Making a sequel on the heels of the most successful film in the history of a franchise is a tough act to follow. Sam Mendes and company achieved a pinnacle with 2012’s Skyfall, one of if not the best Bond films in the long history of the franchise. It was the first Bond film, to my knowledge anyway, to feature an accomplished director in his own right outside of the franchise in Sam Mendes. The Bond series with Craig as Bond has been more personally focused than most Bond films, and Mendes has focused in on this, with Skyfall having a villain out for revenge on M (Judi Dench). With Spectre, Mendes tries to tie all of the Craig-led film into a neat, complete story, almost too neat. Some of it works, some of it falls flat, and some of it reverts to pre-Craig tropes and conventions, making for an uneven potential last act for Daniel Craig as Bond.
The story opens in Mexico City, in the midst of a massive Day of the Dead celebration in the city streets. Bond, under a mask, is following an assassin who is having a meeting with two men about blowing up a stadium. After a gunfight resulting in an explosion and a collapsed building, a chase through the streets, and a fight inside a helicopter over the throngs of people in the streets, Bond comes away with what he was looking for, a ring with an emblem of an octopus on it. The ring leads him to Rome and into the arms of the widow (Monica Bellucci) of the man he killed and manages to infiltrate a secret meeting of Spectre, a shadowy organization led by a ghost from Bond’s past, before he was a spy, in the form of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Spectre has ties to Quantum, the shadowy organization hinted at in Casino Royale and expanded upon in Quantunm of Solace. Escaping from the meeting with a behemoth assassin on his heels named Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), Bond tracks down Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), and ends up having to protect White’s daughter, Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), in order to get information on Spectre, their plans, and how to bring them down. All the while, M (Ralph Fiennes), Monneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear) are dealing with a power struggle in British intelligence as C (Andrew Scott) is looking to consolidate the “outdated” OO Program into the Joint Intelligence Service, while pushing for Britain to join the “Nine Eyes” global surveillance initiative.
It’s a very difficult plot to explain without giving away massive details, clearly. The story is not as strong as it was in Skyfall. There are some great visual moments, including the helicopter fight over Mexico City. There are some lavish set pieces and there is the typical Bond globetrotting that takes place. There is a car chase and a car-airplane chase. But there is nothing as visually remarkable as what was in Skyfall, unfortunately. Perhaps part of this is attributable to the fact that Roger Deakins was the director of photography for Skyfall, whereas this time around it is Hoyte Van Hoytema. Van Hoytema is no slouch, but what he captures just doesn’t reach the heights of the visuals from the previous film. I don’t want to spend all of my review, however, comparing and contrasting this film to Skyfall.
Craig continues to play Bond with a level of grit and air of slight vulnerability that has made him stand out from his predecessors. Unfortunately, there is an air of disinterest to all of it, and that there is not much new to bring to the character. Sadly, he’s not the only one who looks disinterested here, either, as Christoph Waltz seems utterly bored by the proceedings. After being given an effectively mysterious entrance where he joins a criminal meeting in-progress completely shrouded in shadow, he is given surprisingly little to make him a compelling villain. Waltz can do menacing and even restrained and refined menacing, and can even go big an chew the scenery, but neither of those really come across, just the boredom. It’s disappointing that a great actor is given an iconic franchise villain and that it is such an unmemorable role.
As far as the cast aside from Craig and Waltz are concerned, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Bellucci feel particularly wasted in their role as the widow of the man Bond kills in the opening sequence. It is such a small and quickly dismissed role for someone who isn’t just a beautiful woman (all she needs to be here) but a talented actress as well. Dave Bautista, who showed that he can act in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given a role with no dialogue and is just a heavy who is wasted outside of one good fight scene between he and Craig. Lea Seydoux is a talented young actress, but is not given much to do outside of being damsel in distress and then the token female tag along for Bond. Fiennes, Whishaw, Harris, and Scott, outside of brief interactions with Craig, are essentials off on their own movie that is related but has little-to-no character overlap.
There’s also a good deal more of pre-Craig camp and formula than in the past. While there was some of it in Skyfall, it fit a bit more naturally there. There is one point early on when the building Bond is escaping through is crumbling around him and he falls only to land, conveniently, on a couch. In fact, convenience is the dominant trait of the film. It turns out James Bond, the greatest superspy in the world, has essentially an adoptive brother, long thought to be dead, who is the greatest supervillain in the world. What a mighty convenient coincidence. Or unnecessary plot contrivance.
It also doesn’t help that the villainous aim of Spectre and its leader (aside from ruining Bond’s life) are vague and nebulous; something tied to world political power through unfiltered consolidation of information and surveillance. The story also earmarks rather early on that what Spectre is doing and the side story involving the “Nine Eyes” initiative are going to overlap and tie-in. It suffers from the Star Trek Into Darkness syndrome of taking an old, familiar story in a franchise, modernizing it but also condensing it, and ultimately sacrificing the necessary step of laying the groundwork that made the original story so compelling. Because of this, Spectre feels less like a global threat and mostly just an organization whose sole purpose is to prevent James Bond from finding happiness.
The new era of Bond films ushered in with the arrival of Daniel Craig were made as a response to the contemporary action films, particularly the Bourne franchise, and how they had perhaps passed 007 by. It also became more focused on the personal interests of Bond as a spy and why he did what he did. This film finds Bond being late to the party on a few fronts, being the latest action/spy movie to deal with the struggle between old intelligence operations and new intelligence operations in the 21st century. And it seems like every spy movie now has to have the agency in danger of being shut down and results in the agent having to go it alone after being disavowed or suspended.
Mendes and crew do some ret-conning to bring all of the previous Daniel Craig Bond films together into a cohesive whole and tie everything into a satisfying conclusion. Sadly, by trying to tie everything together, they fall short of it being satisfactory. It’s quite possible that this is the last Bond film for Craig, and if so it is a down note to go out on for someone who played Bond as good as anyone, possibly better than anyone.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5