Spectre (2015)

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth

Of note: I am a huge James Bond fan. One who has read all of Ian Fleming’s original 007 novels (though not yet any of the post-Fleming installments from Gardner, Benson, et al. – it will be curious if these works ever find their way into the series as the Fleming stories are long gone by now), and seen all of the 007 films, including the “un-official” installments like Never Say Never Again, and Casino Royale. (See my detailed thoughts as part of my James Bond marathon from a few years ago.) In any normal review I may say this is irrelevant, as with each film comes a new story and a different perspective, personalized by the baggage, experience and expectations brought to the table by each viewer. But in the case of Bond, my mind becomes a little more analytical, comparing everything to past installments. I am completely incapable of seeing Spectre in an isolated fashion, separate from past films in the series. However, based on the structure chosen by the filmmakers during the Daniel Craig era, the lack of separation between films is apparent, with 007 being a more consistent narrative from film to film than any other time in the series. In many ways, this is to Bond’s benefit.

When we last left Bond, he was defending his past at Skyfall, standing his ground against the evil former agent Silva. M (Judi Dench) was a casualty of the face-off, but the series was rejuvenated with a new M (Ralph Fiennes), a new Q (Ben Whishaw) and a new Monypenny (Naomie Harris). With his fourth film as the famed British secret agent, there is rumor Daniel Craig’s time in the series may be getting closer to its finale. That remains to be seen. In Spectre, in the wake of M’s death at Skyfall, Bond has received a personal message from her grave, urging him to kill a man named Marco Sciarra, which leads him to Mexico City and Rome, where he learns this man is a part of a larger, mysterious organization called Spectre. Led back to an old friend, Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), Bond is in hot pursuit of Spectre’s leader while trying to protect White’s estranged daughter, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), all while M is fighting a pressure at home in England, led my C (Andrew Scott), who wishes to end the 00 program and bring together the combined intelligence of 9 nations to form a potentially dangerous Global Surveillance Alliance.

By now you may realize you’re in for a longer review than I usually write. Here is your belated warning. I think I may start with the good here, and then head into the less savory elements of Spectre. First, the story. The screenwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have formed a storyline which spans multiple Bond movies and connects them closer together than any other films before. I think this is a great concept for the series, and they have even opened the door for things to continue, though that remains to be seen. The plot is classic Bond here, but where the film suffers is in its execution and believability. Bond in the past has often suspended disbelief, I get that, but my qualms here are not relevant to whether the plot against the world is believable; the screenplay just too often feels lazy, painting the well-formed characters outside the lines, resulting in a messy, unfinished outcome. For instance, each of the characters is very interesting, and the performances across the board are pretty great, especially Christiansen, Whishaw and Seydoux, but the interaction between characters often feels half-baked and under-developed, resulting in a lack of sympathy and believability when Swann and Bond fall in love (we all could have seen this coming, but I never bought their chemistry, or therefore, their budding relationship). The film is peppered with other such examples.

Another strength of the film are the action scenes, which have becomes a Bond staple. Whether it be the car chase through Rome, the thrilling sequence in the Austrian Alps, or the ticking time bomb finale, the action set pieces here are good, and enough to entertain even the most passionate Bond fan. I would not say, however, that any of these are truly memorable moments in the franchise, but they are entertaining nonetheless. That seems to be the case with much of Spectre in fact: very good, but not memorable or among the best in the franchise. With Skyfall, the last installment, the team made an effort to pay homage to the past 50 years of Bond, including elements which were reminiscent of some of the best of Bond, but it put its own original spin on things, developing a story of its own. With Spectre, I was surprised to see the filmmakers do the same thing. As a Bond super-fan, I was able to spot perhaps even more references here than in Skyfall, the film that was meant to recall the 50 years of Bond’s past. With Spectre, this becomes a crutch of the movie, overplaying things like story or character (we hardly get to spend time with the film’s primary villain (Christoph Waltz)). Spectre, ultimately may have benefited from more focused direction and editing, instead of sprawling about in meta fashion for the sake of being a Bond film.

To this point in the Craig era of Bond, much of what has worked for the series now seems to be becoming too much of a good thing. Connecting together all these movies is a great idea, and has worked quite well, but with Spectre I started to feel less enthusiastic about it, yearning for an installment that can stand on its own and has Bond battling against someone new and different. Some of this may come from the fairly mediocre execution of Spectre. I am sure the success of the influential Dark Knight Trilogy has contributed to both the connectivity of the latest Bond films as well as their darkness, but the time in the franchise has come to branch out and create its own path in the world of serial action films. And with this film, there seems to be an effort to bring back the fun Bond, with more quips and zany villains/plots, but the mix with the darkness of the film creates an imbalanced tone which never evens out.

The biggest problem I am starting to have with the franchise is its treatment of the character of James Bond. For the entirety of the series he has been a mysterious man whose motives are unknown. We know him as a good guy, as someone who clearly has a past, but one which has pushed him to at least fight for the good guys, as troubling as his alcohol, womanizing and dangerous talents may be. This mystery has helped fuel the mystique of Bond, the sexiness that attracts males and females alike. With Skyfall, we are let into his past just a little bit, learning about his childhood. Spectre continues this trend, threatening to reveal much too much about Bond the man, stripping away much of his mystery and mystique. This should stop not only because it is starting to strip the character down too far, but also because they don’t do a particularly good job of it in Spectre.

Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig have breathed new life into the franchise after Pierce Brosnan left it on a pretty sour note with Die Another Day. There is new enthusiasm for the character and for each subsequent release, but with Spectre, I am wondering whether the time is getting closer for another new regime in the franchise, to give it another freshen up. The opportunity exists for the filmmakers and producers to continue down the current path, and I believe to course correct, bringing the current storyline new excitement and perhaps an eventual conclusion or new start, but they also left the ending open enough to go any direction they choose. Spectre is ultimately a mediocre film through and through, never delivering truly cringe-worthy Bond moments, but also adding none too significant to the catalog. Even Sam Smith’s “The Writings on the Wall” wasn’t great, despite Sam Smith seemingly being a great choice to perform the theme song. That being said, I am still a huge fan of what this series does cinematically, and will be anxiously awaiting the announcement of the next film, the next cast, the next Bond theme song and the direction which Bond will take in the future.

**1/2 – Average

 

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