“Spectre has big exciting setpieces, further doused with wit, iconography, and the type of pedigree that only this particular series can achieve, but it’s not the plateau coming off of a recent rise.”
by Ken B.
Three years ago, Sam Mendes’ excellent Skyfall went above and beyond what is expected for a James Bond film, furthering an emotional arc over Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. Spectre, reuniting star and director, seems like an omnibus presentation, bringing back names that have been prominently featured in Craig’s previous outings, and seemingly ready-made to serve as a farewell for the actor’s interpretation of the character if he decides not to return for another Bond. However, it additionally sacrifices the potency of Skyfall, and in comparison to the questions that the prior movie raised about the characters, attempts to bite things back and strike a balance between the serious sleekness of its predecessor and the splashiness of a more comedic entry, resulting in an installment which is parts grim and over-the-top. Does it work? Sometimes.
The plot of Spectre, suitably enough, concentrates on the organization of the same name. Mysterious, obscure, but powerful and by nature evil, it’s run by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who has lived off the grid for the past few decades after he was presumed dead in a skiing accident. Bond comes in contact with Spectre during a crucial period in MI6’s history, following its merger with MI5, and the threat of closure from a governmental supervisor (Andrew Scott), who is advocating for a controversial organization which would streamline the intelligence agencies of nine of the world’s most powerful nations.
As a result, M (Ralph Fiennes) is particularly watchful of his agents and forces Q (Ben Whishaw) to implement methods to keep an eye on them, Bond especially, at all times. However, 007 is craftier than the bureaucracy which supersedes him, and is able to conduct business and travel off the record. Namely, a request to protect a therapist named Madeliene Swann (Léa Seydoux), an unofficial mission undertaken at the dying request of the woman’s father, the terminally ill fugitive Mr. White (Jasper Christensen). Traveling with Swann, Bond soon discovers that Oberhauser’s reach is further than expected, and Spectre’s end game could have devastating global consequences.
So as you may have gathered, Spectre has a remarkably packed series of storylines running throughout its 148 minutes. And if you feel like there may be too much going on to successfully juggle plot development and elaborate, lengthy action sequences correctly, you’re right. The film’s first act is compelling, with the cold open set in Mexico City, during a parade on the Day of the Dead. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, framing most of the movie in steady, stark, focused-foreground-versus-fuzzy-background visual ultimatums, features a long, unbroken shot for the first few minutes, and the sequence climaxes with a fight on a wavering, perpetually almost-crashing helicopter which literally had me gripping my armrest.
Would it be crass for me to say that the movie peaks there? I mean, the theme song that follows it, “Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith, is fine (yet nowhere near Adele’s “Skyfall”), and there are a couple of compelling sequences in the middle of the film which build to a solid finale, but for the most part, Spectre can’t live up to its promises. Some second-act subplotting involving M in London felt in the need of trimming at least, and much of the supporting cast feels wasted. Last year, when I heard that the great Christoph Waltz was cast as a Bond villain, I joined in with much of the internet’s strong excitement. However, while Waltz turns in a suitably sadistic performance as Franz Oberhauser (otherwise known by another name which, while obvious, I won’t spoil), there’s no connective drive between his objectives or his backstory, leaving a potentially extremely menacing and memorable character falling short of reaching full potential. Similarly, Monica Bellucci is on screen for all of about five minutes towards the beginning of the film. She plays what may be the first Bond Girl that is comparable to the age of the actor portraying Bond, and any draw in her character is dashed immediately.
There’s an odd straddling between too much and too little. Overstuffing on one end clashes with its underdevelopment on another, leaving the viewer with a dutifully entertaining but somewhat underwhelming experience. It won’t be looked back upon with the scornful legacy that befalls the franchise’s worst movies, but it will likely fade in comparison to the betters of its era, like Casino Royale and, yes, Skyfall. Barring any unforeseen, for-real-this-time MGM implosions, James Bond will return, either with Daniel Craig or with a new actor in the role. It’s come to be a tradition that is ingrained with near-full veracity, and there will be better ones down the road. Spectre has big exciting setpieces, further doused with wit, iconography, and the type of pedigree that only this particular series can achieve, but it’s not the plateau coming off of a recent rise.