Spectre is the 24th James Bond film, 52 years into a franchise that has defined and redefined espionage thrillers, showing absolutely no signs of stopping both financially and creatively after Skyfall’s overwhelming success in 2012. Sure Daniel Craig’s iteration of Bond has given us some dull moments (see Quantum of Solace), but the 47 year old English actor has the character down pat when it comes to portraying the most famous fictional agent of all time; Casino Royale still stands as one of the best of the series to date, and that was Craig’s first role as 007. Though withered he may be off-screen, stating that he’d rather slash his writs then reprise his role as Bond, Craig is in his element when in character, and that’s still very much evident in what may be his last hurrah, working alongside Director Sam Mendes to bring to life all the expected thrills we’ve come to associate with James Bond.
Mendes is confident and willing to switch things up to further his name in the James Bond franchise. This is perfectly demonstrated in Spectre’s opening sequence, which starts the movie off in a stronger position than even Casino Royale. There is one big tracking shot employed here, weaving into Mexico City and a colourful Day of the Dead parade before focusing in on a masked 007, fluidly stalking him while he woos an unnamed woman in an attempt to get out on a ledge and assassinate a target from a nearby balcony. It’s not a breathtaking scene by the standard of action films today, but the beauty is in Mendes’ technical proficiency, steadily lifting the action and building it to a spectacular, though ridiculous, helicopter fight scene that has all the trimmings of a classic Bond opening multiplied by 10. This is said to be Mendes’ last time working on a Bond film, and if that is so, then he has at least left us with one of the series’ best, and most exaggerated, pre-title sequences; he’s even brought back the iconic graphic of a masked gentlemen shooting down a gun barrel, rather than place it at the end.
It’s a little shakier from there though. After the rather confusing titles (complete with Sam Smith’s disaster of a theme) we get into the plot, starting with the reason why Bond was in Mexico City, something that doesn’t sit well with Ralph Fiennes’ M. As it turns out, the former M (Judi Dench [oh how I miss her]) gave 007 one last mission before she was killed in Skyfall, putting him onto the trail that leads to a global crime syndicate, eventually bringing back a classic Bond villain, this time around played by Christoph Waltz.
You would expect Waltz to be perfect for the big bad, and he is. However, the film underutilises him, and the actual time we get to spend with Waltz is kept disappointingly minimal; the more exciting scenes he shares with Craig are few and far between. Instead, there’s much more in Oddjob-esque Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) who plays as the second biggest antagonist of the film and unsurprisingly ends up slinking into a sizable role in the more action-driven sequences, including the very From Russia With Love train fight which stands as one of Spectre’s bigger moments.
Nostalgia plays into Spectre more so than previous Bonds, with Mendes paying homage to past films with iconic imagery and sly references, though there comes a point when it feels like nostalgia was prioritised over plot, with some shots and bits of dialogue appearing convoluted and unnecessary. It all adds to the fun of watching a James Bond film, but pulls Spectre back and, in the world of Daniel Craig as 007, behind Skyfall and Casino Royale (it’s still much, much better than Quantum of Solace though).
Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny stepped into a more generous role in Skyfall, but Spectre has her playing things back a bit, allowing Ben Whishaw as scene-stealing Q and Fiennes’ M to come up and add more substantial parts to the film’s progression. Having the franchise’s more memorable characters form a team rather than make it all about Bond does prove to be a good choice, fleshing each out a bit more and sticking with the subtle shades of realism that have defined this era of Bond.
Though this M has a more hands-on approach to action, he is mainly stuck playing political ping-pong with the younger C (Andrew Scott) an appropriately arrogant ponce who wants to err M16 towards a more sinister form of global surveillance and reorganise British intelligence as it is. The rivalry is exciting for awhile until you realise that Fiennes and Scott share an on-screen chemistry that is closer to zero, both given thin dialogue that loses what potential the conflict could have brought to Spectre.
In terms of other characters integral to the plot, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) pops up as Spectre’s “Bond Girl”, edging out her predecessors with a bit more agency than is usually given to a Bond film’s leading lady. Although even her character falls back into a mold once she’s left behind for the sake of James Bond’s cockiness.
“I am the author of all your pain”, stats Waltz’s character, capturing the film’s attempts to tie Spectre into the other three Daniel Craig films and try to at least deliver a more fully formed picture. It’s an admirable attempt of course but, not unlike it’s obsession with nostalgia, Spectre seems held back by it’s dedication balanced with time constraints, telling us things are connected without actually having the space to connect them in a believable way.
Overall, Spectre is not as dramatic or emotionally involving as Skyfall, coating itself with a different, more playful mood before sinking back down into seriousness and then getting lost somewhere in between. It’s a fun watch, especially with all the references, and Craig still has that withered, rough take on Bond that has him as a more believable spin on the classic agent, but an inconsistent plot and numerous missed opportunities see Spectre become less and less engaging as it heads towards the credits.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 148 minutes
Spectre is screening in Australian cinemas as of 12th November 2015