by Paul Deines
The high-water mark of director Sam Mendes’ second 007 film comes before the opening titles. It’s the Day of the Dead, and James Bond is in Mexico City. In a sweeping unbroken take, we follow him from the street to a hotel, into an elevator with a lovely companion, then out the window onto a rooftop. He’s taking a sniper’s position. Soon buildings are exploding. Bond is chasing the baddie through the streets and into a somersaulting helicopter. This is a good old-fashioned James Bond cold open.
It energizes us for Spectre, the 24th and longest film in the franchise. And though it never flies as high as it does in Mexico, its first 90 minutes are magical. Then the filmmakers start leaning on those two most tiresome of modern action film tropes: post-9/11 surveillance fears and childhood trauma.
But let’s focus on what works, first.
I’m a sucker for the classic formula, and Mendes – along with (so many) writers Jez Butterworth, John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – take steps to incorporate classic elements of the series. Some are superficial: opening with the gun-barrel sequence for the first time in over a decade and reintroducing M’s oak-lined office. More importantly, Bond seems to be having fun. In Q Branch’s workshop, he fiddles with new gadgets while Q (Ben Whishaw) gives him grief. Yes! There are actually gadgets, most excitingly the new Aston Martin. It’s tricked out with defensive features; they’re familiar but judiciously deployed during a fun chase in Rome.
Spectre’s other great action sequence is a great barefist brawl on a train. This type of fight is a staple of the series – often staged (as it is here) without scoring – and this one is a rip-snorter, combining fleet choreography with a downright hilarious level of destruction. That fight is with Mr. Hinx, played with hulking swagger by Dave Bautista. Hinx is a fun addition, a silent henchman that’s cobbled together from the best parts of Red Grant and Jaws. He provides a dose of fun super-humanity missing from the Craig pictures.
On the same note, Ralph Fiennes’ M definitely recalls a lither Bernard Lee, and Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny brings back the saucy banter. And whereas Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld leaves a lot to be desired (more on that later) he at least has a genuine lair, not the grim urban sets of many recent villains.
And Daniel Craig is the steady center of the whole thing. It appears he has found the hero-human balance. This time, his Bond gallivants from Mexico City to Morocco like Sean Connery, ogling sports cars and ladies. He’s serious about his mission, but never dour. Craig’s ownership of this role has been one of the great confluences of actor and material in recent film history. To watch Craig as 007 is to feel that Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan were all caretaking in anticipation of a true successor to Connery.
It’s a testament to the strength of Daniel Craig’s performance that his 007 remains psychologically coherent even as the tone of Spectre careens from adventurism to a Bourne-ish self-seriousness in the final act.
He’s forced to play off one of the most disappointing villain turns in the series. Christoph Waltz is a fine actor, and perhaps he will redeem his performance as the archetypical but long-absent Ernst Stavro Blofeld if he is given another shot. But this entry is a dud. It doesn’t help that the writers have shoehorned a shared tragedy that unites him with Bond. Or that he prattles like a sulky college freshman. Left with little to latch onto, Waltz only manages an approximation of what we expect his performance to look like: clipped consonants and weary smirks.
Lea Seydoux is saddled with the same issues. She is the daughter of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the Blofeld surrogate of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. White is revived here as a repentant paranoiac, mostly disconnected from his previous manifestation. Sedoux is not bad, though. She embodies the flinty reserve of a woman who has spent her life with secretive, dangerous men. She and Craig have two fine scenes together where this standoffishness transforms: first into contempt, then attraction. Yet, her heroine is introduced too late in the game, and the writers seem uncertain of her place in the portentous third act. So, it’s problematic when, seemingly out of nowhere, she and Bond start professing love to each other.
But that’s emblematic of a larger conundrum.
See, today’s James Bond is supposed to be a real character with a backstory and an interior life. His dialogue has subtext, and his objectives extend beyond the mission at hand. This runs in contrast to the traditional 007. There with little to no concern for why Connery wanted to thwart Goldfinger or why Moore pursued Hugo Drax into space. It was all Queen and country. Daniel Craig’s Bond, on the other hand, is trying to heal his broken soul with each mission. Each adventure is a journey into self. In Quantum of Solace, this journey was morose. In Skyfall, it was thrilling.
In Spectre, the gambit is perplexing. Blofeld cannot simply want to conquer the world. No, he must also despise Bond on a psychological level. It’s not enough that he wants to create an international surveillance program that enables him to observe law-enforcement services worldwide; he must also arrange a diabolical mousetrap for Bond.
Yet the true sin of Spectre is not the ham-handedness of its final act: it is the desperate attempt to serialize the preceding three films. The script insists that the whole Quantum organization and Silva (Javier Bardem’s epically unhinged villain in Skyfall) were working in concert for SPECTRE to destroy James Bond. The oddness of this idea diminishes the previous films. After all, Le Chiffre was a financier of terror whose sole concern was cash. Silva was a psychotic with a vendetta against Judi Dench’s M. If Blofeld was commanding these men against 007, he didn’t get his money’s worth.
But perhaps pleasing Bond fans is an impossible task. We were tired of goofiness after Die Another Day, so the producers went grittier with Casino Royale. Then they went too dark with Quantum of Solace. So, they amped up the spectacle and grace with Skyfall. But in Spectre, the essential issue is that Mendes and company found the parts but not the sum. They have the beautiful cinematography, the thrilling stunts, the game cast – but they couldn’t find a purpose in 150 minutes. It’s too bad, for because we’re left with something good-looking but brainless. It asks us to believe a man who only knew Bond for a couple years would form a criminal enterprise to destroy him. That Bond would fall head-over-heels for a woman he shares about ten minutes of screen-time with.
Hell, we’re asked to believe 007 would go to the Alps, and not even clip on a pair of skis.