Sam Mendes’ second-helping to the Bond franchise has been long awaited. His last effort, Skyfall (2012) bolstered the franchise back onto the path that Casino Royale (2006) so brilliantly laid out. It balanced homage to the ‘classics’ whilst remaining fresh and relevant — a perfect tribute to a fifty year old franchise.
But its successor is little short of a disappointment. Daniel Craig — whom is appearing increasingly jaded with his role — performs in one of the most lacklustre Bond films in years. Spectre intensifies the action, the scale and the tempo; at the cost of meaningful story. To some extent, it undoes all of the interesting development his films have made — relegating Bond back to an era of exhausting stereotype.
Of course, many will ask — what do you expect from a Bond film? As a whimsical action film, Spectre is marvellous. The production value is high and Bond has never looked this good. But for those hoping for something sharper will find that beneath the spectacle lies a clunky script and a regurgitated plot. It’s not an inherently bad film, but the faults are so easily avoided, it makes for a frustrating watch. What follows is a long-form piece breaking down my thoughts regarding Spectre — with a minor spoiler alert for those pedantic about such things. (Not that anything in this film will surprise you…)
Spectre opens with something of a mission statement from Mendes. In a gorgeous, one-take nod to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), we see Bond in amidst the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico. It’s a compelling sequence, documenting Bond’s move from incognito to suited assassin — culminating to a dramatic brawl within a helicopter. But it also acts as a cynical microcosm of the whole film. Spectre is beautifully shot and impeccably choreographed — but therein lies the problem. It offers nothing more than that.
The narrative itself is framed around Bond tracking down Spectre — the infamous ring of super-villains that first graced our screens in 1962. This mission sees him across the globe, in what is easily the best looking Bond film yet. The set-pieces are little short of beautiful and huge praise should be bestowed upon location-scout Philip Lobban. However, Spectre is plagued with deep-rooted structure issues; poor pacing and character development, that no wide-angle-shot of the Moroccan desert can conceal.
For example, audiences follow the rise of Hannes Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), whose performance, whilst commendable, feels too short-lived to be truly invested. His introduction is strong (embedded shot below) and the suspense surrounding Spectre in the initial fourty minutes is fantastic. But in an attempt to ramp up the tempo — Mendes throws in one too many fight scenes — creating an underwhelming finale with a ‘plan’ that was so blatant and poorly revealed to have any impact. It’s disheartening: the mystery of Spectre could have easily transcended into another film. Instead we get a rushed product, that subsidises thoughtful development for cheap spectacle.
Back in London, MI6 is under bureaucratic threat from a new station chief ‘C’, who claims that drones could liquidate the double-0 program. Whilst this triggers unpleasant memories of the latest Muse record, such a theme is relevant — and Showtime’s Homeland has incorporated drones into espionage thriller to great success. Sadly, Mendes doesn’t touch upon this issue with any certainty, either. There is plenty of room for political commentary in Bond — yet it seems all too eager to cut to more explosions. It’s almost as if Spectre is too scared to break the mould, albeit in developing its main antagonist or reflecting on modern intelligence methods. It’s as if those tiresome elements of sex, violence and one-sided characters hang like the proverbial albatross. Spectre plays with interesting ideas; but it offers us a fifty year old story.
Another point needs to be made regarding continuity. Mendes outsources crucial narrative and character development to previous Bond films. References to Le Chiffre, Mr. White and Raoul Silva may add momentum to Bond’s unfolding mission; but in practice it feels ill-conceived. To suddenly slot these previous films into a larger narrative — a la Joss Whedon’s Marvel Universe — distracts audiences from the lazy character development within Spectre itself. It only gives the facade of continuity. Hell, it’s farcical to defend Quantum of Solace as a work of well crafted canon — a film that quite famously forced Daniel Craig to write elements of the script. Making connections to previous films can only work if said films are celebrated or if careful planning has occurred beforehand. It’s like J. J. Abrams framing Star Wars: The Force Awakens around the Trade Federation — no-one would care. Yet Mendes seems obsessed with linking every character in the Craig-era franchise under the umbrella of Spectre; whilst simultaneously juggling the development of his new nemesis — featuring clunky nods to his childhood — and the internal affairs of Global Intelligence. It’s simply too much, no area gets enough attention and every potentially interesting moment suffers as a result. It’s for this reason I can only describe Spectre a mess of a film. A very pretty mess, but a mess nonetheless.
Looking back at Skyfall, it’s upsetting to see where it went wrong. Mendes’ previous offering, despite its flaws, touched upon interesting personal issues. It turned away from rampant carnage and looked inwards, towards the character instigating it. Bond’s alcoholism, his past, and a very personal tragedy regarding M — all of these introverted moments were effective. To some extent, its a template that can be traced back to Casino Royale, where each kill was accompanied by a considerable amount of emotional baggage. It seems the franchise was starting to move away from the mindless body-counts and the perceived invincibility of our protagonist. Note that Craig kills, on average, 66% less than his predecessor. Perhaps audiences resonate more with a character study of the tragic hero over the lighthearted bloodshed he is famous for. In one of the more interesting shots in Spectre, amidst his [From Russia With Love-esque] train-carriage brawl, Bond falls into the kitchen and turns to run away. It’s these fleeting moments of humanity in Bond that are so overdue. If only Mendes captured that sentiment — Bond on the defence, Bond drawing blood, Bond giving up — within the larger film. Because it is his weakness that makes his character stronger.
This encounter on the train reveals other problems. New henchman ‘Mr. Hinx’ (Dave Bautista) puts up a tremendous fight, although he is not fleshed out, nor memorable as henchmen been and gone. Equally, his fight is resolved as typically as ever. Bond looks doomed; his female-aid (Léa Seydoux) comes to his rescue. She puts aside her hatred for firearms as predictably as she disregards her hostility towards him. It’s impossible to feel any anxiety for Bond –– he is never in real danger – and there is nothing to rival the the interrogation sequence in Casino Royale or the sniper-shot in Skyfall. Moreover, it’s upsetting that a female character in 2015 is ‘empowered’ for merely firing a handgun and resisting the charms of the insufferable assassin for longer than 20 minutes.
Indeed the representation of women in Spectre is problematic at best. Naomie Harris returns as Miss Moneypenny to some avail. However the two new ‘Bond Girls’ (Monica Bellucci, Léa Seydoux) — a phrase that feels incredibly outdated in 2015 — succumb to the age-old tropes of being mere extensions of the protagonist. The former drops her pants in seconds and is never mentioned again. The latter resists Bond for longer than one can blink, only to develop unrequested love for him. Whilst I do not wish to digress into a lengthy comparison of the female accomplices in Bond films, it’s clear that Spectre regurgitates the ‘types’ we’ve seen before. Submissive and expendable: where even the characters against Bond eventually acquiesce to him. This wholly misogynistic representations of women is discomforting. Many would cite Judi Dench’s speech in GoldenEye (1995) as a turning point for the series: “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War…” Bond is a deeply conservative franchise, but it is at its best when being progressive. Frankly, it’s alarming that a beloved brand like this can continue to perpetuate such dubious views towards women.
A similar trend emerges within the other characters of the film. Every member fulfils their role with little imagination. The villains are bad; the heroes are good. Similar to Oberhauser — Mendes gives Andrew Scott too little screen time to develop the character of ‘C’. He’s an obnoxious “cocky shit” — and a painfully one-dimensional one at that. There’s little moral ambiguity in the cast and I find it almost farcical putting a spoiler warning on a film as riddled with cliché as this. Ralph Fiennes fares well as the new M, thankfully carving out a new character instead of replacing Judi Dench, but factor in the sloppy pacing issues and it’s hard to feel anything but apathy for these new characters.
Equally, the moments of comic relief within Spectre feel remarkably outdated and oversimplified. Humour and Bond has always been a difficult mix — but as Bond lands from an explosion, legs crossed on a sofa, it breaks the intensity of that brilliant opening sequence. In a similar vein, the intense car chase in Rome is interrupted by a civilian driver. Cut to an internal shot of the elderly man behind the wheel and his radio — cue the [awkward] laughter. It’s not that there isn’t space for humour in the Bond franchise, but Spectre flirts dangerously close with the slapstick drudgery of the Roger Moore films. (See Also: Clifton James) It’s not far removed from the [now painfully dated] Brosnan ‘tie-straightening’ motif. Casino Royale supposedly bought Bond back to reality, yet we’re painfully steering back towards fantasy.
That said, there are moments of sharper humour within the script. Public sector cuts and the merger of MI5-MI6 will resonate with some; equally the retort over the ‘M’ and ‘C’ acronyms are well placed. Ben Wishaw reprises his role as Q wonderfully, with quick jabs between him and Bond bridging the irreplaceable void Desmond Llewelyn left us. It’s just a shame that Mendes et al fail to grasp the calibre of humour correctly. It bounces between lighthearted political commentary and the relationships between colleagues — with Carry-On style slapstick. It lacks consistency, indeed humour is just one of many examples of Spectre’s burdening Identity Crisis. So much so that one is often found laughing at film, not with it. An observation that I did not expect to make about Bond post-Brosnan.
Conversely, and rather sympathetically, some have argued that Spectre is a tribute to a bygone era — and that any recycled plot elements are moments of pastiche. Admittedly, the nods to previous films that I have identified only name a few. Perhaps Mendes has constructed a work of complex self-reflection. A proverbial ‘love letter’ to the older days. Personally — I’m not convinced. Spectre is immensely formulaic for a Bond film in 2015. It is not so much a homage, but a rehash of old ideas.
On reflection, Skyfall paid tasteful tribute to the anniversary fifty years of the franchise. Upon recovering the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger (1964), M remarks:
‘… It’s not very comfortable, is it?’
‘Oh go on, eject me! See if I care! …’
These whimsical quips serve to remind us that the Bond of the 1960’s is dead. The past isn’t glamorous, or indeed ‘comfortable’, and the gadgets of Q have seen a much needed cutback. It reflects on Bond in the post-Bourne, post-Casino, post-modern world –– whilst celebrating the foundations the series is built on.
Yet in Spectre, it sees a u-turn. Bond drives a new Aston Martin, a DB10. It sports hidden machine guns, flame throwers, and yes — an ejector seat. Whilst one could argue this is merely a reinvention of an old favourite, it seems to undo all the interesting progression seen in the last few years. Many thought Bond was moving away from these exhausting stereotype, yet Spectre suggests they’re here to stay.
Another useful example is in Austria, where we see 007 pursue three jeeps from an aeroplane. He intercepts the targets and the wings are smashed off by surrounding trees. It’s a scene remarkably similar to the Double-Decker bus in Live and Let Die (1973) and it’s laughably overstretched. Whether this is homage or cop-out is open to discussion. What is clear, however, is that it undermines realism. It’s the return of Bond: the logic-defying, super agent.
Take the opening sequence for example. Bond manages to commandeer a helicopter — whilst fist-fighting and enduring barrel rolls — veer it away from crashing and flies it back to London. Yet in the finale of the film, he manages to down an enemy chopper with a 9mm pistol whilst gallivanting down the River Thames at a nonsensical speed. To leave a Bond film questioning the realism of it all suggests it’s failed its very mission. It’s not so much that I’m asking for a completely realist iteration of Bond. (It’s safe to say that any ‘real world’ Bond would be dead by now — albeit it from a car crash, machine-gun fire or a new-strain of Syphilis.) But there is so much potential to explore deeper, human terrain within the franchise. Bond films are, on the whole, escapism. However it is difficult to ‘buy’ escapism if its embedded in a reality that is already hard to digest. Many critics attest Bond in the post-Bourne world as a ‘back to basics’. Yet Spectre seems to throw Bond back towards the eccentric nonsense that caused so many to switch off. Perhaps Bond needs to be ‘boring’ to become ‘interesting’ again. Or perhaps he is an insufferable product of the past — and we should simply leave him there and move on. No doubt nostalgia sells and one has to accept Spectre with the cynicism of a multi-million pound enterprise. There will always be a conflict of interest higher up the chain. But whatever the future of Bond is –– Spectre is far from finding it.
On balance, Spectre is a visually enthralling film that lacks both heart and thought. It’s woefully predictable and given the promise of Skyfall, it feels immensely disappointing. Perhaps it is the tragedy of this missed opportunity that is most painful. The pitfalls could have been so easily avoided and by remarkable comparison, Quantum of Solace seems like a palatable film now. Whilst links to previous films gives the facade of continuity and lighthearted nostalgia, in reality, Spectre is the same old Bond. Belligerent sexism and violence with an undernourished narrative.
Once more I return to my opening remark — What do you expect from a Bond film? That, is ultimately down to the viewer. Those seeking a regurgitation of old films within a modern subtext will be happy. Equally, those looking for a bloated 2 and half hours of visual spectacle will have fun. But for those looking for more will be left disappointed. Personally, I think audiences expect more from Bond in 2015. And quite frankly, I think audiences deserve a better Bond. With all its pride, Spectre looks forward –– but it ultimately jumps backwards. And I’m starting to doubt if Nobody Does It Better.