The trend across the three previous films of Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond has been to set the story in a grounded, moody atmosphere – Bond is a man who bleeds and feels and has a past. In many ways those elements, along with their role in the films’ story arcs, reached their conclusion at the end of Skyfall. Bond had known love and loss, had said goodbye to his mentor and his childhood, and defeated a villain who essentially represented his own darkness.
The franchise’s 24th entry, Spectre, recognizes that and offers something of a return to the looser logic and carefree playfulness of earlier entries. For better or worse, much of the film leans backward as a consequence-free adventure focusing on dumb, explosive fun, a “ripped from the headlines/Marvel Phase II” plot involving excessive government surveillance, and an abundance of nods to the pre-Craig past. It’s not long though before the script decides it wants to hit the heavy stuff too, and it tries to accomplish this by collecting every moment of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, and dropping them at the feet of not only one organization – but of one man with a laughable motivation.
A posthumous video tip from old M (Judi Dench) leads Bond to Mexico City where he succeeds in preventing a bombing by blowing up a couple buildings. New M (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t too keen on his agent’s actions, but his bigger concern is an impending agency merger destined to replaced both Britain’s MI5 (domestic) and MI6 (international) with the shiny and new Center for National Security headed up by the upstart C (Andrew Scott). He wants to phase out the “double-O” program and replace it with increased surveillance and drone strikes. That’s bad news for freedom lovers, but it’s also a threat to the job security of other letters of the alphabet including new M and Q (Ben Whishaw, who earns most of the film’s laughs).
Bond is suspended but stays on the trail anyway travelling to Italy, Austria, Morocco, and ultimately to the heart of a powerful organization. Along the way he learns more about his past – both the long-forgotten and the recently misconstrued – faces off against a merciless foe named Mr. “No Time for Hijinks” Hinx (Dave Bautista) and finds a kindred spirit in Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).
Craig has been exceptional across his Bond filmography, and he seems fully settled into the role here aided in part by the film’s less emotionally-taxing plot. Bond has no qualms about collateral damage or the apparent fragility of the women in his life – although to be fair, while two cry in his presence one does give a mixed message by wearing sexy underwear to her husband’s funeral. His action antics are far less constrained by reality too, and Craig delivers each motion with a smooth confidence.
Director Sam Mendes returns – no surprise after Skyfall became the highest-grossing Bond film by a healthy margin – and while the film lacks Roger Deakins’ magic Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema still deliver some appealing visuals and sequences. A lair located in a meteor crater and an opening tracking shot impress, but the film’s action scenes are rarely among the highlights. CG enhancements do just the opposite, and more than a few of the scenes are simply silly. To be clear, they’re not dumb in the endearingly old-school Bond wackiness kind of way, they’re dumb in the sense that a scene featuring Bond chasing three cars in a plane or shooting a helicopter multiple times without the pilot noticing is just idiotic.
The script – written by Bond veterans John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade alongside newcomer Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) – moves the action around well enough, but what starts as a fast and loose adventure begins to creak and groan as it tries to tie everything together with a weak, vengeance-colored bow. We’re not only asked to accept universal connections between past events, but we’re also given a supposedly ominous villain who suddenly becomes the walking definition of indecisive and inept. The struggles and challenges Bond faced in the past three films are gone replaced by one of the easiest of his career as things fall into place rather than fall before his efforts.
Like its immediate predecessor, Spectre ends at a thematic conclusion that could work as Craig’s swan song, but if he does return the final frames also set up an event previously witnessed in a certain Bond film from the ’60s. Either way, and despite this entry’s numerous failings, we’re once again left wanting more.
The Upside: Daniel Craig captures an evolving James Bond; striking locations; opening tracking shot/sequence; appealing supporting performances; visual nods to older franchise entries; always good seeing Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux onscreen
The Downside: Strains to tie *everything* together with a ridiculous backstory; frequently too dumb for a grounded Bond; action beats aren’t very memorable; feels its nearly 2.5 hour length; least female-friendly installment of Craig’s tenure
Related Topics: James Bond