Spectre

The twenty-fourth film in the venerable James Bond franchise, the fourth starring Daniel Craig as 007, Spectre begins with the promise of a truly great entry in the series. A long tracking shot (faking single take shots like this seems all the rage lately, but I won’t hold the digital trickery against them) descends upon the massive Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City, because any location with a colorful and easily recognizable festival is, within the realm of movies, having that festival constantly. It’s why Mardi Gras is always happening when you go to New Orleans and why entire squads of lion dancers stand ever at the ready, poised to spring into a celebratory lion dance parade the instant they catch wind of a cop chasing a criminal through any of the United States’ many Chinatown neighborhoods. The camera eventually focused on a masked pair, she in a colorful feathered domino while he is obscured by an ornate skull mask. As the camera follows them through the revels, they retire to a romantic hotel room, the sound of the celebration drifting up through the window as giant puppet skeletons lope down the street below. Eventually, the man removes his mask, revealing what we already knew: that it is James Bond. But as the woman stretches out on the bed, ready to do what it is Bond always does, a notice comes in on Bond’s phone and, with a quip, he steps out of the window and heads across the rooftops of Mexico City to kill a man.

It’s a fantastic, exhilarating pre-credit sequence. Had the rest of the film maintained this level of artistry, cleverness, and excitement — what happens during the hit mounts into an impressive action sequence involving a foot chase through the Day of the Dead parade, an out of control helicopter, and the complete destruction of at least one whole building — Spectre would have indeed cemented its position as one of the very best Bonds that Bond has to offer. Unfortunately, the remainder of the film’s obsession with mythology building and referencing previous films results in a tangled mess that, despite being over two hours in length, still feels like an hour of the film is missing. Granted Spectre had the unenviable task of following up what many considered one of the best films in the entire series, 2012’s Skyfall. Those are big shoes to fill, as Quantum of Solace discovered when it had to follow the surprising success, both financially and critically, of Casino Royale, a film for which there were very low expectations, thanks in large part to the poor quality and reception of the last film in the Pierce Brosnan cycle, 2002’s Die Another Day. Unfortunately for Spectre, it ends up being more Quantum of Solace, less Skyfall or Casino Royale; that is to say, a decidedly mixed bag which, while containing more good than bad, doesn’t contain enough good of enough quality to make you willingly overlook the bad.

In the name of ending on a positive note, let’s get the bad out of the way. Spectre feels the need to spend a substantial portion of its runtime making needless references to the previous films when it should have been working out the details of its own plot instead. It’s a script that depends largely on nostalgia and the desire of the audience to be reminded of things they’ve seen previously. Granted, the references are better integrated and more organic than when Die Another Day attempted the same thing, mostly by putting Halle Barry in a bikini and having Pierce Brosnan take a comical walk through a warehouse full of his old crap. But “being better than Die Another Day” is a really low bar to set for oneself. The need to reference past films and include “easter eggs” for fans is in danger of becoming the defining characteristic of modern film. Spectre‘s addiction to callbacks and references culminates in the main villain, played by the game Christophe Waltz, triumphantly announcing himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a revelation that exists entirely for fans of the series and has no point in the film itself, as Bond has no history with the name Blofeld. It’s the exact same scenario that made audiences sigh with disappointment when Benedict Cumberbatch’s boring character in Star Trek Into Darkness reveals “My name is…Khan Noonien Singh!!!” When Waltz dramatically snarls “My name is now…Ernst Stavro Blofeld!!!” in almost the exact same situation in almost the exact same line delivery, the appropriate response from Bond is practically a shrug, and why would it not be? How is a name change supposed to be more shocking than the fact that Bond’s childhood “friend” is the source of all his misery? It’s not a shock for the audience either, because the film is called Spectre and pretty much the whole world already knew Christophe Waltz was Blofeld.

Spectre also succumbs to another conceit of modern storytelling: the need to reveal that everything is and always has been connected, turning the entire movie into what amounts to a tale of James Bond’s evil twin. The Craig era is the first in Bond history to attempt any sort of real continuity between films. It existed in previous films, but only in the vaguest of senses and not in a way that anyone really cared about. But sometimes, the Craig Bonds are dedicated to “weaving it all together” to the detriment of the actual storytelling. The convoluted attempt to tie every single thing that has happened in the Craig Bond films into a single sprawling plot requires a lot of writing gymnastics for which there is very little payoff. Buying Le Chiffre and the Quantum organization as operatives of SPECTRE is easy enough; they were practically built for that reveal. But trying to shoehorn Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall into the conspiracy makes very little sense. Not everything has to be revealed as part of a larger conspiracy. And tying the whole thing into James Bond’s tragic past elicits less of a gasp of surprise than it does eye-rolling dismissal. I don’t mind delving into Bond’s past. But delving and coming up with “Bond’s long-lost evil brother is responsible for every sad thing ever to happen to Bond” is a lot to swallow of something I’m not particularly interested in swallowing.

Attempts to revive a bit of the camp that defined the Roger Moore era (and, frankly, was no small ingredient even during the Connery years) succeed sometimes and other times sit awkwardly amidst the expected melancholy grimness that has typified the Craig films, a bit like a good-natured kid spending the night at a friend’s house and having to sit through his friend getting yelled at by his parents. The ejector seat gag works, and even if “what do all these buttons do” comedy is well-worn, it still succeeds for a yokel like me. The glimpse at Bond’s apartment is similarly predictable (and not at all keeping with the books, in which Bond’s apartment is quite nice, well decorated, and even fussed over by a motherly Scottish maid), but I guess I understand its inclusion. It’s both a joke and yet another attempt to make the point the films made long ago: that Bond’s life is empty and lonely. Craig delivers more one-liners, but they’re usually not particularly witty one-liners. In fact, much of the dialogue is surprisingly clunky, often setting up what you expect will be a clever quip or bit of witty repartee only to deliver Craig sullenly mumbling “yes” or some similarly uninspired bit of nothing. Given that the mess of a script already had at least four writers, they might as well had called in a fifth to provide a bit of polish to the attempts at humor and banter.

Craig fully owns the role of 007. The loneliness that haunts him is always a spectre (see?) looming about him, but he doesn’t wallow in it. He even seems to have fun from time to time. But I will never forgive this movie for casting then totally wasting the exquisite and talented Monica Bellucci in a throw-away cameo role that lasts just a couple of minutes. It’s like traveling across the world to see one of the wonders of the world, then snapping a pic on your phone as you drive by without stopping. Really, fucking Madonna had more screen time in Die Another Day than Bellucci gets here in her long-overdue appearance in a Bond film. Why cast an actress of her calibre and beauty, then have her do basically nothing for no time at all? Meaning no disrespect to the film’s leading lady Lea Seydoux, who turns in a perfectly good performance, but Bellucci’s casting was hailed as something of a major coup for the Bond series. Perhaps the screenwriters should have spent less time coming up with ways to reference previous Bond films and should have worked a little harder at providing Bellucci’s character more to do.

Still, it’s not as dire as all that. Spectre‘s “A” plot about Bond tracking down the titular secret society of super criminals and discovering how they’re related to his tragic past is shoddily written and full of holes and massive leaps in logic (and seriously — SPECTRE only has the one ring? Containing traces of the DNA of basically every character from the previous three films that needed to be roped into this one’s conspiracy? And that they pass around to various members when they’re out doing evil stuff or whatever, like passing around the spirit stick at camp?). But its “B” plot, about a smug intelligence agency technocrat (Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty on Sherlock and is apparently the go-to man for smug villains these days — though not without good reason), is pretty good and surprisingly political for a franchise that, despite being about spies and global politics, has never been particularly keen on being political. Scott’s “C” is a proponent of technology over field work and a cheerleader for ever-increasing surveillance of citizens both at home and abroad. His efforts to turn MI5 and MI6 into one giant Big Brother sit poorly with the new M (Ralph Fiennes), who thinks both that dependence on remote technology isn’t as good as trained operatives and that the expanded surveillance is, quite frankly, morally repugnant. Bond films sometimes intersect with current events, but rarely do they so overtly come down on one side or the other.

While C is set up as sort of a foil for M and Bond, his real opponent is Ben Whishaw’s Q, who here builds upon the good graces he earned in Skyfall and, quite frankly, outshines even 007. At best, Q was always the comic relief character playing out the same “tour of gadgets” and “pay attention, 007” and “try to bring it back in one piece” bit. On the occasions Q did enter the field, it was still played for laughs: Q in a loud Aloha shirt, or Q drifting around in a hot air balloon and being swarmed by half-naked ladies. All fine for what it was, but Whishaw’s Q is a different, much more interesting type of character. For one, he’s young and stylish; as stylish as Bond, in fact, if favoring the style of a younger generation. He does take us through the obligatory reintroduction of the “tour of gadgets” scene that culminates with the reveal of this year’s special Aston Martin, but he isn’t limited to gags. He works in the field, remains fiercely loyal to Bond at a potentially devastating cost to himself, and on more than one occasion saves everyone’s bacon. His skills as a hacker set him up as the opposite number to C’s condescending bureaucrat. Like most films and television shows, Spectre relies far too much on computers and computer hackers having magical powers to do anything as long as they say “I’m in” at some point, but I like this new Q, and I like Spectre’s willingness to be more nuanced about computers than the “technology bad” message on which movies usually rely.

In fact, one of my favorite things about Spectre is the camaraderie that develops between Bond, Q, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and M. M, Q, and Moneypenny are a bit like Bond’s Scooby Doo gang, but I enjoy the idea that Bond, the lonely man on a lone mission, is never truly alone. He has a team, and he can’t succeed in adventures this big without them. And they all get to do something. Fears that Moneypenny would be relegated to a desk do not come to pass. She’s no longer a field operative, but she spends plenty of time in the field. Even Bill Tanner, Bond’s long-suffering pal in the books, gets to finally make an impression on the film series (though Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter is sorely missed, all the more so because his name is brought up). We’ve seen similar things in other movies and shows: Batman in the Chris Nolan movies has a team, Arrow and Flash both have teams on their respective television shows, Team Captain America in Winter Soldier, and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies have stressed the importance of the team from the beginning (minus the second film, but that’s the least of that one’s problems). I know the idea of Bond being the one man who can stop this or that villain is a time-honored tradition, but I think the collaborative approach is more realistic — at least in as much as the Craig films are “realistic.”

Spectre also succeeds in its sense of style, it’s use of locations, and it’s music. Sam Smith’s theme song underwhelmed a lot of people. Lyrically it works well with the movie, and the orchestration behind it is fantastic, perhaps some of the best in the entire history of Bond music. His has a bit of a weedy voice, but the song works better in the context of the opening credit sequence than it does standing on its own. It’s not anywhere close to the worst (that special award goes to the one-two gut punch of Madonna and Jack White/Alicia Keys, with Lulu coming in a respectable third). The rest of the score, composed by Thomas Newman (returning after Skyfall), is fantastic. And I think this film incorporates the classic James Bond guitar theme more than the previous three films combined. Newman’s score picks up where Skyfall‘s left off, mixing lush orchestration with more modern electronic sounds. It works remarkably well and lends an extra air of opulent romance to the film’s many locations, including Rome, London (so happy that London has played such an important role in the last two films), Monaco, Mexico City, and icy Lower Styria.

Craig’s Bond films have used their location well, and here the film’s golden hue (which, admittedly, sometimes just veers into gritty, dirty yellow-brown) matched with Newman’s score lends the film a real sense of romance and faded glory. This is best realized in two places: in the shabby but romantic little hotel Bond and the film’s main female, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) find themselves in while following clues left by her dead father; and aboard an old-fashioned passenger locomotive churning across a vast expanse of desert. Each of these scenes is shot in a way that renders the whole thing as a faded postcard, a memory of something that was grand and maybe a little bit sad. No relationship in the Craig era has been able to emerge from the long shadow of Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), which is kind of the point. But Seydoux and Craig have a chemistry together that blends romance and melancholy. She also has a classic refined elegance that works so well for the timbre of this film. That dress she wears on the train! Seydoux isn’t quite the measure of Eva Green (who is?), but she brings a similar combination of strength and vulnerability to the role — in much the same way Craig does for Bond. Their time aboard the train is simply gorgeous — made all the more so by the fact that it’s interrupted by the film’s main henchman, the hulking Mr. Hinx (David Bautista, former MMA star and recently in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Bond films have struggled with their villains for a long time, well before Daniel Craig took over the role. Sean Bean was an able opponent in Goldeneye, but beyond that we were a long time waiting for another good villain. Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre succeeds in Casino Royale thanks to Mikkelsen’s intensity, but he’s more of a cerebral opponent. It wasn’t until Skyfall that we got a villain truly worthy of being a Bond villain. Javier Bardem’s Silva had in common with other great Bond villains the one thing I think makes them most successful as characters: they love fighting James Bond. They are so excited to match wits with him. Christophe Waltz’ Blofeld goes for that vibe, achieves it occasionally, but ultimately comes off a little too…impish? Indecisive? Easily confounded, perhaps. Waltz is a great actor, and while he gives it the ol’ college try here, his character is as convoluted and unclear as the murky plot at which he is in the center. But Bautista’s Hinx is a Bond henchman cut from classic cloth, the kind of beast that James Bond cannot outfight. Hinx and Bond have three scenes together: two chases and one fist fight. The fist fight is a call back to Bond’s brutal fight with Red Grant in From Russia with Love, and while Bautista’s size and his character’s silence means he is inevitably compared to Richard Kiel’s Jaws, Hinx is really much more like Robert Shaw’s Red Grant. If he popped up in a future Bond film, I don’t think anyone would mind.

Along with the opening in Mexico City scene, the fight on the train with Hinx is the film’s best action sequence. Much of Spectre‘s action sees the unwelcome return of the close-in shaky-cam that so marred much of Quantum of Solace‘s action. It makes sense in the train fight; they are in close quarters, cramped, claustrophobic. But elsewhere, the choice to go with that tired and now (blessedly) out-of-fashion shaky-cam crammed in the actor’s armpit or up his nose makes no sense. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (an extremely talented man) have most of Spectre looking gorgeous, with big vistas and beautiful architecture. Why they retreated into the realm of shaky-cam choreography is beyond me. Some action scenes manage to rise above it. As I mentioned, the entire Mexico City sequence is among the best in Bond history. The car chase through the midnight streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx is good, and the bit in which Daniel Craig’s Bond finally gets his ski chase scene (every Bond but Connery has had at least one) manages to be thrilling and utterly ridiculous, the one time Spectre really nails the camp feel of old. The finale underwhelms, though I like the fate that befalls Blofeld, which I think might be a first in Bond history.

Sometimes trying too hard paradoxically means you end up not trying hard enough. And ultimately, that’s what hampers Spectre from being the film it wants to be and the film I wanted it to be. Too many writers and a lack of focus send the movie spiraling off in too many directions, like a hyperactive child, or to crib from Mr. White, like a kite flying in a hurricane. Luck and coincidence have always played a major role in Bond films, but here it’s stretched to the breaking point. Skyfall‘s plot was similarly shoddy (deciphering Silva’s plan is like trying to figure out who killed the chauffeur in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep), but what it did well, it did so well that I was willing to shrug off the aspects of the film that were a little dodgy. Spectre‘s good; at times very good. But it doesn’t inspire the same good graces. It is enamored with its own cleverness, but we as viewers are aware of the fact that it’s not all that clever, a bit like someone telling you a meandering, convoluted story to which you already know the conclusion.

The end result is a film that aspires to greatness, deserves greatness, but hedges its bet with campiness and never commits to itself. It is far too obsessed with creating a mythology and “tying it all together”. It’s not that Spectre is bad as much as it is disappointing, a date for which you were really excited but during which the spark never quite ignites even though the date itself goes fine. It had all the right pieces but never quite assembled them into a cohesive whole. Spectre has so much in it that I loved, I think it makes the things I didn’t like about it seem more drastic. It’s an album that contains a lot of great songs but just a few too many mediocre ones as well. But, if Skyfall and Casino Royale proved anything, it’s that the current stewards of the Bond franchise are willing to learn from their mistakes. Die Another Die begat Casino Royale after all, and from the mess that was Quantum of Solace was inspired Skyfall. I absolutely do not put Spectre in the company of Die Another Day, the worst the Bond franchise has to offer. I don’t even rank it as low as Quantum of Solace, a film that I seem to like more than most people. I suspect once my initial disappointment wears off, I’ll warm to Spectre a lot more. Time has a way of healing such wounds, and at the end of things, the grandiose, operatic nature of the film, its disdain for the surveillance state, its sense of style, and a melancholy air of bittersweet romance win me over.