The James Bond movie series is certainly a rare feat in the world of cinema, clocking in twenty-four movies (produced by Eon Productions) and six leads, and managing to keep the brand not only current but profitable. Skyfall became the highest-grossing Bond picture ever, solidifying the public’s love for the character by bringing in American Beauty director Sam Mendes to helm a layered and robust script with care and style. Keen to repeat the critical and financial success of Skyfall is its follow-up, Spectre, which brings back Mendes behind the camera and Daniel Craig as the man with a license to kill. Unfortunately, while Spectre wears its attractive suit with elegance, closer inspection reveals the remnants of wear and the blandness that comes with little creative spark.
We kick off in fantastic fashion, with an impressive long take that follows Bond from the streets of Mexico during the country’s annual Day of the Dead festival to the rooftops overlooking the decidedly crowded setting. The sequence goes on to incorporate a collapsing building and a scuffle aboard a haywire helicopter, resulting in an energetic and very fun Bond opening. And while what follows for the next overly long 2-plus hours is certainly well directed and watchable, it’s all on a steady decline from the muscular intro.
As has become quite common with our hero, Spectre begins with Bond not quite in line with the wishes of his agency’s head, M (Ralph Fiennes). As Bond runs around the world uncovering a secret that looks to be hitting much closer to home than expected, adding to M’s worries is the fact his agency is at risk of being scrapped by the changing tide, personified by the obnoxious C (Andrew Scott). There’s undoubtedly much more plot to be explored here, but to reveal more would be to hit slight spoiler territory, especially seeing as Spectre takes a route that attempts to tie in Craig’s previous three Bond outings.
Spectre’s plot does a good job at keeping you guessing while trying its best to nod at the expected Bond tropes and to drop in more than a few throwbacks to past adventures. Yet, the promise of key revelations fail to materialise into little more than matter-of-fact reveals, with little to none of the emotional drive that made Casino Royale and Skyfall such strong outings. Spectre’s narrative is unveiled in a long series of well-made yet progressively unenthusiastic sequences. It’s as though Spectre’s four screenwriters (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) decided to put their focus on making the film’s connections to the previous movies make sense, instead of balancing out the logic with emotion, energy and fun.
Apart from the strong opening and an entertaining chase sequence involving a plane and vehicles on a snow-covered mountain, there are surprisingly little action scenes to raise an eyebrow at. The film’s budget is reportedly in the vicinity of $250 – $300 million, which makes it one of the most expensive Bond pictures of all time, but apart from certain moments of destruction and a reliance on putting everything on location, there’s little that Spectre’s grand price tag does to boost the proceedings. While Mendes’ work directing is more than adequate in the film’s bigger set pieces, they’re arranged with stakes that aren’t engaging enough to warrant care.
Craig continues to shine as Bond, bringing his usual on-screen gravitas to the character he’s now had four films to master. The inner turmoil he brought in previous entries is sorely missing, primarily due to the fact many of the film’s twists and turns involve Bond’s -often personal- past, but Craig ensures he keeps his agent engaging nevertheless. Léa Seydoux is an excellent “Bond girl,” keeping her tough persona in check with underlying fears and doubts, and bringing the required sex appeal to have her be a match for Bond’s allure. Speaking of which, Monica Bellucci’s turn here is little more than a guest appearance; don’t believe the thrust of the marketing.
If there’s one key bit of casting that was bound to push Spectre up a notch, it was that of Christoph Waltz as the film’s principal villain. It’s what makes it that much more of a disappointment to find that Waltz, while doing his best, has little to bring in terms of characterization. His Oberhauser is a bad guy, no question about it, but he’s too simple a persona to provide much of a threat factor or to benefit from Waltz’ proven track record of villainous performances. Perhaps the strongest reason his character fails, is the lack of a convincing enough argument for his actions. Oberhauser is the maestro behind a plethora of truly evil deeds, yet he comes across as just another run-of-the-mill bad guy.
To be clear, Spectre isn’t all bad news. As aforementioned, the film is certainly watchable, with Mendes’ experienced eye and Craig and Seydoux’ strong performances going great lengths in holding the film afloat. Also worthy of a mention is Thomas Newman’s score, which does a great job of incorporating some of those classic Bond themes of yesteryear while helping inject much needed bits of energy throughout.
At the end of the day, the film begins with a fire that dwindles as it heads into exposition and throws emotional triggers by the wayside. By no means a disaster or a detrimental entry in the series, Spectre simply fails to hit the marks set by some the franchise’s stronger predecessors.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10