unfortunate amorous declaration), while Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) does her best in the thankless role of Miss Moneypenny. She’s a terrific actress, and deserves better (maybe she should be the next Bond). Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) makes an imposing henchman for Bond to fight, but doesn’t get enough screen time to be truly frightening. A lot of good people and good material spend copious amounts of effort to propel the story forward, but there’s no denying that fatigue has once more set into the Bond series. The good news is that the way this story concludes sets up the series to either end completely, once and for all, or to once again reboot itself with a new team (and new lead actor) in another few years. Here’s hoping, either way.