It almost had to happen. After each great Bond movie usually comes a disappointment: Tomorrow Never Dies succeeded GoldenEye, Quantum of Solace trailed Casino Royale, and now Spectre comes after the superlative revisionist Bond that was Skyfall.
Daniel Craig’s third 007 outing was so accomplished that it would inevitably be a tough act to follow; but though Spectre‘s sporadic brilliance means it in moments threatens to match its immediate predecessor, a sluggish third act and general unevenness ultimately leaves it as an entertaining yet inferior cousin. Thanks to last year’s Sony hack, we know Craig and director Sam Mendes rushed into the Spectre shoot with a grossly inflated budget and without a finished script in order to rapidly capitalize on Skyfall‘s billion-dollar success, and it shows: Spectre is a huge, opulent trifle with bloat issues and enough money to paper over the fact it has only a vague grasp on its ideas.
The film begins audaciously in Mexico on Dia de Muertos, with an honest-to-god high point for Bond opening sequences. It’s weird, and almost avant-garde: a title card reads, “The dead are alive,” then an unbroken I Am Cuba-esque tracking shot follows Bond as he stalks through a massive crowd of revellers, enters a hotel room wearing a skeleton costume and proceeds to carry out a hit across Mexico City’s rooftops, all to the jangling rhythm of Thomas Newman’s score.
If we’re to believe Craig really would rather “slash his wrists” than make another Bond movie, this should be remembered as a defining moment, of Craig coolly moving to the beat of Mendes’ tightly-choreographed filmmaking. It’s somewhat disappointing that nothing so economical or straightforward happens in the movie again.
One sign of rushed writing is when a relatively simple plot feels paradoxically convoluted. After that breathtaking Day of the Dead opener, Spectre pits 007 against Christoph Waltz’s big bad Franz Oberhauser and his Illuminati-like organization, Spectre, but takes in an embarrassing amount of supporting characters and world locales in 148 fatty and needlessly complicated minutes.
But then again, Spectre is a film that’s proud of its size and excess, signified by a gloriously OTT title sequence, a tribute to Bond titles of old featuring a shirtless Craig being caressed by fire, naked women and octopus tentacles for no reason other than that it looks spectacular.
Spectre reportedly cost $300-350 million, and it’s apparent in every moneyed frame packed with extras, expensive equipment, and grand locations cleared for the movie to reign freely and destructively in. Flying from Mexico to Britain to Italy to Austria to Morocco to the African desert and back to Britain again, often it feels like Spectre is globetrotting just because it has the means to do so.
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Not as ostentatiously beautiful as Skyfall, Spectre is painted by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in a mix of rich chiaroscuro and bright naturalism. Mendes – an actors’ director as well as a keen visual stylist – ensures that his film is always an aesthetic wonder, but that the performances hold the attention even as Spectre enters its more languorous final stretch.
Andrew Scott is sufficiently hateful as the MI6-threatening government rival to Ralph Fiennes’ new action-oriented M, while Ben Whishaw provides the arch laughs as the returning Q, here given an expanded role as Bond’s partner-in-crime when Her Majesty’s super-spy goes off-grid on a personal mission. Dave Bautista, meanwhile, is supremely menacing – despite an almost total absence of dialogue – as Spectre assassin Mr Hinx. One unfortunate weak link, however, is Craig, still too rigid to nail the comedy (Spectre is the jokiest Bond in over a decade) and increasingly disinterested as his 007 becomes less human and more a callous, Connery-esque killer.
Though they’ve sacrificed the humanity of Craig’s Bond, Mendes and his team of screenwriters have at least made the first 007 movie proper of the Craig era. Having begun the transition back to classic Bond with Skyfall, Spectre‘s a film made for fans of what the character was before the quasi-realism of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace took the franchise to a more austere, Jason Bourne-like realm.
The Bondian idiosyncrasies in Spectre remind how eccentric this franchise can be, with its bulbous mute henchmen, campy gadgets, unnecessarily flamboyant supervillain lairs, and ludicrous double entendres (Lea Seydoux’s romantic foil Madeline Swann tells Bond she takes her Martini “dirty,” just so there’s no confusion as to whether his thug-like charm is working or not). Bond may be less reflective and relatable in Spectre, but he is fun again, recalling the 007 heyday of killing and quipping for the hell of it.
It’s a shame that Mendes and company took such a path of familiarity for Spectre‘s villain, when they invented an original bad guy wholesale for Skyfall that was far more compelling. Franz Oberhauser is introduced too late to develop much in the way of a personality, while his motivation for revenge on Bond is downright feeble.
Oberhauser just isn’t the ultimate villain he’s supposed to be, in spite of Christoph Waltz – always an intelligent performer – lending the character a chilly hatred. Spectre‘s writing team attempt to replicate the personal impact of Skyfall through Oberhauser, by tying his past into Bond’s own and suggesting Oberhauser was the puppetmaster behind every Craig Bond villain to date. The connection with 007 is clumsily handled, though, and Oberhauser’s link to Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva just feels like an unnecessary attempt to keep the self-referentiality going post-Skyfall.
So, this 24th Bond is flawed, heavily. But there are also individual scenes in Spectre that undeniably pulse with excitement. It almost feels like Mendes wanted to scratch all his action itches before he returned to what can now only be lower-budget moviemaking: so we get Bond and Mr. Hinx racing gadget-laced supercars through the grand old streets of Rome, a bruising fist fight aboard a moving train and an insane airplane vs. jeeps battle in the Austrian Alps. You also get that exhilarating Day of the Dead sequence, beginning what feels like a two-and-a-half-hour journey into hell for Bond.
There are concepts regarding death and rebirth thrown around in Spectre, while the presence of Andrew Scott’s Orwell-admirer ‘C’ allows the film to ponder privacy in the modern world. Those are ideas never defined clearly or interestingly enough, but this product has such a fine surface sheen to it that Spectre winds up a no-brains-necessary way to pass two hours. The final half hour makes 30 minutes too many, but never let it be said that Mendes doesn’t direct the shit out of this madcap bit of fluff.
Overlong and bloated, Spectre is a few rewrites away from greatness. Still, there's no denying that it's an eccentric epic and undeniably fun, despite a languorous final stretch.