It’s not often that I can know if a movie is probably going to work for me within the first five seconds, but that was kind of the case with the latest James Bond movie Spectre. Some background; I’ve been a huge fan of the James Bond series going back to my childhood and its been with a lot of mixed feelings that I’ve approached the series in the Daniel Craig era. On one hand I’m happy that the films have gone in a grittier direction but I also really hate the way the first three Craig movies spat in the face of a number of the decades old traditions that have characterized the series. I thought it was a terrible idea to go so far as to “reboot” the series and position Bond as a new agent in Casino Royale, it was even stupider to position Quantum of Solace as a direct continuation of the previous film, and that it was also bizarre to turn Skyfall into a meta-commentary about Bond’s relevance in the modern world (especially after having just positioned Bond as a young new agent just two movies earlier), but the heresy that has really come to symbolize these movies’ refusal to play along with Bond movie traditions was their inexplicable decision to put the iconic “gun barrel intros” at the end of the films instead of the beginning. How much that would bother you likely depends on whether you view the Bond movies as actual movies or whether you view them as a sort of ongoing tradition and I fall decidedly into the later camp. Anyway, the good news is that as soon as the movie started the “gun barrel intro” was right where it was supposed to be and from that moment I knew I was in for a treat.
As the film opens James Bond (Daniel Craig) is on an off-the-books mission in Mexico where he seems to be trying to kill a man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and while he succeeds in doing so there is more collateral damage than he expects and this causes something of an international incident. The new M (Ralph Fiennes) opts to bench Bond, in part because a new intelligence head named Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) believes that the whole 00 division is out of control and needs to be folded in favor of more modern forms of espionage like drones and meta-data surveillance programs. Bond is not so easily deterred however and believes that he’s on to something that could cause massive national security concerns if left uninvestigated. The trail eventually leads him to an evil international organization led by a mastermind going by the name Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who needs to be stopped at all costs.
Watching Spectre it becomes immediately apparent what the filmmaker’s goal was: to bridge the gap between the new post-Casino Royale style and the traditional James Bond formula. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the way I watch James Bond movies will know that this is exactly what I’ve been waiting for, and whether the public realizes it or not this is an essential moment for the future health of the franchise. You cannot make a series last for fifty years by making something like Casino Royale and Skyfall over and over again; you do it by making a certain baseline of quality and mostly sticking to it. That loyal adherence to formula made it so that even the worst Bond movies would still have cool moments that the fans wanted to see and the fact that future Bond movies were as reliable as the sun rising in the East meant that the series could always just shake off some of its failures and no one ever really worried that it had “jumped the shark” until Die Another Day came out and was so misunderstood that everyone over-reacted. Consequently the last three Bond movies have done some different stuff and even if you unquestioningly like that you have to admit that it goes against the very fabric of the franchise to re-invent the wheel each time out and finally with Spectre the long-time die hard fans have finally been thrown a bone.
Skyfall director Sam Mendes returns as the director this time around and again proves to be highly capable if perhaps a bit over-qualified behind the camera. The cinematographer this time around is Hoyte van Hoytema, who could be seen as a step down from Roger Deakins, but I think the cinematography here is a bit more appropriate for a James Bond film than Deakins’ incredibly flashy photography in Skyfall. Much of the supporting cast that was established in Skyfall is also back including Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Naomie Harris as the new M, Q, and Moneypenny and they actually have a bigger role here than they normally do in Bond films. I do worry that the decision to put over-qualified actors into these roles like they have will pressure the producers of the future installments to keep giving these characters more to do in each movie when the customary mission briefing should be sufficient for most Bond movies. The other notable actor here is of course Christoph Waltz in the role of a megalomaniacal villain whose actual name will come as no surprise to long time Bond fans. Waltz does pretty well here but his casting and the depiction of his character was all maybe just a little too obvious. Javier Bardem set the bar pretty high for mastermind villains played by Oscar winners in the last movie and Waltz’ performance here was maybe a little too close to that to impress all over again.
Now, as happy as I am to see the real Bond back, I’ll be the first to admit that Spectre is far from perfect. The movie’s script, while pleasant in its relative straightforwardness, has some kind of stupid stuff in it. For one thing, the film tries real hard over and over again to retcon the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies into chapters in a larger whole in which the Spectre organization has been ordering the global chaos that Bond has been thwarting and I frankly don’t buy it. It’s abundantly obvious that the writers didn’t have some grand story in mind when they made those previous movies and that they’re just making things up as they go, which would be fine if they didn’t try to claim that there was some kind of grand continuity at play. Also, the film’s plot basically takes the form of Bond following a series of leads which take him around the world on the trail of the Waltz character. Nothing wrong with that, but some of the leads are a bit hard to swallow. In particular there was a rather jarring scene where Q somehow uncovers an entire terrorist network by doing some kind of sciency thing to a ring that Bond found, but there are other leaps the script makes that will not stand up to scrutiny.
These are all great examples of how the traditions of the James Bond franchise go a long way toward helping audiences forgive the shortcomings of a lot of these movies. That’s exactly why I always thought that it was a mistake to abandon the hallmarks of the series; when these movies aren’t dutifully acting as installments of an ongoing film tradition it quickly becomes apparent that they’re kind of dumb. Skyfall had plenty of dumb plot points as well like the Bardem character’s ridiculously elaborate scheme or Q’s dumb decision to plug an obviously infected computer into MI6’s mainframe, and I found all of that a lot harder to forgive simply because it more or less invited a heightened level of scrutiny. On the other hand, those older Bond movies were as simple as they were because their main goal was to string along action scenes and given that there’s a certain expectation that said action scenes be pretty damn awesome and while there’s definitely some cool action in Spectre I don’t think it’s necessarily up to the series standards. The film boasts a handful of scenes that are perhaps a little more cool in theory than they are in practice like the film’s opening set-piece, a fight on a helicopter, which didn’t seem to be shot quite right and didn’t really have the thrilling impact it needed. The films other action scenes also mostly fall into the “good” to “very good” categories but are almost never breathtakingly awesome in the way that Bond stunts are supposed to be. The Bond series is supposed to lead the pack when it comes to action spectacle but this year other movies like Furious 7, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation have clearly raised the bar and Bond is kind of lagging behind.
All told, I think Spectre is a pretty big win but I also kind of feel like the movie is going to divide the longtime series fans from the fair weather fans who went crazy for Skyfall. I think I’ve made it clear that I come from a very specific perspective that a lot of general audiences won’t share, to them this is probably going to seem like a step backwards. That is unfortunate because to me this is a perfect compromise. When a lot of people hear me complaining about the Daniel Craig era they assume that what I’m advocating for is a return to Roger Moore-era silliness, which isn’t really true. I might enjoy something like that but all I ever really wanted is for a modern twist on the old formula and that’s what I’ve finally gotten from Spectre: a fusion of the better ideas from the Craig movies and the time honored traditions that have kept the series going all these years. The movie itself isn’t ideal but I’ll take what I can get and if the series doesn’t panic and over-correct all over again this should give us a great template to work off of.
***1/2 out of Four