Critic’s Preface: I vehemently reject the idea that film as entertainment and film as art have to be mutually exclusive. When I watch a movie, I’m looking at whether it works, effectively whether or not it does what it has set out to do. Liking a film doesn’t always correlate to whether I think it’s successful or good. With that being said, let’s get on to the review:
Review, “Spectre” – Overall Rating: 1.5 out of 4 dry martinis
Released November 6, 2015
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Cinematography by Not Roger Deakins (Hoyte Van Hoytema)
Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Ben Whishaw, Monica Bellucci
Running Time: 150 minutes
Budget: $245 million
Worldwide Box Office (as of this publication date): $302.3 million
Last Saturday, I jammed my way into a surprisingly crowded cinema to see the latest James Bond film, “Spectre.” This installment, officially the 24th, brings back our latest Bond, Daniel Craig, along with fellow returnees Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), and Naomie Harris (Miss Moneypenny). The freshman class: new Bond girl Lea Seydoux, and new baddies Dave Bautista and Christoph Waltz. Also returning is director Sam Mendes, who helmed 2012’s wildly lucrative-but-dramatically-underwhelming Bond entry, “Skyfall.”
The plot follows the classic formula we’ve all come to expect: James Bond travels around the world in pursuit of a megalomaniac super-villain set on taking over the world. In so doing, he encounters freakishly strong henchmen, drives pimped-out Aston Martins, and sleeps with the most beautiful and exotic women Hollywood’s top casting directors can find.
Unlike most other Bonds, “Spectre” strives to explicitly unite the story lines from the three previous Daniel Craig films and provide us with a Boss-of-all-Bosses set-up, thus insulating these four films from the rest of the Bond canon. Essentially, then, the Craig Bonds are a re-boot that culminate with “Spectre,” leaving us with the possibility of starting anew yet again, and allowing another fresh actor to continue the Bond saga (cough cough Idris Elba cough).
“Spectre” strangely, nostalgically elects to abandon a lot of the grit and grime that have come to define the new Craig Bond series. Most Bond film power rankings (including mine) peg the first Craig Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” among the top Bond films ever. Upon its 2006 release, “Casino Royale” was applauded for peppering in the classic Bond tropes while re-inventing the character as a modern brute. The plot was grounded, the stakes were high without being cartoon-ish. A refresher: the stakes are that if Bond loses the card game, the British government will have effectively funded terrorists. What those terrorists will do is suggested but not vital to the plot of the film. And therein lies the movie’s greatest narrative attribute: we don’t worry about the world too broadly, and instead have the pleasure of focusing on the immediate characters and their danger. Not just a great Bond film but a great action film.
Sadly, that more micro approach to world-building was gone by the next movie, the incomprehensible “Quantum of Solace” (2008). Its successor, the aforementioned “Skyfall,” continued this trend against realism. And now, the wildly unrealistic “Spectre” strains to suggest that, through the course of the prior three movies, Bond has uncovered a secret organization that is actually running every societal ill in the world, all under the supervision of the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld!
Don’t get me wrong, I love some of the campier Bond films, but it’s a strange choice to combine the grit of the new Bond with the hokiness of the older ones. Blofeld has actually become more important as a parodied character in our culture, than as an integral part of any actual Bond films. In the Connery Bonds, Blofeld and Spectre existed as a loose tie from film to film that simply gave us a clear villain to continually root against. In this new “Spectre,” we not only find out that Blofeld is the “author to all of Bond’s pain,” but — and the screenwriters took a chapter out of “Austin Powers in Goldmember” here — we discover that Bloefeld and Bond are basically step brothers? This is a massive tonal jump to make and castrates the interesting moves that could have been implemented by the creative brain trust behind “Casino Royale” (producers: Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade).
The mistakes even seep into the way the film moves from point A-Z. Even for a Bond movie, it’s a structural mess that continually gives us set-up without consequence. The clearest example of this is the torture scene at the end, where Bond, locked into a futuristic La-Z-Boy, has tiny drills bore holes into his head. Now, I know what you’re thinking — but rest assured, there’s never a risk in any Bond film of Bond being actually hurt or dying. In fact that’s a parodied trope! But (and this is a major “but,” one that speaks to the sub-par script and film-making of Spectre): As the needle is about to go into Bond’s head, Waltz’s Blofeld tells us that Bond will be an amnesiac when the needle reaches its end. So, as the needle goes in we grind our teeth wondering how Bond will escape. What happens? The needle goes in, and Bond is… essentially fine. In doing this, the filmmakers render both the needle and Blofeld completely impotent, justifying my lack of interest in the film and just loudly declaring that I can go into cruise control as a viewer. It’s masturbatory, and even the campier and worst Bond films never made the mistake of not taking their own stakes seriously. It’s strange for a film that reveled in grittiness and reality to make such a rookie mistake. It’s a basic world-building rule that is inexplicably thrown out.
I could go on about the structure and how clumsy it is to have your villain return inexplicably ten minutes later after having been vanquished in a major set piece, and then be beaten…again. Or how weak of a choice it is to make Bond a team player a la Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt. Or how ending it with Bond becoming a family man only to come back in the next scene is completely pointless. But this is just picking nits. And they’re secondary to the major issue of “Spectre” being two very different James Bond films in one.
Unfortunately, all that “Spectre” demonstrated to me is that we may just not have a cultural place for Bond to exist in today. He’ll never be as funny as his parodies, and he’ll never be grittier or more realistic than Bourne or any of its knock-offs. So the margin of error is much smaller, and Bond today does have to tiptoe a tight line and have really strong people behind it to make it work. Rolling a classic villain into the proceedings feels like a cheap attempt to continue a mythos that nobody needed anymore, and in doing so, strangled whatever fun there is to be had. Because “Spectre” doesn’t commit to any one stylistic storytelling direction, it instead sticks us with a bill heavy on nostalgia and a muted enjoyment of select individual scenes. Thus, the film skirts the full, immersive moviemaking engagement level that we’ve already felt possible during the Daniel Craig Bond Era. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
Alex and Greg Brecher talk further about “Spectre” on the Filmcore podcast episode of the same name, 11/11/15.