Directed by: Sam Mendes || Produced by: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Screenplay by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth || Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes
Music by: Thomas Newman || Cinematography by: Hoyte van Hoytema || Edited by: Lee Smith || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 148 minutes
Depending on which sources you cite, Spectre, the twenty-fourth Bond movie from Eon Productions, cost $245-300 million to make and is officially listed as one of the most expensive films ever made. The production went way over budget, has been floating between a 60-65% on Rottentomatoes for the past week, and may well turn out to be the most divisive Bond feature of the Daniel Craig era.
Usually during these love-it-or-hate-it affairs, I rarely pick sides and tend to rest comfortably in the middle of civil wars like Man of Steel (2013) or Interstellar (2014). This time, however, I stand firm in my defense of what I consider to be a falsely maligned and underrated picture, a true analytical anomaly coming from a guy who normally finds these super-spy flicks way overrated. Compared to the rest of Craig’s Bond outings, I stand by Casino Royale (2006) as my favorite, but would now put Spectre as a close second. Yes, that means I prefer this movie to Skyfall (2012), which, while also a film I enjoyed, I found far too slow and possessed action so “artsy” I struggled to make out fight scenes in near total darkness.
For my part, Spectre finds the cinematographic middle-ground between the gritty, violent action of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (2008) and the suave, low-key, colorful style of Skyfall. Visually speaking, it combines the best elements of the three previous films into a truly diverse and memorable form. It boasts a variety of scenic locations, from Rome to the Austrian Alps to Mexico City during The Day of the Dead to the deserts of Morocco, and also sports the largest variety of Bond gadgets of the Daniel Craig era, including “Smart Blood” nanotechnology and a flamethrowing Aston Martin. On the other hand, Craig’s Bond remains as vicious as ever in close-quarters combat and shootouts, with director Sam Mendes this time allowing for adequate lighting and wide-angle shots so we can see what the fuck is going on.
Tonally, Spectre is without a doubt the most upbeat, funny, and classical of the four recent Bond adventures. I wouldn’t exactly call it lighthearted, but Mendes moves Craig away from his previous brooding and ends the film on arguably the most optimistic climax for any Bond film; and it’s not just a sardonic, wink-wink type ending, but an actual uplifting and satisfying coda, in part because this film builds upon the last three movies so much.
From a more thematic standpoint, these endless references to previous Craig-entries and even Bond-movies of decades’ past work for me much better than they did in Skyfall because this film is so well paced and because I bought the romance between Craig and the newest Bond girl, Lea Seydoux. Other than being a particularly sexy Bond girl (which is saying something, given the franchise), Seydoux’s character is fleshed out and connected to previously established characters of this new millennium Bond-era. Not only is she given plenty of screentime and is well acted, but her character is allowed enough room to breathe so that I actually found myself caring about her and her relationship with Bond, a first since Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
I still wouldn’t go so far as to call any character in Spectre, or any Bond movie for that matter, truly deep or complex, but this love story worked in my eyes, and its hostility to the titular SPECTRE organization added a lot of tension to the plot. This is what was missing for me in Skyfall, because I never really cared about Judi Dench’s M nor found her mentorship/friendship with Bond believable.
I think this is a big sticking point that determines whether or not people like this film. I liked Seydoux’s Madeleine Swan and invested in her connection to Craig, and furthermore I appreciated how this relationship was intertwined and subsequently attacked by Christoph Waltz’s Ernst Stavo Blofeld. This seems to be the key that turns people for or against the story.
Additionally, Spectre’s numerous allusions to franchise canon and recent villains made sense given how they were integral parts of its overarching narrative. How Raoul Silva, Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Mr. White fit into the titular shadowy criminal organizations is important, as is Blofeld’s personal rivalry with Bond. When Craig flips through his Aston Martin’s ridiculous gadgets, it sets up an amusing payoff later in the same scene and makes sense within the context of the film — it’s not just an ejector seat button-reference thrown in for random, “Hey, remember that movie?!” nostalgia.
Many critics are also bitching about Waltz’s underdeveloped villain and his convoluted scheme for world domination. While it’s true this role is more of a minor one for Waltz than another subversive Oscar-winning performance, I found Waltz to be plenty menacing and a fun return to old-school Bond bad-guys. Moreover, when has a Bond villain’s plot not been convoluted and confusing? Even in Casino Royale, which I otherwise loved, the plot itself was obscure and difficult to follow, something that has become a staple of the entire franchise. You could say similar things about Spectre and nitpick its exaggerated premise of evil, cloak-and-daggers syndicates, but at the end of the day the characters’ motivations are clear, the narrative’s mystery unfold naturally, and is no more convoluted than the like-minded Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
So, what didn’t I like about this movie? Well, other than the frivolous plot details I just mentioned, I was disappointed by Monica Bellucci’s glorified cameo and thought her talents were wasted. I also thought aspects of the film’s commentary on surveillance were heavy-handed. I think that’s it, really. Casting all that aside, however, and you have a film that looks amazing, boasts a wide variety of action sequences, and develops interesting, likable, and charismatic characters. The opening long take in Mexico City is brilliant, as is that entire opening sequence. I loved the set design of Blofeld’s Moroccan lair, and also appreciated the straightforward casting of Dave Bautista as Blofeld’s henchman and muscle.
I dunno, guys, I liked this one. It’s weird, considering I’m usually the detractor of even the better received Bond-movies, and yet I’m standing firm on this one despite its lukewarm critical reception. Spectre straddles the extremes of Bond-worlds across the wink-wink, classical adventures of the past and these modern films of grit, grime, and semi-realistic characterizations. Spectre matures Bond while no longer keeping him at arms’ length as much of the franchise has done, and this strategy pays off in spades by the film’s end. I maintain my favoritism of Casino Royale (not just among Daniel Craig’s outings, but of the whole franchise), but for my part, if this is the official sendoff of Craig’s Bond, I am totally satisfied with that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Spectre features arguably Sam Mendes’ finest direction to date, beginning with a fantastic opening set-piece and painting beautiful scenes set in snowy mountain tops, shadowy Roman halls, and an archetypal villainous desert lair. The film patiently unfolds its story, unlike Skyfall, which seemed to drag more often than not. It effectively references established Bond canon to bolster, rather than distract from, its premise. Lea Seydoux is a Bond girl worth loving, and 007 agrees.
— However… Bellucci isn’t the cougar Bond-woman we wanted, nor is Waltz the majestic return of Blofeld that we deserved. Parts of the film’s commentary on 1984-type surveillance are tiresome, as are aspects of the inevitable convoluted world takeover-plot.
? You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone, because you don’t trust anyone. Yes, thank you, Monepenny, for defining exactly what a secret is. That’s like the, “If something chases you, run!” line from Jurassic World (2015) — if something’s “chasing you,” that implies you’re already running from it! Jesus!