The James Bond franchise, as I’m sure many of those who know me and/or are familiar with this blog, is one that I hold very close to my movie-going heart, easily standing as my favourite film franchise. I would be the first to say that it is probably the most inconsistent of popular film franchises, but that is very much part of its charm. The series hit its biggest success with Skyfall, the first Bond film to make a billion at the box-office (not adjusted for inflation). This, of course, puts a certain amount of pressure on the follow-up, an amount of pressure which can most certainly be felt within Spectre, the 24th official Bond movie, leading to a Bond experience which is undoubtedly a Bond-flick, but an uneven one at that.
After an un-ordered mission in Mexico, James Bond (Daniel Craig) begins to investigate the possible existence of a secret terrorist organisation known as ‘Spectre’. What he doesn’t know is quite how personally this investigation will affect him, as players from his past soon reveal themselves to be involved with the shady and dangerous organisation. Meanwhile, M (Ralph Fiennes) is involved in a power struggle with C (Andrew Scott), head of a new agency merger called Joint Intelligence Service, which seeks to put an end to the 00 program, as well increase surveillance across the globe.
Spectre attempts to set out on a similar path to Skyfall in that it constructs a story which places a personal stake on Bond and reveals more about his past. It is something which has never truly been attempted with Bond before, yet while it felt organic within Skyfall, here it feels a little forced. The association of Bond with villain Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) feels a tad too contrived and not entirely convincing. It allows for Craig’s tenure of Bond to continue its psychoanalytical exploration of the character, but in a much less organic way than that of his previous efforts.
What is largely the problem with Spectre is that the script never feels entirely complete, often pausing whilst the many credited writer’s attempt to figure out where next to move the plot. They largely rely upon tried and tested Bond formula, calling moments from Bond’s past which have worked in the past. It allows the film to feel distinctly like a Bond film, more so than Craig’s first two efforts, but a little too retrograde. It gives the film a certainly pleasant feel, but makes the film a little too representative of Sam Smith’s song that accompanies it; certainly Bondian, but lacking a certain uniqueness and gusto to make it truly soar.
What feels particularly retrograde about this entry is the treatment of the Bond ladies involved. Monica Belluci is tragically underused, but it is the relationship between Bond and Lea Seydoux’s Madeline Swann that struggles the most. It strives to give us another romance on the level of Vesper Lynd, but stumbles through clumsy writing and the fact that the age gap between Craig and Seydoux is quite apparent. There is certainly nothing wrong with the stunning Seydoux’s performance, much of the depth of the character comes from her initial steely gaze, but she quickly descends into an under-written damsel in distress involved in an unconvincing romance.
Right, now to the good stuff. Sam Mendes, coming back to the fold after Skyfall, remains in constant control of the visuals. The opening is a franchise highlight, a long beautifully controlled one shot which follows Bond through a Day of the Dead parade, as he signals out his target and goes in for the kill. Throughout, Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) deliver us spectacular vistas, making full use of varied and visually arresting locations, finding hidden corners within many different cities and countries. The film also features incredible practical stunts within its brilliantly executed action scenes. All the set pieces work a treat, and ride on the strength of the reported $300 million budget (although there are some sloppy CG shots which are somewhat unforgivable). Mendes has certainly improved on the action front and delivers some spectacular work here, from a chase down a mountain in Austria, to a From Russia With Love-esque fist fight on-board a train.
The cast are also on particularly fine form, even if their performances are sometimes diminished by the knotted nature of the screenplay. Craig is very confident in this role now, and even though he may be showing his age a tad, he still very much carries off the macho-energy and bravado needed for Bond, whilst maintaining a playful glint in his eye. Waltz is underused but provides enough cheerful menace to brighten up the film whenever he is present, while Andrew Scott fails to make all that much of an impact. Where the cast is particularly strong is in the supporting MI6 cast. Rory Kinnear has become a welcome main stay for the franchise, while Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw truly grow into two valuable members of the team, having a great time with their versions of Moneypenny and Q, who both have refreshingly revised relationships with Bond. The stand-out, though, has to be Ralph Fiennes stepping in to Judi Dench’s shoes as M. He does incredibly well to establish a new dynamic with Bond, possessing a venomous dry wit, whilst also proving capable at stepping up to the action plate should the call arise.
Spectre is undoubtedly enjoyable, if a little testing at two and a half hours. It thrives on the thrills of practical stunt-work and by revisiting classic Bond tropes, such as an ejector seat, a silent henchman, villains shrouded in shadow, but it all feels somewhat by-the-numbers. If this does indeed end up being Craig’s last turn in the role, it is not quite as glorious as Skyfall, or as hard-hitting as Casino Royale, but it does stand over Quantum of Solace, and provides some spectacular action along the way. It is by no means a sour note, more just a film which appears to have had some structural issues through the writing process which are sadly all too apparent. However, it remains a thrill to see a new James Bond film on the screen, proving to be a worthwhile and often very exciting entry for Ian Fleming’s enduring 00-agent.