“We always have a choice.”
A criticism of Daniel Craig’s take on James Bond has always been that he’s humorless, tough, focused, but lacking the trademark wit from earlier 007 films. After his latest outing in Spectre, this complaint can rest with the fishes in the Thames. Craig smiles more in the first five minutes of this film than he had in his first three entries of the 50-years-and-counting franchise. His Bond now feels connected to the 20th century takes on the character. The gun barrel sequence is back where it should be. The essential pieces of M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are all in place. There is even an evil lair, equipped with a change of clothes and champagne for visiting/imprisoned good guys.
Unfortunately, returning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) squanders all of these positive attributes before the closing credits roll. Spectre is too messy to even be labeled a tale of two halves. The slow burn of a beginning is beautifully paced and gorgeously shot. Then it loses its timing, then it’s fun again, then it isn’t. The best adjective to describe the movie is “frustrating.” Early on, the film promises to be one of the best Bonds — a reminder that nobody does it better. In the end, it just looks like everything else.
(Ranking: James Bond Themes From Worst to Best)
Shortly after the octopus-laden opening credits, and a Sam Smith song that actually fits in quite nicely, Bond gets suspended from duty after going rogue. (Again. Ugh) He embarks on a personal mission to track down what turns out to be an evil organization that’s been at the head of everything he’s ever encountered. The head of this agency is Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, who is having a great time), a man who may have a past with Bond. 007 is aided by the gang back at MI-6, as well as a beautiful widow (Monica Bellucci, in a short but effective performance) and a daughter of an old enemy (Léa Seydoux, who is poorly drawn out). In addition to all the action, there are bureaucratic problems involving a meddling MI-5 higher-up (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott) but who gives a shit?
There are plenty of positive notices before we get to more of the not-so-niceties. The pre-credit sequence is a technical achievement — a one-shot following Bond and another woman through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebration, into a hotel, up the elevator, into a rented room, and out through the roof. To Mendes’ credit, he is actively trying to one-up himself throughout, and here it pays dividends. The action sequences are sleek without cutting every half a second (see Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace). There are car chases, there are plane-chasing-car chases, and there are helicopters doing 360s. It isn’t fun Fast and Furious-style filmmaking. It’s fun James Bond filmmaking.
The switch back from digital to film gives Spectre a surprising new look, and the switch from cinematographer Roger Deakins (busy with this year’s Sicario) to Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) gives the film a softer, visual feel — a golden hue in its Rome and Tangier locations and easy white in the snowcapped mountains of Austria. No need to imitate when you have another solid cinematographer in your employ, and Mendes is well aware of that. This movie is always gorgeous to look at.
The man of the hour, though, is Craig, and while he is first and foremost the serious of all the Bonds, he is able to do so with that aforementioned sense of humor. There is a “wink” to his performance that is perfectly palatable (his line “Stay” may be the best of the movie) while keeping it close enough to reality. This is a Bond who gets into a drunken standoff with a rat, asking who sent it and who it works for. The humor and newfound attitude sync well with much of the film’s tone as a calling card not to Christopher Nolan, whose The Dark Knight clearly inspired Skyfall, but to Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert, and Terence Young — directors of those early Bonds of the 1960s. It’s, dare I say, delightful in the early going. Now I dread to discuss what follows.
Seydoux’s character of Dr. Madeleine Swan slowly transforms into an effective character after existing solely as a plot device, before recessing into a “Bond Girl” who falls in love with 007 after a few days of travel. Her character is an avatar for the film’s inconsistent storytelling after such a strong start. If my words feel as though they’re becoming repetitive, it’s because I cannot express enough how good this movie is before swallowing itself up.
I will tread lightly for fear of spoiling anything, but the movie becomes something else entirely in its final half hour. Earlier in the film, we follow Bellucci’s character as she walks out of a dimly lit house into a dimly lit backyard, a scene that ramps up the tension to a satisfying outcome. Shortly before the movie drags to a close, however, there is a magical maze of doom rigged with explosives, intercut with action scenes that go nowhere you don’t already expect. A villain is introduced in shadow and is a terrifying presence. The same character isn’t so much in the end. That’s the fear for any franchise film director: presenting alleged surprises that just aren’t. This happens a number of times in the final 30 minutes of Spectre
Spectre, the 24th entry in the James Bond series, has so much going for it for so long before either a.) the filmmakers discovered there was no conclusion, b.) they chickened out on a more subtle finale, or c.) audiences want explosions. Intensity and subtlety give way to unfocused chaos and predictable revelations. A vodka martini, then. Shaken, but not stirred.