If you’re after a spoiler free review of “SPECTRE”, you can find it here, but this is the final chapter of a journey which began back on 22nd May with “Dr. No”. Welcome to the final stop on “Craggus’ Bond Voyage”; we have reached our destination.
Following the unprecedented success of “Skyfall”, the producers were understandably keen to stick with a winning team behind and in front of the camera. With Daniel Craig freshly signed to a new two picture deal, attention turned to luring director Sam Mendes back for another movie. Having been rebuffed twice (once around the time “Skyfall” premiered and again in early 2013) the producers eventually agreed to delay production for a year so Mendes could see out his commitment to the stage version of “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” in London. Mendes and writer John Logan then came with the central concept and work started in earnest on the script. The script proved problematic and veteran Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade returned to perform some rewrites as neither the producers, director or Daniel Craig himself were satisfied with the script. Another screenwriter, Jez Butterworth, was brought in to rewrite some scenes and tweak some story elements only weeks before shooting commenced. With a script that everyone was more or less happy with and a budget creeping north of $300million, the cameras rolled on “SPECTRE”.
For the first time in Daniel Craig’s tenure, the film opens with the traditional gun barrel sequence and I’m not ashamed to admit I did a little mini fist pump when I saw it. Although it’s been used to clever effect in the past few films (especially “Casino Royale”), I’d always missed it not being at the beginning.
The pre-credits sequence of “SPECTRE” is one of, if not the best of the entire Bond series. Although it starts with an odd and cryptic caption ‘The Dead Are Alive’ what follows is a muscular and swaggeringly confident piece of filmmaking. With a fluid, long tracking shot which showcases the festively macabre streets of Mexico City before picking out and following a skeleton costumed figure through the streets into a bordello and, after its revealed to be Bond (who else?) out onto the rooftops. The rest of the pre-titles action is a pure adrenaline rush and features possibly the finest and most thrilling helicopter action scenes ever filmed. It has everything we’ve come to associate with Daniel Craig’s Bond: clumsiness, parkour, running, collapsing buildings and the inability to win a fistfight quickly.
With the film starting at such a furiously kinetic pace, it’s something of a comedown when the dirge-like strings of Sam Smith’s turgid lamentations intrude to usher in the opening credits. At least this time we have Daniel Kleinman’s gorgeous opening titles to distract us while the song drones on. Not since “Die Another Day” has a song so mismatched the film it’s meant to represent. There’s simply no connection between the song and “SPECTRE” and even the title is merely a tenuous reference to a brief scene during the finale. However, thanks to the hefty “SPECTRE” running time, the theme song takes up the smallest proportion of your viewing pleasure of any Bond film.
Where “Skyfall” took the character of Bond, took him apart and then reassembled him in a form slightly closer to what we remember, “SPECTRE” picks up the baton and brings back even more classic Bond ingredients, leading to an overarching structure that starts to feel more than a little formulaic.
Unlike the last film where Bond was hunting down a shadowy organisation, “Quantum Of Solace”, Bond’s plot in this movie follows a logical, linear path as he pursues each lead in turn, getting closer and closer to the mysterious head of SPECTRE. Thankfully, 007 has finally learned to get the next clue before killing his target so there’s not so much reliance on luck or coincidence this time. While Bond is chasing down ghosts, M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) (and Bill Tanner, don’t forget good old Bill (Rory Kinnear)) are dealing with an oily new chief, C (Andrew Scott). Already the head of a newly merged MI5 and MI6 – which, if nothing else, will at least remove some of the legal issues around Bond operating within the UK – C has designs on forming a strategic intelligence sharing alliance with eight other national security agencies across the world, doing away with the need for antiquated field agents like the ‘00’ section.
Admittedly, it would nice for once for Bond to be assigned a mission and simply carry it out rather than be relieved of duty and have to go rogue but at least in “SPECTRE”, M wises up fairly quickly and realises that Bond is on to something. The film uses the trailer to pull off a nice bait and switch as we’ve all been expecting the ‘cryptic message from Bond’s past’ to be related to the singed photograph Moneypenny brings him so it’s a genuine and pleasant surprise to discover that its actually a Vine sent to him by M (the Judi Dench one) just before she died. It hints that she was investigating something huge and hadn’t known who to trust until the very last moments of her life, which gives added weight to her death and provides a more convincing motivation for Bond than a photo of himself as a boy. Speaking of which, there are a lot of mentions about how Bond was taught to ski as a young boy – a lot – so it’s a bit surprising that it’s something he doesn’t actually do in the film itself. Daniel Craig and Sean Connery remain the only Bonds never to ski on screen and, to be fair, Timothy Dalton only sledded through Austria in a cello case.
From the very opening of the film and the Baron Samedi-invoking Día de Muertos costumes, there are numerous references and homages to the 23 Bond movies which have preceded this one. It’s less a love letter to past Bonds as it is a fan letter, bordering on (extremely good) fan fiction. What is it about iconic British entertainment institutions that once they hit their 50th anniversary, they start obsessively referencing their past? The entire film plays like a concert tour to promote a comeback album by a veteran rock band. They happily play their recent hits (M gets to reenact Bond’s cool as ice confrontation with a crooked agent who stashes a gun in his desk from “Casino Royal”), reprise some of the new material (they repeat the C-word joke but I’ll let them off because the second time is much funnier) and then offer some remixed covers of their classic back catalogue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but after this and “Skyfall”, it’s probably important for the next Bond film to look to break new ground again.
As you’d expect, the film looks gorgeous. The locations (many of which it shares with “The Living Daylights”: Tangiers, Morocco, London, Austria) are beautifully captured by Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema although they’re far more comfortable shooting the non-action scenes. The action sequences are impressively staged but – pre-credits scenes aside – tend to feel a little hollow and almost forced. Don’t get me wrong, they’re spectacular enough but the car chase through Rome, for example, adds nothing to the story and could easily be cut without harming the film. It’s almost symptomatic of a script rewrite process which looked to put in an action beat every so often to keep the studio execs happy. “SPECTRE” is often at its best during its quietest moments and a surprising amount of the film takes place with little or no dialogue. There’s a patience to the pacing which offers atmosphere over activity and actually benefits the film overall but undoubtedly contributes to its hefty run time.
The ‘fix it while it’s filming’ approach to the script shows through in a few ways, most egregiously in the treatment of some minor characters. Monica Bellucci’s character, Sciarra’s widow, literally just disappears from the movie. Apparently she’s in constant, imminent peril from an endless supply of would-be assassins but Bond leaves her to be picked up by Felix Leiter and we never hear of her or see her again. It’s almost unBond-like not to have her ironically and tragically killed once 007 moves on, and the throwaway off-screen rescue by Leiter is just lazy writing. Likewise, the scene where Q is menaced in the cable car is resolved far too quickly and then amounts to nothing and is never mentioned again.
Much-hyped henchman Mr Hix makes a memorable entrance to the movie in a weird nod to “Game Of Thrones” and then pops in occasionally to threaten Bond a couple of times after the car chase. But he gets little to no dialogue so doesn’t really develop a personality and once he’s thrown off the train, it feels weird that we never see him again. Given how great Dave Bautista was in “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, it’s hard not to think he wasn’t wasted in the speechless, perfunctory role. Andrew Scott, on the other hand, wastes a potentially meaty role by deciding against any shred of ambiguity and subtlety, clearing shouting his true nature as a bad guy from his first appearance on screen. Partly it’s because he carries the baggage of his Moriarty performance in the BBC’s “Sherlock” but its mostly because he didn’t try to hide the nature of his character. He was content to just be in a Bond movie and pick up his paycheck (reputedly $1million less than original pick Chiwetel Ejiofor).
All of which brings us to the man of the hour, the real spectre haunting Bond: Franz Oberhauser. Not since “Star Trek Into Darkness”’ John Harrison has a movie character been so transparently using a pseudonym. Of course he’s Blofeld. You don’t hire an actor of Christoph Waltz’ calibre to merely be a new throwaway villain. Unfortunately, like the moment in Star Trek when the big reveal is delivered, Oberhauser’s declaration of his real name is completely unearned by the story and relies on the audience knowing the history of the character from previous unrelated Bond movies to have any impact. Hell, Mr White’s codename of The Pale King is way cooler and doesn’t need him to explain clumsily that he took the name from his mother’s side of the family. Waltz feels dialled-back here, pulling his punches and being playful when he should be petrifying. In the drive to establish the legitimacy of the character, the film goes beyond the point of homage and flirts with parody as one by one he’s given the iconic cat, then the facial scar and finally the beginnings of a limp.
Having SPECTRE be behind all the events of the past three films is just about credible but having them be the parent organisation of QUANTUM pushes the story’s luck a bit. Was there a merger or some kind of hostile takeover? An evil equity swap where ten shares of Quantum were traded for one share of SPECTRE? It seems unusual for an evil multinational organisation to set up a subsidiary. Maybe it was more tax efficient or something? Although it’s never mentioned, I assume SPECTRE remains an acronym and not just a cool and spooky name for the bad guys club. Certainly, their master plan fits neatly with being the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. One of the more baffling aspects of the movie is that you can actually catch a train to the villain’s super-secret lair which doesn’t appear on any map at all and is in the middle of a barren and uninhabited desert yet has its own train station just down the road. It’s not quite the caldera of an extinct volcano but the crater of a meteorite is close enough I guess.
One of the strengths of the film is that M and the backup crew get quite a bit to do and are more involved than ever before. One of its main weakness is that it has lifted its central story directly from another film. A government agency has been thoroughly infiltrated by a shadowy organisation bent on world domination. In order to further their agenda of global control through mass surveillance, the shadow organisation orchestrates tactical terrorist strikes in specific countries in order to coerce reluctant governments to fall in line and authorise the irreversible computer surveillance protocol. Meanwhile, our Hero is distracted from this by the unexpected reappearance of a figure from his youth, a close friend – almost a brother – who he long thought dead.
Ah, Mr Bond. I’ve been expecting you. Please sit down. We need to talk about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.
It may have been aiming to deliver a knock-out topical commentary on a post-Snowdon world but whichever way you look at it, “SPECTRE” is a beat for beat cover version of Marvel’s 2014 blockbuster. The ‘Nine Eyes’ protocol is Hydra’s ‘Project Insight’ by another name. C is Alexander Pierce, Blofeld is Bucky Barnes and so on and so on. It’s done with such style and panache that you don’t really mind and, like the best cover versions, it’s new and different enough to have its own identity despite the identical melodies and structure. If I really wanted to twist the knife, I could also point out that having Bond discover that his nemesis is secretly his [adopted] brother is effectively the plot of “Austin Powers In Goldmember”, just done with fewer jokes and better stunts.
But I don’t want to. I don’t want to focus on where “SPECTRE” took its ideas and inspiration from. I want to focus on how much I enjoyed it. Derivative though it is, it’s still a slick, exquisitely crafted action adventure movie. Yes, it has a few flaws and it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek than fans of the tough-as-nails Daniel Craig Bond might be used to or expecting but it has more of that sense of fun of the old escapist Bonds and its all the richer for it. The pre-credits sequence literally had me on the edge of my seat and while the rest of the film couldn’t quite live up to the opening (what film could? You’d be exhausted by the end of it) I still had a good time watching it.
It can’t help itself though, and it ends on possibly the most Daniel Craig Bond cliché possible as Bond quits the Secret Service. Again. As the familiar strains of Monty Norman’s classic James Bond theme swell over the end credits though, I don’t think anyone is in doubt that…
James Bond Will Return.
The End (of Craggus’ Bond Voyage)