WRITTEN REVIEW – Spectre (2015)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: John Logan, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade & Jaz Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris & Ralph Fiennes
Music: Thomas Newman
Release Date: October 26th 2015
How do you follow what could potentially be the best James Bond movie ever made?
In 2012, while the 23rd James Bond Movie on the franchises’ 50th anniversary ‘Skyfall‘, was expected to be a success, no one expected it to be nearly as big as it turned out to be. The first Bond movie to make a billion dollars at the Worldwide Box-Office, Oscar-expectations (5 Nominations and 2 Wins for “Best Original Song” and “Best Sound Editing”), the most successful British film of all time and met with immense critical and audience acclaim. Director Sam Mendes, director of ‘American Beauty‘ and ‘Road to Perdition‘, had elevated the franchise to new heights.
But rather than be content, Mendes is back to try and catch that lightning in a bottle for a second time in a row. In what could be the last Bond movie for Daniel Craig, ‘Spectre‘ seeks to complete the reinvention of the Ian Fleming character that has been three previous films in the making. But are films like ‘Casino Royale‘ and ‘Skyfall‘ too high of a bar to reach (what’s ‘Quantum of Solace‘? Never heard of it) or has the creative team assembled by Eon Productions done the impossible for Bond 24?
After MI6 Agent 007, a.k.a. James Bond (Craig) completes a secret, unauthorised mission in Mexico, he is suspended from the 00-programme by the newly appointed M (Fiennes) who is under increased scrutiny from the new head of MI5, C (Scott) who is overseeing a merger between the two undercover organisations. C wants to unite all of the nations of the world to increase civilian surveillance to protect the public and considers the 00-programme to be obsolete. Despite this, Bond begins to follow a lead that takes him to the doorstep of a shadowy organisation called SPECTRE and with the help of Moneypenny (Harris) and Q (Whishaw), he must protect the daughter or Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, reprising his role from ‘Casino Royale‘ and ‘Quantum of Solace‘), Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) who can lead them right to the leader of SPECTRE, Franz Oberhauser (Waltz).
It’s safe to say that ‘Spectre‘ is easily the most ambitious James Bond movie to date. While the franchise has had a propensity towards globe-hopping stories, with ‘Spectre‘ it feels like the characters are moving to a different continent every 15 minutes. It’s also the most narratively ambitious as well and not just because of its 148 minute runtime (the longest Bond movie) and lots of characters who are being juggled around the plot-thread of the discovery of the SPECTRE organisation. The creative heft of four screenwriters makes the epic story easy to understand and follow with plenty of room for the characters to breath and establish interesting relationships with each other.
What has made the past few Bond films so successful and has caused the revitalisation of the franchise (‘Quantum of Solace‘ aside) is its emphasis on character and themes, which definitely took a back-burner during the first 30-40 years of the series. That’s not to say the older James Bond movies are bad or insubstantial, it’s just that the franchise was always more interested in sleek cars, gorgeous women, inventive gadgets, exotic locations and the most that passed for character development was excessive innuendo. Since ‘Casino Royale‘ rebooted the Bond series in 2006, character/theme has been the priority in this iteration and ‘Spectre‘ is the culmination of all of the plot-threads and concepts from the Daniel Craig era.
With callbacks to Le Chiffre and Vesper from ‘Casino Royale‘, Mr. White from ‘Quantum of Solace‘ and Raoul Silva and the fate of M from ‘Skyfall‘, even if it wasn’t initially intended to, it feels like everything that has happened previously in this era of Bond films has all been leading to ‘Spectre‘. ‘Spectre‘ doesn’t just feel like another Bond movie. It feels like a conclusion to a decade-long saga with the potential to go in new directions that embraces the older Bond style, but brings in the depth and the topical feel of recent instalments.
In terms of Bond hallmarks, we definitely get gorgeous cars, classic Bond girls, elaborate villains, exotic locations and a sense of style, but the gadgets definitely take a backseat. In fact, the only real Bond-style gadget we see are flames coming out of the back of Bond’s new Aston Martin DB10. Apart from the lack of gadgets, everything you’ve come to expect from Bond is here including a smart, quipping, capable lead hero who is great with a gun. Daniel Craig has cemented himself as one of the best Bonds ever and he is a fierce dramatic presence on screen. Obviously he looks like the type of person who can handle himself out in the field and he’s also a brilliant actor, able to dig deep beneath a character who was previously mostly surface, but in one sequence where he confronts widow Lucia Sciarra played by Monica Bellucci he exudes an almost overpowering sexual presence. Especially when you take into account the fact that James Bond killed her husband.
It’s a superb performance and there’s not much else to say about Craig’s Bond that hasn’t already been said over the past decade. If this is his last performance as 007, it’s one helluva performance to go out on.
One of the few improvements over ‘Skyfall‘ from ‘Spectre‘ is that it feels much more like an ensemble film. Normally, Bond movies are a three-way show between Bond, the Bond-girl and the Bond-villain. But here, every cast member feels essential, even though Bond is in almost every scene. While Naomie Harris doesn’t get as much to do as Moneypenny as she really should, Ben Whishaw’s Q continues to be a revelation and the unsung deadpan hero of this series, Ralph Fiennes gives the expected gravitas to M and fits well into Judi Dench’s large shoes and Rory Kinnear is always great to see in movies and fits into MI6 very well. All of these characters, even if their screen-time pales in comparison to the lead characters, feel essential to Bond’s mission, particularly towards the end. Once again, it all ties into ‘Spectre‘ being a much more ambitious movie.
Joining the cast…it’s tough to talk about them without getting into spoilers, but let’s just say that the moment Andrew Scott’s character, C turns up you know you’re not gonna like him. But he has interesting motives and he works because what he’s saying actually makes quite a bit of sense. There are good reasons for him to want to push for more government surveillance, especially in an uneasy world. His presence in the story also gives ‘Spectre‘ two divergent plots to break up the action. Instead of the movie just being Bond out in the field trying to take down SPECTRE, those scenes are broken up by C and M butting heads back in London trying to find the right approach for the future of MI5 and MI6. This is where Ralph Fiennes really comes into his own as M and steps up to the mark as a more-than-adequate replacement.
Other newcomers include Dave Bautista as the muscled henchman Mr. Hinx and…bloody ‘ell is he a physical force of nature. From his introduction to his final scene, you know that this is a guy who can put Bond in his place. One of the downsides of casting the physically larger Daniel Craig is that you also need a villain who can physically match Bond when neither of them have a weapon and Bautista meets those requirements and then-some.
And Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser is amazing, as is to be expected but…he is exactly what you expect when you hear “Christoph Waltz as a Bond Villain”. Character-wise, Oberhauser feels like a downgrade from Raoul Silva even though Waltz’ performance does impress. Once again, lack-of-spoilers makes him a hard character to talk about but I will say that while the writers attempt to make him a very personal villain to Bond…it kinda does fall flat. The Bond/Oberhauser relationship feels under-developed and simply doesn’t hit the mark it’s clearly aiming for. Once again, not to discredit Waltz who perfectly meets expectations, even if he doesn’t excel them because the script doesn’t allow him to.
Another aspect of ‘Spectre‘ that does disappoint is the role of the new Bond Girl, Madeleine Swann played by Lea Seydoux. Once again, this is nothing to do with the great performance and she perfectly slots into what is expected of this type of role. She has great interplay with Bond, looks amazing in the elaborate clothing and she goes get a great arc about whether or not she wants to be involved with the poisoned legacy of her father. It’s just how far her relationship with Bond goes in the 3rd act. Once again, without spoilers, it feels like a betrayal of what has been set-up and established about the character over the past decade, especially with what happened with Eva Green’s Vesper in ‘Casino Royale‘.
It wouldn’t be so bad if ‘Spectre‘ distanced itself from prior franchise entries, but because Vesper’s legacy plays a big part in the plot of ‘Spectre‘, it feels like a misjudged decision in regards to Bond’s character and how he should respond. It also doesn’t help that a character who has been mostly capable 90% of the time she’s been on-screen is relegated to a final “damsel in distress” obstacle that, once again, the Bond franchise has been trying to subvert for the past decade.
Now, the following paragraph may rub people up the wrong way but it’s how I feel. I think ‘Skyfall‘ is the best James Bond movie ever made. I think that with the same creative team returning for the follow-up that comparisons are fair. As a result, ‘Spectre‘ does suffer a bit from being in ‘Skyfall‘s shadow. While it does have a larger scope, a bigger emphasis on the ensemble cast, it’s a much funnier movie and the production values are just as strong, if not better, ‘Spectre‘ does come across as a slight downgrade in many regards. The villain isn’t as strong and it lacks the personal edge that ‘Skyfall‘ had (especially since ‘Spectre‘ is continuing this “Bond has a secret, dark past” angle that is really starting to feel played out four films in), the themes and cultural commentary felt more focused in ‘Skyfall‘ but that’s probably because they felt fresher then as ‘Spectre‘ basically has the exact same thing to say about the world that ‘Skyfall’ did, it just talks about it more overtly. The action set-pieces are a LOT more dynamic and tense in ‘Skyfall‘, same goes for the music (though Thomas Newman does return) and while ‘Spectre‘ is an effective and brilliant whole, I feel like in 3-4 years time, people will struggle to remember stand-alone moments from ‘Spectre‘ whereas there are shots, lines or sequences from ‘Skyfall‘ that are still being talked about and dissected today.
Is it unfair to compare ‘Spectre‘ to what could be considered to be an action movie masterpiece? Maybe. But that’s the reality of the situation when you have the same creative team making a follow-up/continuation. But the fact that ‘Spectre‘ is still as good as it is in the face of that is a testament to its standalone quality.
While ‘Spectre‘ feels like a character downgrade in certain respects, you cannot fault the ambition of the production. I think this could not only be the biggest movie of 2015 in terms of production values, but this is probably the biggest movie in U.K. history. The globe-hopping nature of the story, the crowds filled with hundreds of extras, the scale of the vehicle chase sequences, the elaborate designs of the glamorous sets, the gorgeous costumes, the great make-up effects (particularly towards the end), ‘Spectre‘ is a superb feast for the eyes. The opening shot alone, which is a 4 and a half minute shot (according to Sam Mendes) of Bond and a female companion making their way through Mexico during a “Day of the Dead” festival is one of those sequences where just thinking about the logistics, the planning, the paperwork and the co-ordination makes my head spin.
God, so much paperwork…
While the action does take a back-seat in comparison to ‘Skyfall‘ and nothing quite tops the opening train chase, the chase through the underground or the climax at Skyfall, the action in ‘Spectre‘ is still brilliantly done. A mountain-side chase has to be seen to be believed, a hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Hinx had me on the edge of my seat and there’s a lot of comedy to be found in a car chase through the streets of Rome. Thomas Newman once again does terrific Bond music and the entire movie’s production is just incredible in its scope and execution. Even if ‘Spectre‘ flopped narratively or wasn’t remotely interesting on a character level, its impeccable, world-class production values would still make it an enthralling experience, though it globe-hops so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if the first draft of the script was named “James Bond: The Search for Plentiful Global Tax-Breaks”. These movies aren’t cheap y’know, and every dollar is up on screen.
And y’know what, while Sam Smith’s song isn’t that compelling a listen on its own, the requisite opening music sequence fits very well in context. It’s not quite Adele’s “Skyfall”, but then again nothing is Adele’s “Skyfall.
That kinda sums up ‘Spectre‘ come to think about it. It’s not quite ‘Skyfall‘ because hardly anything has come to match or top ‘Skyfall‘ since 2012. Call it the curse of inflated expectations. But the hallmarks of Bond are on full display in a wonderful, sexy, cinematic package that reeks of effort and affection for the classic-era of the franchise, but also with the foreknowledge and understanding that this franchise now needs to undergo another evolution. If this is the final Daniel Craig Bond movie, it’s a worthy conclusion to this interpretation’s arc that has spanned three, incredible action masterpieces (Quantum of What?). The villain and Bond-girl may underwhelm from a story department, but they do pale in comparison to what is easily the biggest movie of 2015 in terms of scale and ambition and pure thrills.
2015 has been a superb year for British film. ‘The Theory of Everything‘, ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie‘, ‘Ex Machina‘, ‘Bill‘, ‘Everest‘, ‘Legend‘, ‘Suffragette‘ ‘Macbeth‘, ‘Mr. Holmes‘, ‘Amy‘, ‘The Program‘, ‘Man Up‘, ‘London Road‘ and more. But ‘Spectre‘ is the collective might of the U.K. film industry delivering the ultimate mic-drop to the rest of the world.
I give ‘Spectre‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 28th Oct 15