While not capturing the ambition and artistry of previous James Bond masterpiece, ‘Skyfall,’ the Daniel Craig-fronted, Sam Mendes-directed follow-up, ‘Spectre,’ is nonetheless a solid entry in the 24-film franchise, if not a completely satisfying end to this cycle of character-driven, grounded films. The filmmakers had an incredibly difficult task coming off of such a brilliantly staged and acted film in ‘Skyfall,’ one of, if not, the best in the history of the character. The promise of the reveal of all that has plagued Craig’s thuggish, yet stylish, damaged, yet hardened take on Bond over the past 3 movies is somewhat underwhelming, although the path to get there is an exhilarating, exquisitely rendered, sepia-drenched journey that hits most of the marks this franchise is known for.
Opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead street celebration with a protracted long-take tracking shot that follows Bond (in skeletal tux costume!) onto the roof of a hotel neighboring his intended target, the scene culminates in a jaw-dropping helicopter struggle over a huge crowd, making it one of the best pre-credit sequences in the franchise. This leads into a generally bland Sam Smith ballad over lackluster credits animation (with the exception of Adele’s catchy powerhouse, ‘Skyfall’, the credits sequences and songs have been generally weak in the Craig era). The movie than follows a ‘grounded’ Bond (a new merger between MI-5, led by an obvious and smarmy Andrew Scott as ‘C’, and MI-6, led by a stoic Ralph Fiennes, newly minted ‘M’, post-Dame Judi Dench, threatens to disband the 00 agent program as obsolete) as he works outside the system (again! *yawn*), in his personal and professional mission to root out the mysterious villainous organization pulling all the strings. That this film is titled after the oft-utilized evil group is a promise to bring the nefarious conclave (led by a warped, persnickety Christoph Waltz in full blown literal villain-mode) into the 21st century, which it does in literally shadowy, if subdued, fashion.
Bond’s journey doesn’t take him as far from home this time, from the marble-columned architecture and cobbled streets of Italy, to the wintry Alps, to the sands of North Africa, and back to London. The scenery is beautifully shot, as expected, with a lush cinematic eye by the masterful Sam Mendes and his lens-men – all browns, tans, whites, and blacks, with Bond and his beauties (this time tangling with widow Monica Belluci and a luminous Lea Sedoux as the capable daughter of Bond thorn-in-side, Mr.White) in various states of perfectly tailored couture. ‘Spectre’ features some of the best stunts of the series, set pieces meticulously choreographed and surprisingly convincing, elevating the more mundane and predictable elements of the plot. A key standout is a prolonged brutal fistfight on a train (shades of ‘From Russia With Love’) between Bond and new Spectre henchman, Hinx, played with menacing, and a bit cheeky, presence by Dave Bautista.
The plot and its’ contrivances are the weakness of this entry. Any student of the Bond film oeuvre (and the spy genre in general) can see the turns in the story coming and there are some liberties taken in the screenplay in the interest of advancing the plot. Particular grievances noted in critical press leading to the film’s release has been the over-arching plot of the 4-film series and the fact that the screenwriters have tied this plot with Bond’s personal backstory, a storytelling element not typically present in past actor cycles. While this serialized approach may be a foreign concept to viewers used to self-contained stories, it suits this particular representation of the character, and the films still retain the crucial elements that make Bond, Bond. In fact, these personal stakes and relationships actually render the scenes of torture and villain game-playing more reasonable, as opposed to adversaries just killing James outright. This brand of storytelling does have the unfortunate side effect of lower overall stakes for the hero and the global threat– it becomes clear by the end of ‘Spectre’ that the grand plan of the newly identified menace has yet to be completely determined. It would be a real shame if Daniel Craig and Co. didn’t follow this one through to its’ ultimate, more satisfying conclusion . . .
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, & Jez Butterworth
Running Time: 148 min.
* * * ½ (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+