A Spectre of its Former Self

In 24 films over 53 years, the James Bond franchise has had hits and misses, though recently the Daniel Craig incarnation has done quite well. Casino Royale rejuvenated the franchise and made believers of all the nay-sayers about Craig taking over the role, while Skyfall was a phenomena – the most successful Bond movie ever. Of course, in between was the hiccup of Quantum of Solace, a movie that was truncated due to studio problems and a writer’s strike. (At 106 minutes, it was the shortest Bond film ever.) The newest entry, Spectre, isn’t short – at 148 minutes it’s the longest entry in the series – but it doesn’t match the highs of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Overall, it feels a bit like a retread.

The movie begins with a long tracking shot during the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City as Bond moves into position to monitor a meeting. Ever since Touch of Evil, an extended shot like this has been a tour de force for the director. Last year’s Birdman extended the one short to almost the complete movie. Digital effects do allow for cuts, though Birdman still did takes of 10 or more minutes, which for film is like staging “Hamlet.” But it means the shorter tracking shots no longer have the level of difficulty of the past. The sequence does lead to a fairly involved fight that brings down a couple of buildings and has a fight to the death in a helicopter, but it suffers in comparison to Skyfall’s thrilling and surprising opening, or the uncharacteristically rough beginning of Casino Royale.

From there the movie follows the usual pattern of a Bond film, trotting around the globe – London, Rome, the Alps, North Africa – as Bond digs into the depths of Spectre, the criminal collective that’s been behind the plots in the past three movies. The action has its thrills and some surprises, but it isn’t as involving. Part of it is the main challenge of any Bond film, that the movie is only as good as its villain. Here you have two: Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Waltz is debonair and suave, but we don’t really get to see him until the last third of the movie. Bautista stands in as the villain until then, but he’s almost silent and with little personality beyond his strength. Former wrestler Bautista was excellent in Guardians of the Galaxy, but this role is more just a single note played over and over. After Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Jarvier Bardem’s Silva, Oberhauser and Hinx are a letdown.

Along with Spectre, Bond, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are dealing with a new overall head of British Intelligence, C (Andrew Scott). C is negotiating an unprecedented sharing of intelligence between multiple agencies, which could be a powerful tool against terrorism, or in the wrong hands a gateway to huge abuses. Scott also plays Moriarty on the BBC’s “Sherlock” and is excellent there, but in this role he’s more annoying than threatening. Q does get out into the field briefly, which is a rarity. The only other time Q’s been out is in License to Kill, when he was played by Desmond Llewellyn who originated the role. Whishaw’s fun in the fish-out-of-water scene, and it’s one of the better sequences in the film.

As always there are Bond girls, though in the recent films they’ve become women. One is the gorgeous Monica Bellucci, but unfortunately her time on screen is limited. The other is Lea Seydoux as Madeline Swan, who holds the key to finding Oberhauser. She’s kind of a Vesper Lynd lite who gives Bond someone to save. Seydoux was effective as the female assassin in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and she followed that with roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Blue is the Warmest Color. Spectre will increase her recognition, though the other movies were better roles.

Three writers worked on the story, and a fourth came on board to help with the actual script. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have done the Bond films since The World Is Not Enough, and John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) joined them for Skyfall. Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) helped with writing Spectre’s screenplay. It’s clear by multiple references in the script that they want Spectre to be viewed as the third (or third and a half if you include Quantum) movie in a trilogy. However, the constant references simply serve as a reminder of how Spectre is a lesser movie. It’s not down in the Spiderman 3 or X-Men: The Last Stand level of totally awful, but it also doesn’t rise to the Return of the King or Return of the Jedi level of excellence. The script also turns on an coincidence that’s painfully contrived. Sam Mendes is an excellent director, but where Skyfall felt like a labor of love from a fan of the series, Spectre is more of a mechanical exercise.

Where Spectre does drop to the awful level is in its opening credit song. After the sublime ”Skyfall” by Adele, any song would be a bit of a letdown, but “Writing on the Wall” by Sam Smith is one of the worst Bond movie songs ever. The only good thing about it is it’s completely forgettable once it’s over.

Craig has said this is his last outing as Bond. While he’s been the best Bond since Connery had his first vodka martini, it’s been 9 years since Casino Royale, the same amount of time between Dr. No and Connery’s last contiguous performance as Bond in Diamonds are Forever. There are several good names being floated as his replacement, including Tom Hardy and Idris Elba, so Bond will continue on. Spectre has had a wonderful opening both in the States and worldwide, so it will be a success financially. But it would have been nice for Craig’s final turn in the role to be an artistic success as well. It’s not bad; it’s just not great.

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