MGM / Columbia, 2015
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Director: Sam Mendes
Out of 5: 3
In some ways, Daniel Craig is in an impossible position. Since stepping into the role of James Bond, he has been compared and contrasted with past actors to play the role, as well as with fans’ fantasy picks and the classic stereotype of what Bond “should” be (i.e., the hubbub over the fact that he was the first blond Bond). But, since the films he has appeared in have been touted as reboots and re-imaginings of the character, he’s also constantly being asked to do new and interesting things with the role. On top of all that, there’s the modern audience, unpredictable in its whims: sometimes they turn out in droves for something new, and sometimes they prefer the same old thing, and you never know which they’ll want.
The 24th official Bond film, Spectre, feels the strain of being pulled in these many directions at once. It’s often a handsome film, at times even gorgeous. It aspires to emotional intensity, at times even crossing into moody or morose. But it also does a poor job carrying the weight of the entire franchise — in some scenes it can’t even carry the weight of the three previous Craig films. It plays around in some of the same themes as the great modern Bond films such as Casino Royale and Goldeneye, but it lacks their urgency.
Spectre’s best ten minutes are its first ten minutes, a dazzling action set piece set in and around a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Opening with a long single-take Steadicam shot following Bond from the street parade to the rooftops, and closing with a series of daring helicopter stunts, it’s truly a highlight of the entire franchise.
That skirmish leads Bond onto the trail of a mysterious crime boss (Christopher Waltz) and his brutal henchman (Dave Bautista of WWE, MMA, and Guardians of the Galaxy fame), but not directly. There are a number of digressions: Bond traces the whereabouts of a character from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw) try to push back against replacing the Double-Oh program with drones and electronic surveillance, and I haven’t even mentioned Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux yet.
That leads into the main problem with Spectre: there is significant bloat. It’s commendable that writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade give the Seydoux character a real backstory and a sincere reason to avoid falling into Bond’s arms immediately. But, they also can’t resist having a long scene in which she demonstrates her self-awareness by telling Bond, “hey, I’m not just going to fall into your arms immediately, pal.” The screenplay does significant legwork to establish Bond’s opponent as faceless and omnipresent, but that also means it’s a shamefully long time before Waltz enters the picture in earnest.
It’s tough not to watch this film and wonder what might have been. What if Bautista, who delivered a fine performance with seemingly no effort in Guardians of the Galaxy, received more than one line of dialogue here? What if the great Bellucci had more than five minutes of screen time? What if Naomie Harris had a character arc full enough to match her interesting introduction in Skyfall? As it is, they’re all somewhat wasted.
Still, this is a Bond film, and Craig’s Bond makes an interesting enough character that his films are always firmly on the rails. He’s the sort of Bond who will swear to kill a man and witness his death, but still close the corpse’s eyes afterward. He’s romantically scarred and emotionally damaged, and although Spectre’s attempts to explain the origins of that damage are ham-fisted, that doesn’t lessen the effort that Craig puts into playing it. If this Bond has been successful at all in putting a postmodern spin on the character, it’s because of Craig’s fine work; if this is his last film in the role, his successor shall have large shoes to fill indeed.
In many ways, Spectre can be summed up with a description of the fight scene between Craig and Bautista. It looks great — forcefully choreographed and carrying a number of visual references to the fine fight at the climax of From Russia With Love. Craig works his ass off to appear to match the man-mountain standing opposite him. But, at the same time, it’s not quite brutal or imaginative enough to compare with the best films in the series. It feels a little too much like Roger Moore, especially when it ends on a joke that seems vastly out of place with the rest of the scene. It’s well-made, but it leaves a poor aftertaste, as one realizes how much better it could have been.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. Follow him on Twitter: @mm_young