There’s been a lot of talk recently around whether or not Daniel Craig is finally hanging up the Walther PPK after his nearly 10 year stint as Bond, James Bond. If Spectre, the latest bit of cinematic Bondage, is indeed Craig’s swan song, it’s unfortunate that this fowl concerto also has some foul notes.
That’s not to say that Craig’s fourth outing as 007 is as poor a showing as his second though, the insipidly unambitious Quantum of Solace – in fact Spectre boasts a handful of scenes that will easily slot right into the upper echelon of the long-running franchise’s best moments – but there’s an uneven-ness to the affair that left me feeling simultaneously both unshaken and stirred.
On the positive side of the ledger, Spectre opens with a jaw dropping single take tracking shot that is some of the best camerawork ever seen in a Bond film. Returning director Sam Mendes employs a masterful, almost magical, filmcraft as he has the lens track a skull-mask wearing Bond (Baron Sahmedi says hello) as he follows a shady character in the midst of a macabre Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. A scene that sweeps through crowded streets, cramped hotel elevators and vertiginous rooftops in one seamless motion until Bond’s actions kick off an explosive, landscape rearranging shootout. This culminates in a topsy turvy fist fight inside a runaway helicopter that pays homage to the series’ tradition of aerial stunts while also surpassing several of them.
Another throwback high point sees Bond engage in a bloody-knuckled slobberknocker with Dave Bautista’s mutely terrifying henchman Hinx on a cramped train carriage mid-film. It’s an enlivening, raggedly brutal affair – possibly the best pure brawl in Bond movie history – that will definitely have fans reminiscing about Sean Connery and Robert Shaw going to war with talcum powder explosives and briefcase daggers in From Russia With Love.
And thus you’ll find Spectre littered with nods back to the franchise’s 53 year run, often bettering these instances in some way as it throws in everything you’ve come to expect from the series. But then it also drops the ball on occasion.
One of the other main reasons why Skyfall, and even more so the superior Casino Royale, worked so brilliantly was the almost unprecedented willingness to often put aside – though never too far away – the series newfound gritty post-Bourne action mechanics in favour of solidly heartfelt character work. Craig’s 007 may be a bonafide physically daunting badass, but under that protective vodka martini miasma and glacial killer’s glance was a craggy and brittle man haunted by the fact that his actions brought about the violent deaths of both the most important women in his life: true love Vesper Lynd and the maternal M.
That emotional agency is almost completely lacking in Spectre, despite this arguably being Bond’s most personal cinematic adventure in years. Just what that personal vector is in the narrative, I won’t spoil here, but it’s one which Mendes and his screenwriting team of John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth clearly feel is more of a third act rug pull than it actually is. And it’s not just a lack of heart or overwhelming surprise that’s the problem with this story, but also a lack of story within this story.
There is an overarching plot to it all, spiced up with Orwellian, post-Snowden flavour as ambitious government intelligence head Max Denbigh aka C (Andrew Scott) tries to shut down M (Ralph Fiennes) and his Double-0 group in favour of remote controlled drones and a nigh-omnipotent globally linked intelligence network controlled exclusively by C’s group. But while this story shows promise with furtive glances of introspection into what it means to essentially be a government assassin in an Armani suit, it far too often exhibits its own spycraft and sticks to the shadows in the background as Bond leaps from one international action sequence to another (which, admittedly, are almost all rather fantastic even if they have tenuous narrative merit).
Along the way he encounters Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), a fierce and graceful femme fatale with a link to his recent past, as well as the titular Spectre, a seemingly omnipresent criminal organization run by the clandestine Frans Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who may just be the engineer behind much of Bond’s personal tragedy.
Helping to make up a bit for Spectre’s narrative gaps though are much more expanded roles for Bond’s supporting cast in M, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and gadgeteer Q (Ben Wishaw), with the young Wishaw once again proving that you can replace a legend like Desmond Llewellyn with your own schtick and still be effortlessly likeable. Craig himself, slipping into a new comfort in the role, also offers a far more instantly amiable performance this time around – he’s still a brute in a fight, but he now also drops snide one-liners as quickly as he drops bad guys, without it ever feeling camp.
And coming from the flamboyant freakishness of Skyfall‘s Silva, Mendes and co have seemingly decided to go for a quiet menace with Oberhauser this time around. Waltz is such a fantastic actor that he manages to convey unnerving villainy with mere shadowy glances, but even his prodigious talent for “less is more” is sometimes left lacking as Oberhauser is simply not given enough to do.
Similarly, Seydoux turns in a solid performance as Swann – and she certainly cuts an unforgettable figure in a form-fitting silver gown – but her entanglement with Bond is slightly underwritten, sabotaging what little believable romance there may be between the two. She gets positioned as Bond’s female lead, but its the substantially lower-billed Monica Belucci who ignites the palpable on-screen chemistry with Craig – I’m surprised their brief encounter against a bedroom wall didn’t singe the wallpaper.
From a purely technical perspective, Mendes keeps things slick and supremely polished, but the lack of the Oscar-nominated cinematography used by Roger Deakins to turn Skyfall into a kaleidoscope of eye-searingly beautiful iconography is missed here. After the aforementioned whirligig start to the film, replacement cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema goes for a much more muted approach, which while still starkly arresting in places, feels like a slight step backward from its predecessor’s avant garde kineticism.
There is an early scene in Spectre where Bond exits a bobbing speedboat onto a makeshift jetty, and is warned by a co-worker that it’s slippery as he offers a helping hand. Of course Bond ignores the proffered hand and strides along with a surefooted swagger. That confident bluster is what Spectre tries to exhibit – and it does on several occasions – but for everything it does superbly right, like the thrilling edge-of-your-seat action scenes, logistically mind-boggling early cinematography, and even Craig’s newfound lighter edge, it also has some slippery stumbles.
There’s also a palpable finality to Spectre‘s final moments that is hard to overlook. If this really is Craig’s last outing as James Bond, it’s not a truly terrible way to go out, ticking off all the requirements of a big budget globe-hopping 007 adventure, but neither is it Spectre-cular.
Last Updated: November 25, 2015