When the decision is made to reboot a popular (or once popular) franchise, it’s not a decision that can be made easily. Even if a franchise has lost favor with its base, it still has a fan base which is at times both a blessing and a curse. Avid fans are the first to blindly purchase tickets. But the same fans tend to also be the most ardent critics. I mention this because it is impossible to look at the new James Bond film, Spectre, as a stand alone film. It is not an autonomous creation. If one judges the film based on its merits to stand on its own, then ultimately the film is somewhat mediocre.
Therein lies the greatest flaw of latest Bond installment. It fails to stand alone as a complete story and as a balanced film. One can hardly follow the twisted plot if a viewer does recall the details of the last film, Skyfall and even the two before it. So much of the premise of Spectre is to reveal how the tangled web is ultimately connected. In doing so, the film fails to tell a complete narrative which could be appreciated on its own merits. Instead, if we are to appreciate the film we must relish the momentum built by its predecessors.
However, when you consider Spectre for what it is … the final chapter in a story arc that began with Casino Royale (2006), the film is a triumphant coda that arrives at end of the symphony with a grand crescendo. It is the final piece of a puzzle that Bond began to unravel during the third act of Casino Royale. With it, closure to this chapter of the film franchise that has spanned five decades. Of course, we all know 007 is coming back … but he will be a different man when he returns.
Several things do work really well in this film, but none better than Christoph Waltz as the central villain. His identity and connection to Bond are key plot elements that should not be spoiled, so I’ll just say that his character is worthy of the buildup to their final confrontation. Waltz is splendid with his eerie school boy charms with casual transitions to the most cringe worthy violence. More time could have been spent explaining the organization that he heads up and how he ultimately came to run it. However, ultimately Waltz is the man behind the curtain we always feared was there.
Bond films have been famous of signature sequences that have come to define the action and peril of an adventure with the British superspy. Spectre has many of these elements stacked in a film that barely takes time to catch its breath. From Mexico City to Rome to Northern Africa, the film is the globetrotting journey we’ve come to expect from 007. The action includes a well-crafted car chase through the streets of Rome (at night no less!) and a deadly encounter at the villain’s secret lair. But the sequence that best accentuates what makes Bond …well, Bond … is a brutal fight scene on a speeding train between Bond and Hinx (David Bautista). The exchange of blows between the two men is reminiscent of the great train fight in From Russia With Love and in some ways, this one is superior.
Director Sam Mendes does a fantastic job again of capturing the broad scale and wide scope of many locations used in the film. He uses several long shots early in the film to bring his audience into the festive (yet creepy) surrounding of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. His eye is much tighter and personal as Bond and Dr. Swann make their trek by train across Northern Africa. The result is a near claustrophobic feel that gives the viewer not only the confinement of a speeding train, but also the growing intimacy between the two characters. Likewise to his credit, Mendes works as a filmmaker who believes he’s making the most important picture of the year. The careful eye for detail and the time spent to capture and convey emotion through effective dialogue and delivery by his actors is apparent throughout. It’s the same level of work he provided to Skyfall and is a major reason these Bond films have redefined what they are. Of course, there are no Oscar expectations here … but Bond is no longer a merely disposable popcorn flick or a guilty pleasure. Mendes’ ultimate gift to the franchise is a sense of dramatic credibility.
Craig’s performance as 007 continues to evolve his character in ways even his creator may not have imagined. As Judi Dench’s “M” so aptly told Bond in Casino Royale, “Any thug can kill. I want you to take your ego out of the equation.” A catchy line at the time, but also a piece of advice that helps define Bond’s journey through four films. He never breaks his cool exterior, save maybe once when Dr. Swann (Lea Seydoux) is the target of our villains mental and emotional cruelty. He is methodical and somehow still reflective in the journey he takes.
Which is another element that come to define the Daniel Craig era of Bond — the hero’s personal connection to central plot points and even villains. It’s not enough simply that Bond is the best man for the job, he’s the only man for the job. Even if he essentially assigns himself as he does this time around.
And Bond has never been more driven by a mission that couldn’t be more personal than this one. We find him working outside of an intelligence organization that is set to be the next victim of bureaucratic politics and changing times. Once again, 007 and men like him are seen as the past and not the future. Irish born actor Andrew Scott, most recognizable for his fantastic work on BBC’s Sherlock, is the embodiment of modern western politics as “C”. His character plays parallel antagonist to Ralph Fiennes‘s “M” as Waltz does to Bond. If you’re familiar with Sherlock, you may struggle to separate Scott from his more popular alter ego there … but given his role, that’s not all bad.
Ben Whishaw is given a meatier role than he had in Skyfall and it is not wasted. With respect to the talented men before him, specifically the immortal Desmond Llewelyn, Whishaw is near perfect as a Q for Generation X. The relationship between him and Bond is one of hesitant trust and they play off each other like an older brother and his younger sibling. Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes also have extended scene time this time around and it works to expand the scope of the story. Of course, it’s a fine line to walk. Unlike the American spy team of Mission Impossible, Bond is very much a solo operation.
As a viewer, rather a fan, takes stock in the film while considering the three that immediately preceded it, the circle is connected and resolution is offered. The resolution is not perfect and the avid fans may wish to offer their own counter conclusions and possibilities. Nethertheless, by the end Spectre deliver a James Bond whose character has been nurtured and developed with a level of care that would’ve surely made Ian Fleming proud. For that accomplishment, writer/producer Neal Purvis deserves more credit than he’s likely to receive. He was among several scribes who worked on the story and screenplay, but Purvis is the veteran in the room having now worked on six Bond films (all four with Craig plus The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day). Working with three different directors, he’s accomplished a yeoman’s work of shepherding a twisted story arc with some semblance of cohesion.
A key element that falls short is Bond’s relationship with Swann. Their time together is too rushed and the chemistry between Craig and Seydoux is lukewarm at best. While this flaw could be overlooked, it is glaring as the film proceeds and their relationship ultimately influences key decisions for Bond. As much as you may want to buy it, most viewers will struggle to cheer for the couple. Since Purvis and the other writers chose to connect that relationship to the finale of the film, its shortcomings bring down what should be an emotionally powerful end.
Which then begs the question of what’s next for 007? Mendes does a great job wiping the slate as he closes his final film as director. His producers and his successor will have many different options and directions they can take the franchise in next. It’s likely fans will have some time before the 25th Bond film is released and until then we all have a license to speculate.