Spectre summons up the ghosts of the Bond franchise to diminishing returns

Spectre

3 Stars (3 / 5)

The evocatively titled Spectre, 24th installment of the Bond franchise, is a film steeped in continuity but light on originality.

While capitalizing on the back-story laid down for Daniel Craig’s super-spy in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall – the first incarnation of the character to have much by the way of continuity – it finds the time, over the course of 138 minutes – which also makes Spectre the longest film in the franchise – to riff on nearly every previous episode from the series’ 53 year history.

Wingless plane bursts through a snow-covered building full of logs? Check, The Living Daylights (sort of). Oblivious Italian driver ends up on the receiving end of the DB10’s front bumper? Check, every Roger Moore film, more or less. Boat pursuit along the Thames? Check, The World Is Not Enough. Even the villain’s control center seems to be an exact replica of Drax’s base in Moonraker, and the car he sends to pick the hero up seems like a definite Goldfinger callback.

Road to Perdition‘s Sam Mendes is back on directing duties and returning screenwriters John Logan/Neal Wade & Robert Purvis are joined by Black Mass co-writer Jez Butterworth. From the opening shot of Spectre‘s Day of the Dead pre-credit sequence, though, it’s clear that Roger Deakins is no longer on cinematography duties.

Interstellar‘s Hoyte van Hoytema’s work here is impressively layered and textured, primarily with dust, but there’s a lack of the vibrant compositions that made Skyfall so impressive. Bond’s listening in on that conversation via sniper rifle from a rooftop definitely recalls Skyfall (sans that lovely blue neon jellyfish). It’s also nice to see Bond in a proper disguise for once — even if that “proper disguise” is a masked skeleton at a Day of the Dead celebration.

That square in Mexico, though, packed with thousands of panicking festival-goers, the helicopter brawl overhead threatening to spill out into open air: Slash Film were write when in a recent podcast on the new Mission: Impossible they said the Bond film’s occasionally suffered from putting their best set-piece out front.

Despite his very public reservations about the role – in short, he hates it – Craig has lost none of his wry, chiseled gravitas; even if he’s beginning to show his age, just barely. Craig is still perfect in the role, though (see: the minute double take after the building blows up as if to say, “Did I…? Oh, okay”), and, unlike Moore – who managed an as-yet unbeaten seven films before getting booted from the franchise at age 57 – he seems ready to leave in the fullness of time. At least Lazenby had that going for him, too.

Spectre gives us Bond at his most vulnerable and exposed – Sam Smith’s controversially quavery theme song, “Writing’s on the Wall”, really (only) works in this context. Vis-a-vis a naked Daniel Craig being touched by flaming women — he’s been burned, dammit! —while surrounded by ghosts of the past: Silva leering; Vesper drowning; Le Chiffre doing whatever. Seriously, Mads Mikkelsen is an incredibly talented actor, but has anyone thought at all about Le Chiffre since the end of Casino Royale?

On the home front, Ralph Fiennes’ M is facing down a new threat to the service in the form of Andrew Scott’s smug, slimy C, who wants to scrap the 00 program in favor of a mysterious new surveillance system. Well, the same threat as in the previous film. That whole “spies are irrelevant” bit is beginning to ring true, though. Still, you may well be thinking, “This whole surveillance network, ‘Nine Eyes’, bit feels topical. I wonder if it’ll play into the plot in some meaningful way” It doesn’t.

Ralph Fiennes’ M is good, though: in a word, starchy. “At least now we know what C stands for: careless”. Let’s just say, that was nobody’s first thought. Scott, meanwhile, is pretty reliable at playing smug and slimy. His character went to school with the Home Secretary, don’t you know? It’s sorta satisfying when he goes the way of Sherlock.

Abroad, Bond finds himself in pursuit of a figure from his distant past, with a bit of help from Q and Moneypenny. Oh, and Bond goes rogue again. I think MI5 would panic at this point if he didn’t. Q seems specially impish here, showing off the DB10 to Bond and *only* giving him a watch. And that whole “hands on hips” bit is very Desmond Llewellyn. He even gets in some field work. And Moneypenny’s making house calls now. Don’t sleep with him, Moneypenny! If you sleep with him the franchise dies!

There’s a lot of globe-hopping even by Bond’s cosmopolitan standards: from a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico to a car chase through the windy backstreets of Rome to a clinic in the Swiss Alps (a la On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though Bond’s aversion to health drinks seems more Never Say Never Again), a base in the deserts of Morocco, and the ruins of MI6. It’s amazing Bond can bear to be around so much snow given what happened to his mother and father, and surrogate father, and half-brother…

Spectre is full of figures from Bond’s past, the dead and the soon-to-die, plus two Bond girls – Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux – and the first attempt at a classic henchman we’ve had since Die Another Day. It’s nice to see Judi Dench again, if only on a computer screen and only for two seconds. As for poor, beleaguered Mr. White, hiding out in that crumbling manse. That “kite dancing in a hurricane” line featured in the trailer sounds good, but what does it actually mean?

Also, so continues Bond’s long, uncomfortable history of semi-non-consensual sex, which only isn’t rape because he’s James Bond. There’s a line in London Boulevard about Monica Bellucci that’s looking particularly prescient about now. It’s an especial shame in light of the otherwise vaguely progressive fact that Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl, four years older than Craig even.

Unlike Lea Seydoux, who is seventeen years younger. But, ooh, is she actually going to properly reject Bond? Could she be a platonic Bond girl? That would be genuinely interesting. I mean, imagine it, Bond gets to show a bit of emotional maturity, character development even, while redeeming himself for failing to save Vesper, which has always been a chip on his shoulder. She even gets to deliver barbs at him aboard a train; all very Eva Green. No, wait, they’re going at it. Shit.

Amidst all these elements, though, what should be the center-piece – Bond’s traumatic connection to lead villain Franz Oberhauser (a reliably urbane Christoph Waltz) – kind of gets lost in the mix. Still, Waltz looks great seated in the shadow, whispering over that microphone. Very Max Von Sydow, right down to that Nehru suit he dons later in the film. And that white Persian cat. Wait… KHAN!!!

Dave Baustista makes the most of his brief screen-time as henchman Drax. That neat little smile. That eye business was very Game of Thrones, too, albeit done on a 12A certificate. Shame he’s so underused. That train fight was very Red Grant/Teehee/Jaws, and Bond really gets the hell beaten out of him for once

So apparently Blofeld is Bond’s half-brother. Yep, that’s a thing. I wonder if they’ll ever seriously address it in a way that will make up for the sheer level of serendipity involved. It’s as if Return of the Jedi had tried to pretend Darth Vader being Luke’s father was no biggie. The film underplays it, preferring to get down to “Pleasencetries”, but it might have been more convincing if developed just a bit.

He may be the first villain ever to threaten a hero with face blindness, though. “Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?” “No, Mr. Bond. I expect to give you prosopagnosia.” Given the complete lack of payoff to Oberhauser’s promises about the effects of his drilling into Bond’s head, you can probably cue a slew of conspiracy theories that Bond never made it out of the chair and the whole third act was all a hallucination — you can imagine a sort of Brazil-like post-credit scene with Bond humming the theme distractedly to himself: “Dum de de dum dum”, “I think we’ve lost him, Madeleine…”. In which case our never seeing Craig’s Bond again would make a certain morbid sense.

Also, the film definitely squanders the eponymous organization that Sony fought to hard to reclaim the rights to. Spectre is essentially just Quantum re-branded, a generic if threatening criminal UN. Still, that wasn’t all that came with the package… With some occasionally perfunctory action and a hint of weary absurdity, the franchise is in need of a break. Sony might not even have the rights for much longer: they’ve held onto them since the new Casino Royale, but their deal with MGM expires this year.

Having mined all it can from its protagonist’s troubled personal life, and arguably hit dramatic bedrock, Spectre provides a thrilling but deeply flawed conclusion in what seems likely to Craig’s final appearance as Bond. There’s a definite sense that this is it, everyone pack up and go home — we’re done. It’s the closest Bond’s ever got to riding off into the sunset. Q’s final line, “I thought you’d gone”, is a lovely grace-note. As indifferent as this film is overall, it feels so conclusive it would almost be a shame for Craig to do another — especially if he really hates playing the role as much as it seems.

Give it five years or so and, with perhaps less focus on arcs and more on the traditional standalone missions. Even if, yes, they can be a bit hit and miss. Chris Nolan in the director’s chair and Tom Hardy in the tux – there might just be life in the sexagenarian secret agent yet. At 43, Idris Elba is sadly too old to really be taking on the commitment and, much as I love a fellow ginger, Damian Lewis is even older. Hardy is gruff and buff, but he can definitely pull off suave — plus he and Nolan already worked together on Inception.

Failing that, maybe we’ll finally get the Tarantino version we’ve all kinda sorta been waiting for.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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