– Summary –
Director : Sam Mendes
Year Of Release : 2015
Principal Cast : Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Naomi Harris, Dave Bautista, Ben Wishaw, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Judi Dench.
Approx Running Time : 138 Minutes
Synopsis: A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.
Casino Royale, Part 4.
This review of Spectre contains spoilers for the purpose of plot dissection. I suggest only reading on if you’ve seen Spectre or don’t plan to.
As you read, listen to Sam Smith’s title tune from Spectre: “The Writing’s On The Wall”
As part of my review of Skyfall, the James Bond film preceding Spectre, I noted that it felt like a full-stop on the origin story of Modern Bond which began with a bang in Casino Royale. Skyfall concluded with a setting in place of the well-known pieces of Bond’s overarching narrative – Moneypenny, M, Q, the gadgets, the girls, hell, all that was missing was a last-scene double–entendre as Bond penetrated yet another bonkable lovely in the name of Her Majesty’s Government. Sadly, neither Casino Royale, the vastly under-appreciated Quantum of Solace, nor Skyfall spent any time at all engaging in witty sexual innuendo of the kind that ultimately ruined the Pierce Brosnan era. For a laugh, go back and rewatch Die Another Day (or don’t) and tell me that nearly 100% of Brosnan’s dialogue isn’t some manner of entendre or glib snare-drum one-liner. Ugh. Anyhoo, Skyfall felt like a solid conclusion to Daniel Craig’s origin trilogy – with Judi Dench’s M dead, and all the accoutrement of Bond established, perhaps it was time for a stand-alone Bond film, like the good old days before “franchise building” took hold of cinema and all but dead-armed Bond into following suit.
Spectre’s release in the UK and the US was accompanied by what I’d lightly describe as the acclaim of mediocrity; that is, for every solid, “it was fun” review came a bunch of “it’s shit” critiques that, when you actually see the film, seem to make more sense than the former ever can. Let’s be honest: Spectre is a bit of nifty fun, but the more you dig into it, the more you think about what it offers, it’s actually a hugely flawed Bond entry that flaps apart faster than Lamar Odom at a brothel when you dig into the meaty flesh. Part of this review was going to be a rebuttal of my fellow film reviewer Vivek’s diatribe against Spectre, over at The Cinematic Katzenjammer. Without wishing to impugn Vivek’s writing, the opening paragraph of his review compares Spectre to ejected womb juice:
Spectre is terrible. It may take some a re-watch to truly comb the depths of its failure, but make no mistake. Spectre is menstrual discharge upon the eyeballs; it is the experience of simulating waterboarding by expired eggnog. Even on the generous grading curve of James Bond movies, it stacks in near the bottom, squeezing itself right alongside melted colostomy bags like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, Die Another Day, and Never Say Never Again.
Now, as exclamatory as the phrase “menstrual discharge upon the eyeballs” is, Vivek’s tone encapsulates more of what Spectre was intended to be than what it actually is. Spectre isn’t a terrible film – any review in which a film is compared to a woman’s period is usually a category reserved for Adam Sandler comedies, Battlefield Earth, and whatever the f@ck those Star Wars prequels were. Now there was some bad blood (if you’ll pardon the pun). What Vivek so vociferously alludes to in the opening paragraph of his review (and trust me, his use of iconography in describing Spectre is perhaps a tad over-the-top, but it’s at least aimed in the right direction) is actually a cleansing mechanism, by which an unfertilised egg is discharged from a female’s body to make room for the next possible chance of conception – yeah, a period is actually a significantly important part of of the female body. So technically, not a disgusting thing, but something normal for life to continue.
Spectre is like the stuff that comes after a semi-colon. It’s part of the same sentence, but offers something tangential in nature to the reader. Spectre’s post-semi-colon narrative actually continues the briefing of Royale, Quantum and Skyfall, and twists the knife in a little deeper by adding some inadequate familial heft to Bond’s history. Stretching the concept of franchise building, Spectre takes all that we knew about the previous three films and attempts to retrofit an overarching mega-plot, devised by the titular criminal organization over the relatively broad brush-strokes of Bond’s hitherto unexplored younger past. Skyfall hinted at issues in Bond’s childhood, particularly how his parents died when he was young, but Spectre removes much of that mystery with one of the most implausible “playing the long game” narrative devices yet seen in a Bond movie. By removing the inherent mystery behind Bond, I suspect the writers (all four of them!) were attempting to humanize a man best recognised by the majority of us as a “shoot first, ask questions following sex” kinda guy. In actuality, the attempt to demystify Bond backfires, thanks to inept writing and Daniel Craig’s taciturn (or bored) acting style.
Essentially, Spectre is a culmination on top of Skyfall’s culmination. The overarching premise that SPECTRE, or more specifically Christoph Waltz’ revised version of Ernst Blofeld (complete with hairy white pussy) is a revenge story for a perceived wrong that occurred many years ago, and the “long game” I mentioned earlier was Blofeld’s desire to cause Bond untold agony and rob him of all he holds dear. Oh, and something about gaining control of the world’s intelligence agencies. Had the writers simply picked one or the other, the film may have worked in a more streamlined manner, but because we just absolutely have to humanize Bond we need some emotional hook to couple with both plot threads, it weakens the overall structure of the film. Part of the fun of Bond is that the Bad Guys aren’t really developed beyond just world domination or some shit; Waltz is actually rather good as Bloefeld, given he’s lumbered with some truly awful dialogue at times, but his character never truly “clicks” like it should.
Links to the previous three films, referencing everything from Dench’s M (in a brief and welcome cameo), Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, Quantum’s Mr Green, and Skyfall’s Raoul Silva, abound in Spectre, as the film-makers really try to hammer home the point that this film is what “it’s all been leading to”. If only the film delivered on that promise, as that would be a film worth raving about. The utterly gorgeous opening titles, designed again by franchise stalwart Daniel Kleinman, show glimpses of those returning characters (and, I should note, that my initial thoughts on Sam Smith’s awful warbling theme song, “The Writing’s On The Wall” have softened, because even a shitty song like this comes up trumps alongside Kleinman’s digital magic) before we transition to Sam Mendes’ now patented dystopian colour-scheme for his Bond films.
Spectre’s constant callbacks to superior films (you should know I’m a fan of Quantum of Solace) begins to wear out its welcome by the middle of the film, although momentary pause when Bond discovers an old VHS tape of Vesper’s interrogation at the hands of Mr. White – a returning Jesper Christensen, who we last saw scarpering in Quantum of Solace, and whose presence here essentially links the previous films more succinctly than any of the other dialogue or plot twists – does much to bring Bond’s humanity to the surface. I suspect the recurring theme of a lost love will apply more and more in future Bond films, which is possibly not a terrible idea, I guess. Anyway, by the time Bond arrives in the soon-to-be-demolished former MI6 HQ (blown to hell in Skyfall), back in London, and he wanders through a carefully staged booby-trap set-up (but who has time to set up a bullet-proof glass window for Blofeld and Bond to stand astride to taunt each other?), we’re privy to a regressively chronological memory jab as Bond notices images of all the people he’s killed, or who have been killed around him, since Casino Royale. Heavy handed? You bet.
There are two problems with Spectre that I think warrant considerable attention. The first is Sam Mendes, a director who absolutely nailed Skyfall but seems to have let his ego get the better of him here. For all the plaudits Skyfall received, there was an anger pulsating behind the story and characters of that film that compelled it to greatness. Spectre contains almost no emotion behind it at all, no matter how hard Mendes or Daniel Craig try to assert as much. Spectre is a film lacking a pulse – beyond the superficial “save the world” recurring motif, or the cavalier manner in which Bond adjusts his tuxedo following his crazy antics, the direction, action and acting all feel a little flat.
Following a lengthy opening sequence in Mexico City, in which a full five-minute single-take shot culminates in Bond nearly being squished by a collapsing building and then follows that up by nearly being killed by an out-of-control helicopter, the film’s action sequences take on a malaise of disproportionately insipid and ineffectual nature. Requisite car chases try to inject humour as Bond and Dave Bautista’s cool bad guy character race through the empty streets of Rome (seriously, have you ever been to Rome, because I don’t remember the avenues being quite so vehicle-free) but it’s all heavy-handed and lacking the overt wit of Connery/Moore/Lazenby efforts. An alpine plane/car chase elicits a minor raise in pulse, but it’s shoddily edited and/or executed and feels like the second unit director fell asleep at the monitor while filming it. The film’s “ticking clock” countdown finale, which results in a monster of a building demolition, revisits this malaise as I felt no distinct sense of urgency at Bond’s impending demise at the hands of Blofeld; Mendes’ direction just feels perfunctory, a rote, “going through the motions” sense of grandiosity rendered inert by a director assuming we’ll care about what’s happening because of our inbuilt appreciation for the character.
The second problem with Spectre is Daniel Craig. I once described Craig’s Bond as the Bulldog Bond: his face looks like it’s seen better days on the inside of a gulag, and his bullish, Jason Bourne-esque indifference to the character’s actions couple with rigid stoicism and unwavering conviction to give Bond a sense of unstoppable machine. Given SPECTRE’s an immovable object, you might guess what happens when they collide. Craig’s performance here ranges from bored eye-rolls to outright not-giving-a-shit. I’d probably feel the same way too if I had to act to a rat at one point (more on this little debacle in a moment) but you can get the sense that Craig’s tiring of the role is starting to leech through into his performances. Famously suggesting he’d “slit his wrists” before reprising the role, it would appear prescient for the film to be his last; and indeed, the closing scene, in which Bond drives off with Lea Seydoux’ Madeline Swan, suggests that that might actually be the case. Whereas Craig’s performances in Casino Royale and Quantum, and to a lesser degree in Skyfall, invoked a man dedicated to his mission but fraught with human frailties, in Spectre he’s just some dude in the wrong place at the wrong time, with a shitty family history and even shittier taste in employment.
About the only saving grace with Spectre is the generally excellent supporting cast. Monica Bellucci has a criminally small role in this film, although she’s as sexy as ever as the oldest Bond-girl to-date. Lea Seydoux’ role is key to the film’s emotional core, and the actress is utterly radiant in the part, even though her character’s physical abilities seem to ebb and flow depending on the requirements of Bond’s physicality. At least she can shoot a gun, I suppose. Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx (not sure if he is specifically named as such in the film, but he’s credited this way in the literature) is a blast of old-school Bond henchman iconography; although Mendes’ appropriation of the iconic fight between Connery and Robert Shaw on a train in From Russia With Love and giving it to Craig and Bautista to accomplish might seem blasphemous, but it’s one of the few true highlights in a film desperately in need of more. Seeing Jesper Christensen again as Mr White was nice, and a nice way to wrap-up his subplot, while Andrew Scott’s see-it-coming-a-mile-away portrayal of slimy Max Denbeigh, aka C, lacked clear distinction or motivation.
The film’s callback to Bond’s halcyon days, those being whenever SPECTRE was involved, sees dual-Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz essay the part of Blofeld, a “surprise” which is surprising to zero people who’ve ever watched a film before. Waltz is stuck with a character of such middling cruelty, such camp, obfuscated desire, and motivation so preposterous it makes diamond-face-Asian-dude in Die Another Day look positively archetypal, he cannot extricate much more out of the character beyond poor judgement in where to build his headquarters, or monologuing to the point of exhaustion when he should just be killing folks. The “twist” in Blofeld’s reveal (he spends the majority of the film going by the pseudonym Oberhauser, changing to Blofeld – his mother’s maiden name – after faking his own death and going on to form SPECTRE) is delivered in a contemptuously off-hand manner, almost an aside that true fans will probably note but casual fans will either ignore or simply scratch their heads at. Waltz is a better actor than this material deserves; seeing him gain the character’s famous facial scars and cataract eyeball is a momentary glimpse at actual entertainment, but it’s a fleeting moment. You just get the sense that Waltz is relying on audience familiarity with the character rather than being allowed to develop it on his own.
A point: typical of the film’s diffidence to characterisation – a conversation between Ralph Fiennes’ M and Scott’s C, in which M extols the virtue of being given a license to kill, has a degree of resonance because it is another attempt to humanise what would normally be an inhuman activity. The circle-of-life moment comes late in the film in which Bond, face to face with Blofeld and having his weapon trained on the villain, decides not to kill him, which trails back to a conversation Bond has with Madeline Snow about “choosing to be a killer” and Bond’s seeming confusion as to what he’d do otherwise. You get the sense that the writers were trying to make a point about Bond’s ability to kill, and why people kill other people as an emotional plot point, but by keeping the two relatively effective moments of contemplation separate in their on-screen resolution, it robs Bond of a pretty cool moment of introspective growth. Essentially, Bond’s decision to not kill Blofeld at the end lacks weight because the previous time we even thought about that was in a conversation between two completely different people, neither of whom have contact in the moment Bond and Blofeld confront each other!
Now, about that rat. One of the things I hate in films is a narrative reliance on the thing known as “good fortune” to further a plot that seems counter-intuitive to the overall tone of the story. Bond always struck me, particularly in the Daniel Craig films, as being a guy who decides his own path, never relying on luck or an external force to propel him along. A key moment in Spectre sees Bond, watching over a sleeping Madeline Snow, trying to find a clue hidden in a Moroccan hotel, witnesses a rat on the floor of their apartment (firstly, ewww, what kind of hotel is this? Secondly, ewww!) scurry into its hole and thus reveal the location for a hidden annex where Bond and Snow locate information relating to SPECTRE. Now, this in itself is a bit of a lame-ass scene, because Bond tries to soliloquy with the rat. The major problem lies with this question: what if the rat just ran the other way? Bond would never find the clue he needs to continue the story, and he’d have to go back to swigging shaken martinis at a bar in London for the rest of the day, with his case going cold. It’s this kind of external “good fortune” that bugs the shit out of me in films purporting to be realistic or believable. Were this a Disney film, I’d buy it, but a coincidental rat revealing a clue to Bond in this post-9/11 era is just stupid, stupid, stupid.
Spectre feels assembled, more than it ever should. The cogs of Hollywood money leech from every fibre of this shallow, unevenly developed mess. The irony of M’s diatribe against combining the world’s intelligence forces is telling; just how much surveillance is too much, M? Hmm? It’s little inconsistencies like that which burden Spectre to the point it collapses within itself. Were the film-makers trying too hard to capture Skyfall’s effortless brilliance that they just tripped over themselves? It’s a far cry to suggest the Battlefield Earth-level disaster Vivek alludes to in his review, but Spectre is a film containing too many issues to brush aside with the application of “harmless popcorn entertainment”, particularly when you want to hurl said popcorn at the screen. Don’t mistake my fault-finding mission in this review for an admission that I hated Spectre, because I didn’t: I legitimately enjoyed it as I watched it. I guess I’m just disappointed by it.
Spectre’s issues arise when one thinks about them after the fact. The more you sit down and appraise the film, the more you come to understand that it’s a film so fundamentally insecure in its own ability to congeal a core plot or characters, it has to rely on poorly shot and edited sight gags to propel its narrative. Bond’s plucky escapes and skin-of-the-teeth scrapes (the drilling into the skull sequence is particularly brutal, and raises the film a notch) are enjoyably frivolous, but the bland action sequences and convoluted backhanding of Bond’s greatest villain suck the wind out of this film faster than a child molester at after school pickup.
Perhaps Vivek was right in his “menstrual discharge” assertion; if Skyfall is the orgasmic copulation of cinematic perfection, then Spectre is the cyclical cleansing of Bond’s franchise womb to ready us for whatever insemination will occur in the future. If this is Daniel Craig’s final film as Bond, then his legacy will be four films of which three are great (two if you’re a typical film critic) and one unravels all the good work done over the last decade. Spectre, while slick, polished and technically splendid, is a façade of scaffolding supporting the flimsiest of set dressing. Dig much deeper than the superficial thrills (which wax and wane considerably across the film’s near two and a half hour runtime) and you’re left with not much at all, really.
For further Spectre reading, check out some reviews by friends of Fernby Films:
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