Daniel Craig’s fourth (and final?) turn as 007 sees the franchise cannibalizing itself. And who can blame them? How else do you keep a 53-year-old series afloat? Sam Mendes, who directed the widely acclaimed Skyfall, is back at the helm for Spectre, a film that very consciously draws on the wellspring of Bonds past. From the beginning we realize that this is Mendes and his massive team of writers’ attempt at throwing Daniel Craig’s 007 into a “traditional” Bond movie (after the oft-praised Touch of Evil-esque long take Bond falls from a crumbling building directly onto a couch, to great comedic effect). Spectre, as a whole then, often feels as though Craig’s take on the character, with layers, darkness, grit and all, has fallen into a Roger Moore movie. The result is a very flawed, but very entertaining escapist adventure. It wants to have its cake and it it too – and, occasionally, it does.
Daniel Craig’s evolution in the role of 007 has been a joy to watch. First he was the brute, blunt instrument in Casino Royale (this Bond “bleeds,” the reviews all stated). Now he’s cool, collected, and supremely confident. With Spectre, finally, Craig has truly become James Bond, although it never feels like imitative or contrived (which is more than I can say for a few aspects of this picture) – he makes the role his own. The globe-trotting, the multiple seduction scenes with women, the larger than life villain, the larger than life villain lair, the gadget laden Aston Martin, the hokey one-liners in the face great danger – Spectre is easily the closest Craig’s 007 has gotten to a “classic Bond” film. Mendes and his team cannibalize locations, scenes, production design, and humor from past entries, with varying degrees of success. I’ll say this – when Spectre works, it really works.
The scene in which 007 finds himself at a top secret SPECTRE meeting in Rome is executed so well it sent chills of both nostalgia and anticipation down my spine. Dave Bautista’s hopefully-soon-to-be-iconic character Mr. Hinx makes his neck-snapping appearance, announcing himself as a silent but massive screen presence a-la Oddjob or Jaws. His altercation with Bond, a brutal fight on a train, is the film’s highlight. In fact, everything on the train, not just the fight, stands as Spectre‘s high point. In the days where most fistfights are fast and slappy (see: Jason Bourne) the scenery smashing, punch-em-up, bodies-flying impact of Spectre’s brawl is both refreshing and visceral (heightened further by the lack of Thomas Newman’s music – which is excellent – accentuating each punch and crash). Despite a flimsy, lackluster climax, Spectre makes good on its promise of classic over-the-top Bond action.
If I haven’t mentioned Craig’s co-stars it’s because the writers probably wouldn’t want me to (and I’m not talking about the MI6 regulars, who are all fine, but sorely overused). Spectre’s plot is paper thin, with Bond moving from set piece to set piece to set piece, and many of its characters are even thinner. The key point here: the writing is this movie’s weak point. Although Craig proves himself far more capable of the humorous aspects of Bond than many of us initially thought, the humor that doesn’t work really doesn’t work. Much of the dialogue here is flimsy and nothing but exposition. Many of the jokes, with a few notable exceptions, lack the wit and dry deadpan punch of those of the 60’s. Léa Seydoux, who plays primary Bond girl Madeleine Swann, elevates a pretty thin character simply because she’s a fantastic actress. When she’s on screen, we watch, and although she and Craig don’t have near the chemistry the film clearly wants them to – they have enough to get by.
My biggest issues with Spectre lie in its villain, its villain’s motivations, and an odd tonal shift that accompanies the flimsy, unimpressive final act – a tonal shift that moves the film back into the “dark and gritty” territory of Craig’s early films (namely 2008’s Quantum of Solace). I can’t discuss the worst aspect of the movie, as its firmly in spoiler territory, but I can say this – despite Spectre‘s aspirations to be a traditional Bond adventure, it seems Mendes and his team can’t fully shake off the nagging, frustrating need to have everything in Daniel Craig’s tenure be personal. On top of this, Christoph Waltz, who was seemingly born to play the part, commits the cardinal sin for a Bond villain: he’s boring. He is neither intimidating or fun or funny or menacing. He is simply there, in all of his unconvincing glory. As with most of Spectre‘s shortcomings, however, I blame the writing. Here’s to hoping Bond 25 brings with it a better script.
Despite these shortcomings, Spectre comes recommended. Hoytema’s cinematography is sumptuous, Craig is captivating and wholly at ease in the role, and there’s a playful, sexy, classy flair to most of the film that we haven’t gotten in well over a decade. Bond is back, truly, and nobody does it better.