The most recent James Bond films, starting with 2006’s Casino Royale, have been serious, character-driven affairs. The latest, Spectre, attempts to go back to the old James Bond tropes and formula, but the filmmakers seemed to forget all the elements that have made the last few films so great. Okay, maybe not Quantum of Solace, but the other two for sure.
Spectre picks up after Skyfall with Bond (Daniel Craig) in Mexico City looking for a terrorist, Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). After the operation goes…sideways, M (Ralph Fiennes) suspends Bond for not telling him why he was in Mexico. Bond reveals to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he was fulfilling a final wish of the previous M (Judi Dench). He attends Sciarra’s funeral and meets his wife, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). He also sees someone he thought was dead, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond saves Lucia’s life and she tells him that her husband was to attend a meeting. Bond goes in his stead and finds that Oberhauser is the head of some sort of criminal syndicate. Oberhauser siccs Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) on Bond, who escapes and tracks down Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) from the previous films. White cuts a deal with Bond in order to protect his daughter, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), who eventually reveals that the criminal organization is called Spectre. Bond goes to deal with Oberhauser, while back home in England, M is staving off MI6’s extinction at the hands of C (Andrew Scott), a hard-charging bureaucrat who is more invested in a surveillance state as opposed to human intelligence like the 00 Program.
Spectre is most definitely the most fun entry in Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond, but you wouldn’t know it from Craig’s stoic demeanor. Though there’s a lot of action, the film feels its two and a half hour length at times. The biggest issue that I had with it, though, was that it felt like the script wasn’t really servicing the characters or story, but simply setting up the next action set piece. There was a lot of speculation as to who Christoph Waltz was really playing and all I’ll say is that the basic theory that was floating around online is true and Oberhauser is not his true, or at least current, identity. The problem is, his true identity only means something to the audience, not to Bond. This is very reminiscent of the Khan reveal in Star Trek: Into Darkness – none of the characters in the rebooted Star Trek knew who Khan was, so when Benedict Cumberbatch makes his reveal, Kirk and Spock should have just said, “So?” The only difference with Spectre is that Oberhauser himself does mean something to James Bond, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that from Bond’s reaction to finding him alive. Without completely spoiling everything, this film should have been the most personal yet for James Bond, but Director Sam Mendes and his screenwriters completely dropped the ball. In Goldeneye, the villain was also a figure from James Bond’s past and the filmmakers actually told the story of their relationship, so that there was some actual character development for both the villain and Bond. With Spectre, the connection between Bond and Oberhauser is treated like an afterthought by Bond, but forms the entire basis of Oberhauser’s scheme. That imbalance weakens the story considerably, especially since–as Oberhauser reveals in the trailer–he “is the author of all of [James Bond’s] pain.” Of course, he never really proves it. The shoddy screenwriting continues in the case of a twist involving another character that is so obvious, I figured it out from the moment he stepped on screen.
Craig is great as always as Bond, but his approach to the character doesn’t really fit with the direction Mendes and his team went with this one. Craig is perfectly built for the stripped-down approach that the Bond producers took with Casino Royale, but as they’ve crept closer to finally and fully embracing all the extraordinary elements of Bond’s past, Craig looks completely bored at times. I liked Waltz as usual, but his character was poorly written. He claims that he’s behind all the events of the last few Bond films, but honestly, considering his master plan, he could have learned about what happened to Bond and just taken credit for it. He doesn’t really do anything, which I guess fits for the head of a criminal organization, but he just felt underwritten. Bautista does well as the tight-lipped Mr. Hinx, but while he shows up in several action set pieces, he too felt underutilized. Like Oddjob and Jaws, he has his own physical quirk, but he uses it exactly once. Fiennes, Harris, and Ben Whishaw as Q all do good jobs and it was interesting to see them have their own subplot, but for the most part, it just makes an already long movie that much longer. Seydoux is fine in her role, but to be honest, I think it would have been far better if the filmmakers had made Bellucci the main love interest. At fifty years of age at the time of filming, Bellucci is the oldest “Bond Girl,” and would have been a much more inspired choice to be Bond’s main female companion. Unfortunately, while I liked both of these women, the producers have been hard-pressed to find a Bond Girl to match Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale.
Overall, while the classic Bond elements are nice to see again, Spectre felt like a step back from the character-driven stories that have marked Craig’s tenure as James Bond. In what should have been the most personal of all the films for Bond, Craig feels like a detached spectator. The villains are under-written and the whole endeavor felt like a deliberate push back against the “heavy” James Bond films of the last few years. The problem for the producers is, Casino Royale is the best Bond film in decades and Skyfall is a very close second, so why go backwards?