‘Spectre’ couldn’t really be more of a film for our times if it tried. Its shortcomings are frequently noticeable and include such cardinal sins as elements which are boring, flat, cheesy, stupid, and with numerous hammy moments for essentially all the characters. Although expectations were always going to be too high after Bond’s last outing, the wonderful ‘Skyfall‘, became the most successful British film of all time, I can nevertheless see Bond fans being fairly divided over this one.
This was aimed as the crowning jewel in the Daniel Craig (the actor currently playing Bond) era of films, linking the threads of the stories from ‘Casino Royale’ (06), ‘Quantum of Solace’ (08) and ‘Skyfall’ (12) with Bond’s traditional evil arch-enemy Spectre – the sinister organisation that dominated the early films, beginning with the first one in 1962, ‘Dr No.’ (SPECTRE was previously an acronym standing for ‘Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’), before intellectual property rights issues eventually seen it nosedive into a chimney, if memory serves. Here, there seems to be a reference put in to what must be every single Bond film prior to Spectre’s release, and it kind of feels like when your favourite TV series has a ‘recap’ episode and you feel cheated because you’ve already seen everything in it before.
It all takes a step backward from where the modern films had been correctly heading, with stunts becoming much less believable than before, well executed technically but nobody in their right mind would attempt them in the first place, as Bond shows shades of his ‘too cocky for his own good’ persona of the past, replete with cheesy terrible lines and a hard-on for wafer-thin female characters – in fact, it feels like someone was sitting with a checklist of what should be included in the ‘typical’ Bond film and they just went through it, there’s no real heart to the film, whereas in Skyfall we felt Bond was a real person, fighting real enemies in a reasonably believable manner, with real tension and consequences.
Sam Mendes has returned as director, alas no Roger Deakins as cinematographer this time (Hoyte van Hoytema as his replacement does a god job though), and there was initial praise for giving Monica Bellucci a role, for casting someone a little older than your average Bond girl – but she’s barely in it! You don’t cast Monica Bellucci and then give her a couple of brief moments onscreen during which she essentially just gets banged by the protagonist – indeed, she is expecting assassins to come for her at any second so Bond dutifully takes her clothes off and beds her, next scene she is sitting atop the bed wearing sexy lingerie, as if she thought ‘even though I’m waiting to be killed at any moment, let me change into this sexy outfit I’ve been wanting to show off for ages before you go’, and then Bond tells her not to worry as he’s contacting Felix Leiter for her, who will presumably also take some time in being able to offer her any form of protection.
This ungrounded feeling to the writing continues throughout: we see a bad guy growing a conscience because women and children are involved although we can infer from what we already know that this cannot possibly be a sudden realisation but rather a blasé convenience, ‘The Dark Knight’ (08) references abound with bad guys talking about ‘aggressive expansion’ and something the villains do at the end which seems completely out of the blue as if several scenes are missing as in many other parts of the film, and, most terrible of all, the main villain Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz) has been scrubbed and battered with an unhealthy amount of soap-opera, someone that should be terrifying and brilliant, or at least believable, comes across as anything but that, with Waltz miscast in a role that needed a much more intricate and daring treatment to work.
Having said that, the same plot ingredients, including Oberhauser, done in different ways could have worked out, but they needed a much smarter, involving and less self-referential final product. Mendes has his ‘Touch of Evil’ (58) moment with the opening scene all filmed in one continuous shot until the action begins (also likely inspired by last year’s best picture winner ‘Birdman‘) and this section of the film works really well, with the music memorably setting the tone amongst the wonderful backdrop of the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival in Mexico City, and it’s likely this will be the scene most remembered, although stylistically it’s not the only highlight and certainly a fight later on aboard a train also stands out for its bleak and uncompromising brutality.
The movie works far better on IMAX than on a standard screen (IMAX doesn’t always make a big difference) and after three sittings and an initial disappointment it does become easier to appreciate it and also to enjoy the numerous wonderful visuals that Mendes and Hoytema have dotted the film with (there’s even a location very reminiscent of the PC game ‘Riven’ for those familiar with it). Writing this just over a week after the terror attacks on Paris and Beirut (I notice the BBC have barely bothered to report on the latter incidentally) it’s impossible not to see numerous correlations between many of the plot elements and recent events – global intelligence agencies quickly announced they are going to work more closely together and share information, for example, just as they do in the film, indeed you do have to question a strategy from fundamentalists trying to retain physical territory in the Middle East that effectively unites the entire world against them, and notwithstanding the plot of Spectre one hopes that this united spirit will ultimately be a great and defining thing for the twenty-first century, although, ironically, this idea also brings us back to the plot of the film.
Just as 9/11 inspired a more gritty Bond with ‘Casino Royale’, so too will the plot for Bond 25 reflect recent events, and with both Britain and France announcing a recruitment drive for the intelligence services the world really is looking for more real-life Bonds, as well as heroism from the public in situations where help simply isn’t going to arrive on time – such as that displayed by Adel Termos, who sprung on a suicide bomber during the Beirut attacks resulting in an early detonation and preventing the scores or perhaps even hundreds of deaths that would have arisen if the bomber had been allowed to reach his intended target. Watching ‘Spectre’ display its wonderful locations from around the globe: Mexico City, Austria, London, Morocco, Rome, and pondering the reality now that everyone is united against a common enemy – life and creation vs pointless death, one is suddenly struck by just how romantic and hopeful a concept that truly is.
Dave Bautista plays henchman villain Mr Hinx, with Léa Seydoux as primary Bond girl Madeleine Swann in a role that, despite Seydoux having a lot of onscreen presence and being one of the best things in the movie, remains rather in servitude of Bond and his desires. Interestingly, all the best Bond movies for me had, well, good writing generally, but real female characters that were original and existed in their own right rather than as thinly veiled pieces of apparel for the protagonist – for anyone not familiar with the films I’d recommend, in order of their release, ‘Dr No.’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Thunderball’, ‘On Her Majesties Secret Service’, ‘Live and Let Die’, ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, ‘Goldeneye’ (slight nostalgia for the N64 game on this one), ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Skyfall’, although some of the others had their moments too.
Curiously, the plot for ‘Spectre’ is also remarkably similar to a certain other big release from earlier this year, it often happens in the industry for one reason or another, although confidential emails relating to ‘Spectre’ were put into the public domain during the Sony hack, did any of them contain plot details? Hmm …
The theme song ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ from Sam Smith kind of sums up the film – you can see what it could have been and what the aim was, but the execution is off in too many important places. ‘Spectre’ works well as an homage to the franchise and as a culturally relevant piece of filmmaking, but as a stand-alone, artful, involving, believable and clever action film in the vein of Skyfall … not so much.