Writing’s on the Stall: Spectre Review

If the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films were to have a subtitle, it would be “This time, it’s personal.” Ever since the gaudy monstrosity public consensus has decided to name Die Another Day (2002) debuted nearly a decade and a half ago, the Broccoli family[1] decided that the only place to go was inward. The 007 series is so popular in part because of its capacity to switch up its vodka martini drinking, license to kill wielding protagonist with a regularity that keep audiences interested while also (mostly) ignoring any self-awareness towards the toll his job would undoubtedly on him. Making Bond’s interior life a more present part of the high stakes action seemed like a risk worth taking, especially for a franchise going on twenty plus entries. Casino Royale (2006) was a revamp that worked so well thanks to Craig’s steely ethics being melted by what he hoped would be the love of his life in Vesper Lynd, only to be destroyed by yet another rising consortium of well-dressed rogues. Quantum of Solace (2010), on the other hand, didn’t work at all, skidding its character’s new found swagger to a halt in the service of “been there, done that” plotting and a cinematic style that took the worst examples from the Jason Bourne franchise and ran with them.[2] Skyfall (2012), like Casino Royale before it, proved that this character could still keep up with the pace of modern blockbusters, delivering one of the most well-rounded, satisfying pieces of the Bond canon.

It pains me to report that Bond’s latest outing, Spectre, pitches its tent squarely in the Quantum of Solace category: a film whose chief concern is hitting cruise control after the massive increase in momentum Skyfall delivered. Spectre features its protagonist hot on the heels of yet another rising consortium of well-dressed…wait, am I repeating myself or is this series doing so?[3] Only this time Ernst Stavro Blofeld Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a villain promising vengeance against Bond for some transgression in the past, labors to undo MI6 and in the process develop a new world order of surveillance that caters to his every whim. Along the way, Bond falls for Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a gun wielding psychologist whose father happens to be Mr. White, who fans will remember from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Meanwhile, in London, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Q (Ben Whishaw) must cope with an MI6 preparing to be usurped by Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), or C. This government stooge thinks the 00 program hardly has a place in the modern world.[4]

It would be cliché to call such a paint-by-numbers plot cliché. Perhaps the four screenwriters credited[5] (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth) secretly sought to imbed Spectre with narrative commentary on the natural challenges that stem from a franchise who has tried reinventing the wheel time and time again. But as it stands, Spectre’s lack of effort come off as embarrassing for a franchise that poses itself as one of classy professionalism. The film weakly tries tying in the various rogues gallery that has grown out of the Craig era as a wider conspiracy that threatens to bring Bond to his knees. In effect, the Quantum group from two films ago is retconned into the Spectre organization to also include Silva from Skyfall, who you may remember had very personal reasons for his acts of terrorism. The original Connery-era Spectre worked because all of the villains had distinct personalities that make the Craig villains (except for Silva) comparatively look like lifeless mannequins in suits. Additionally, the wider arc of the original cabal was built up through several films that didn’t rely on a cheap twist that was clearly invented for this latest movie.

waltz

This leads us to Bloefeld’s presence in the film.[6] Except in the hands of Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Bastards, Waltz has yet to play a character who had did little more than hide behind his postured exceptionalism.[7] His revelation as the iconic, scarred Bond villain means more to the audience than it does to our hero, a mistake that Star Trek Into Darkness made just two years ago. The decision to designate him as Bond’s stepbrother is nothing short of baffling. It seems Bond fans would be making a bigger deal out of this twist if the movie didn’t botch its landing to such careless effect. Finally, Bond’s foolish move to keep him alive at the end is a criminal miscalculation that reeks of cynicism and sequel consciousness. If Craig hops back into the Aston Martin one last time, I hope Waltz’s Blofeld finally offs him so we can finally put this uneven incarnation of the character to bed once and for all.

But surely the action of Spectre makes up for its narrative shortcoming, right? Even on this front the film disappoints. Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) returns for his second crack at the character, with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins being replaced by the terrific up-and-comer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar). The opening in Mexico City is genuinely exciting and sets a bar for the rest of the movie that isn’t remotely lived up to. The fight on the train between Bond and Hinx (Batista)[8] would have been a lot cooler if it wasn’t, you know, ripped right out of From Russia with Love (1963). A chase between Bond and some Spectre goons in a snowcapped locale that has our hero taking to the skies is fun when you’re in it but falls apart if you give it even the slightest moment of thought. And then there’s what we’re lead to believe is the climax at an oil/satellite facility in an unknown desert, which looks suspiciously similar to the one in Quantum of Solace. From there, the film then goes back to London where we’re treated to yet another gun battle that coincides with the demolition of the derelict MI6 headquarters that was bombed in Skyfall.

In case you couldn’t tell, redundancy seems to be the key theme to Spectre. It’s actually quite comical that the series is cannibalizing itself at such a regular rate this point in its life cycle. Spectre may have come off as less idiotic if not for this year’s earlier gem Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation, itself an action movie wearing its clichés on its sleeves. However, the earlier film featured wall-to-wall signature action scenes, a fresh and interesting female lead, and a meta-textual narrative involving its star’s inability to give in to the realities of time and relevancy. The James Bond franchise, on the other hand, typically relies on being competently made state-of-the-art spectacle that’s uniform promise of future entries gives you some sense of comfort that the films that follow will course correct the series’ longtime flaws. It’s even under these tempered expectations that Spectre is an unwelcome failure.

[1] The producing family who has overseen 007 on the big screen since its inception with Dr. No (1962).

[2] Incomprehensible action fueled by shaky camera work that has more faith in the film’s editors than its performers.

[3] Admittedly, a little bit of both.

[4]

[5] Never a good sign. Another Craig movie, Cowboys and Aliens, suffered from the same sloppiness inherent in three plus screenwriters.

[6] I’m not going to undervalue your intelligence like this movie does.

[7] Granted, I haven’t seen him in any movies he’s made abroad. But his American performances would prove me to be right.

[8] Sorry, I know this guy’s real name is Dave Bautista but he will always be this guy. 

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