SPECTRE Review: Bond Betrayed

The new Bond series has hit its nadir.

Spectre isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a betrayal of everything the Bond franchise has accomplished since the series was rebooted in 2006 with Casino Royale. It’s a bewildering mess of a story laced with shitty cliches - the film ends with not one but TWO digital timer countdowns! - and riddled with crummy editing that reduces action scenes to tedium. It’s not funny but it is also not serious and, along the way, it diminishes James Bond and ruins one of his great villains.

This review will contain spoilers about the villain.

With Skyfall completing the table setting for this new Daniel Craig Bond franchise, Spectre should have been a straight out the gate adventure that dove us deep back into the kind of story that defined the character for decades. Instead this film is yet more table setting, an uninspired and lazy attempt to connect the previous three films under the banner of a super secret evil organization that is poorly defined and spectacularly uninteresting. One part Star Trek Into Darkness rehash, one part Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation rehash, one part artless cash-in on Edward Snowden, Spectre sluggishly (and often illogically) trudges from location to location, occasionally stopping to have a poorly edited action sequence and/or have Bond fuck somebody.

Acting on the last wishes of the previous M, Bond has gone rogue in tracking down an international assassin. Meanwhile, changes in the structure of British intelligence sees the new M dealing with the possible shutdown of his Double Oh program, to be replaced by a massive digital information collection system being run by a dude who is so squirrelly he’s quite clearly a bad guy. As Bond tracks this assassin he becomes aware that the man served an overarching evil group, and then a bunch of action scenes happen and at the end of the movie a building blows up.

Spectre operates on rails; characters make logical leaps that astound me (Bond discovers the hierarchy of SPECTRE by letting Q analyze a SPECTRE membership ring and somehow the group’s org chart is encoded in the DNA of the last wearer. What the hell?) and they just walk into scenes that seem to have little connective tissue to the last sequence. The plot itself is a watered down parody of a Bond plot, one where the villain knows everything Bond is doing and, for Bond villain reasons, helps our hero get to his secret hideout at the end. The bad guy even monologues for a bit, the kind of thing that Alan Moore and Dr. Evil made utterly declasse.

There is no sense of discovery or excitement underpinning Spectre, and it’s one of those movies where the film withholds information from the audience for no good reason. When 007 infiltrates a SPECTRE meeting he comes face to face with the group’s leader, who looks at him and says “CUCKOO!!” and then we spend the next 90 minutes unsure what the point of that was. Bond knows, the bad guy knows, the movie just opts to not tell us.

Let’s get this out of the way: that bad guy is Blofeld, the classic archnemesis of James Bond. Except he’s actually Franz Oberhauser, whose dad raised Bond after our hero’s parents died in a climbing accident. Young Franz hated having this cooler kid around (the cuckoo refers to the way cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests) and so he killed his dad, faked his own death and became Blofeld. There’s a part where Blofeld tells Bond his new name and it has exactly the weight of Khan announcing himself in Star Trek Into Darkness - nobody onscreen has any connection to the name, so they don’t care, and for the audience it’s nothing more than a nostalgic callback. It's made doubly pointlessly nostalgic by the presence of a cat, who shows up only for this scene.

Blofeld being Bond’s foster brother is pointless as the two characters share very little screen time. Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld, and in grand ‘Christoph Waltz when he’s not in a Quentin Tarantino film’ tradition he is utterly wasted and sort of terrible. You get what Waltz is trying to do, and you know what the movie wants him to do, but the script simply doesn’t give him the material with which to work. The movie tries to update the standard Bond death trap stuff (Blofeld ties him to the world’s worst acupuncture chair) but the speech Waltz must deliver is uninspired, and so the soothing delivery that makes him menacing in films like Inglorious Basterds or totally awesome in Django Unchained just makes him sound like a particularly boring dentist.

It’s baffling to me that the film would do so little with the character of Blofeld and even less with his new relationship to Bond. By keeping Blofeld’s identity a secret the film denies Bond any real emotional fallout from the revelation - he sees Oberhauser, he gets chased out of the SPECTRE meeting and he asks Moneypenny to look into whether or not the guy really died. There’s no oomph to it, no sense that this is a betrayal or that the return of Oberhauser impacts Bond in any way at all.

The script - a really dismal piece of work credited to John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth - tries to lend Blofeld importance by having him be the guy behind all the villains from the last three films. The movie accomplishes this by having Blofeld say he’s the guy behind all the villains from the last three films, which is not only dramatically unsatisfying but also logically implausible. There’s no moment where Blofeld pulls the pieces together and explains the grand plan, the big scheme, the reason for any of these disparate foes coming at Bond at any given time - he just asserts that it was him all along and then moves on to another monologue.

Worst of all, this revelation is treated with a shrug by both Bond and the audience. It comes so late in the picture that you’d have to be brain dead to have not figured out what’s happening, and this foregone conclusion makes the big moment in Blofeld’s secret base have an airless, pointless quality. Here’s the part of the film where we explain everything, and then blow something up after a really, really boring shoot out, the movie says.

Spectre gets back to more of the classical Bond stuff, but maybe that’s a bad thing. Blofeld’s desert base - shades of Quantum of Solace - is fine but the sequence where Bond kills Monica Bellucci’s husband, goes to his funeral, talks to her there and then goes back to her place and fucks her is mind-bogglingly retrograde AND dumb. Nobody in these scenes is acting like a human being or even an archetype, they’re like robots with shit wiring. The sad part is that Craig and Bellucci make a great couple, but their time together is short and pointless.

This same problem crops up later in the relationship between Bond and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. The two of them team up to find SPECTRE for reasons far too boring to get into here, but the big surprise of it all comes at the end of the movie when we learn that the chemistry-free relationship between these two has been a love story! Setting aside the lack of sparks between Seydoux and Craig, the script gives the duo no sequences that even begin to sketch the arc of a relationship.

The misbegotten script, sick with cliches and plot gaps, wouldn’t matter if the action were up to the modern standard, but that just isn’t the case. There are some good action sequences, but many of them are bizarrely slack; a sequence with a helicopter doing flips over a Day of the Dead crowd in Mexico City is almost bizarrely humdrum. There’s a bit where Bond has crashed the wings off a plane and is careening down the side of a ski slope towards a thick copse of trees that has all the tension and excitement of waiting for a bus. Again and again the action scenes deflate, and many have issues of slight geographic incoherence that keeps them from really popping.

One action sequence that works is a fight between Bond and Hinx, a SPECTRE assassin played by Dave Bautista. Hinx, with his silver guitar pick thumb nails, is without a doubt the best thing in this movie, and he is in the two best action sequences. One is a fancy sports car chase in Rome and the other is the aforementioned fight, a brutal brawl on a train. Bautista brings all of his wrestling menace and physicality to the role, and he’s a pretty classic henchmen type villain. He is, actually, a better villain than Blofeld because I actually know what Hinx wants to achieve while Blofeld’s plot is amorphous.

Spectre isn’t just dumb and filled with bad action, it’s also unconscionably long, and the climax at Blofeld’s base is followed by another climax or two that feel like they belong in the Pierce Brosnan era of Bond. The climaxes themselves aren’t bad (and the film’s ending isn’t bad, just totally unearned and one that hinges on Bond having a crisis of conscience he has never exhibited before) but they’re set up and shot like scenes from a 90s movie. Maybe that’s the kind of nostalgia we have now.

The ending of Skyfall promised a new Bond that hit the pulp highs of Sean Connery’s reign, but Spectre does not deliver on that. It’s a mid-90s Bond movie without much style or fun or weird scifi. Director Sam Mendes is drowning under the weight of a bad script and a film that has almost no central story but that drags along for two and a half hours anyway. This movie feels like it’s trying to cram in a lot of Bond signifiers, but it’s only able to grasp the cliches - the very cliches that Casino Royale killed. This was supposed to be a different Bond, one more suited to the modern era, but Spectre has turned its back on that Bond. All of the character depth given to the character in previous films has been reduced to - I shit you not - Bond looking at photocopied pictures of the faces of people he killed/saw die in previous films.

Is this the end of the new Bond franchise? Daniel Craig has one more movie on his contract, but I am no longer particularly excited to see what happens with the character next. The film ends on a note that could rehabilitate the franchise - there’s yet hope - but Spectre feels like Star Trek Into Darkness in that it’s a film that puts a stake through the heart of my interest. All of the goodwill that has been built up has vanished, something even the dismal Quantum of Solace couldn’t accomplish. The next Bond film - and there will be another - needs to course correct something fierce, needs to find a muscular story that has twists and turns, needs to remind Daniel Craig that he can be charming once in a while, needs to find a decent editor. It also needs to leave the hentai tentacle porn out of the opening credits, or otherwise work actual tentacle porn into the movie itself. One or the other.