SPECTRE Review: James Bond Goes Fourth

Daniel Craig’s quaternary outing as 007 maintains the franchise tradition of being an overstuffed, mixed bag.

This review contains spoilers.

When Sean Connery’s third 007 adventure Goldfinger turned out to be the box office champion of 1964, the producers of the James Bond franchise aimed to go even bigger with Thunderball. The story was a mostly faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel, but the filmmakers threw a lot of bells and whistles into the mix (killer sharks, a jet pack) to make sure folks knew that Thunderball was a bigger deal than its predecessor. The result was an overlong epic that made a bundle, but slowed to a dog paddle during its many interminable underwater sequences.

When Roger Moore’s tertiary at-bat, The Spy Who Loved Me, course-corrected the then-troubled franchise and finally cemented Moore as a worthy successor to the role, Eon Productions again doubled down and made the massive Moonraker. Moonraker gets a lot of flack for its third act set in outer space, but that film’s problems start with an immensely overloaded narrative filled with aimless globetrotting and two hours of franchise box-ticking (here’s an aerial stunt, here’s a boat chase, here’s the death of a Bond girl, here are the gadgets) before we ever even get to the laser guns.

A shitty pattern was forming, and though no one can claim 1999’s The World Is Not Enough was any kind of triumph for the franchise, the producers nonetheless went the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink route once again for Pierce Brosnan’s fourth go-round, and Die Another Day drove an invisible Aston Martin up its own ass in a misguided attempt to celebrate the franchise by stuffing as many callbacks into it as possible.

Tradition, trend or curse, each 007 actor’s fourth entry has been a bloated, sometimes wrongheaded collection of “greatest hits” Bond moments, and it is with great regret we must report the phenomenon is alive and unwell in SPECTRE. Like roughly half the Bond movies, the 24th 007 film is full of individual moments which will, in time, become iconic. But they are too often mired in an overly self-aware, plodding plot with an ill-fitting priority on serialized continuity. While fans of the series will manage to find some stock pleasures in here, the film’s misses are too lamentable to ignore.

The film starts as 007 (Daniel Craig) shoots us right in the gunbarrel, as God intended. And there was much rejoicing. We’re then treated to a sequence that begins as one unbroken take, living somewhere between Touch Of Evil and I Am Cuba in its audacity. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera glides over and then down Mexico City’s streets, alive with a Day of the Dead parade. Without cutting, we land on Bond and follow him through a hotel lobby, into and out of an elevator, inside a hotel suite, and finally out to the rooftops and toward 007’s quarry. It’s a legitimately spectacular opening salvo, a giddily pointless, “cool for its own sake” moment by a franchise that has never been above such displays. But it also throws into sharp relief the jarring, disorienting editing that mars the rest of the pre-title sequence and, as we’ll soon discover, much of the rest of the film.

After the title sequence - a hentai nightmare in which a shirtless 007 has flashbacks while being molested by ink-jizzing octopi, naked women, and various hybridized combinations of the two - we’re back in London, in the old school office of the new M (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes does Bernard Lee proud, dressing down Bond over his extracurricular exploding across the pond, and grounds him. Bond later confides in Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he was in Mexico following a lead left to him by the late M (Judi Dench, in an unremarkable Quicktime cameo). M has posthumously instructed 007 to find and kill a man named Sciarra in the event of her death, and to attend Sciarra’s funeral afterward. Why? “She wasn’t going to let death get in the way of doing her job” is the only answer we’re given. Okay, but why?? It’s a perfunctory, convenient lead, but we’re never given any reason as to why M would (cryptically, at least) send 007 after this particular individual.

After being tagged with “smart blood” by Q (Ben Whishaw) for global tracking purposes, Bond immediately steals 009’s new Aston Martin DB10 and hits the rogue road, pursuing a shadowy organization from Rome to Austria to Tangier to the Moroccan desert, where the head of SPECTRE (Christoph Waltz) awaits him. Along the way he collects 007 moments like Pokemon cards: Bond beds the widow Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) moments after meeting her and then never sees her again; Bond encounters a formidable, iconic henchman (Dave Bautista), with whom he has a Q-branch-amplified car chase through the streets of Rome; Bond meets his smart, no-nonsense match (Léa Seydoux) who resists his charms until she doesn’t; Bond has a brutal hand-to-hand fight on a train.

Parallel to Bond’s journey, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner (Rory Kinnear turning up for an utterly thankless gig) deal with the new head of the Combined Intelligence Service, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), whose goals involve increasing global security by aligning the surveillance of nine different countries, and in the process mothballing the 00 section (“drones can do their job” stuff, again).  Scott seems to have been cast so as not to give viewers too big a shock when his character’s true motives are revealed. (In fact, his hand is tipped in such a strange, offhand way, that one wonders if there shouldn't have been a scene in the first act simply establishing him as a villain.)

It’s not all bad news. The “Q’s lab” scene is terrific, a welcome return of the gently adversarial dynamic between Whishaw and Craig, and their scenes together are enough to make you want three more movies with these two. Similarly, Harris’ Moneypenny and Fiennes’ M are also solid, and it’s easy to see why the film yields to temptation in giving these side characters their own little side mission in its second half. The Aston Martin vs Jaguar chase through Rome is pretty decent, offering Craig some of the most Roger Moore-esque moments of his run; visual gags, one-liners and Italian bystanders are all used to great effect. And Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is flat-out spectacular. His entrance is an all-timer, and his Jaws-like resiliency will tickle your nostalgia bone. The train brawl (allegedly the scene that put Craig out of commission for two weeks) is a genuine show-stopper, a worthy 21st century successor to the Red Grant fight in From Russia With Love. And the film’s star, Daniel Craig, has settled into an easygoing swagger that is now so far removed from his original angsty flavor of Bond that some are dismissing his performance as “bored.” While it’s true that all Bonds seems less dangerous by their fourth go-round, Craig is still great here in both the action scenes and in quieter moments. His performance only truly suffers when the script lets him down.

And that script lets so many people down. Monica Bellucci is absolutely squandered, a glorified cameo that amounts to three brief scenes. Worse still, her character feels like a clumsy stab at “progress”; this is the role that would normally inspire a hundred “problematic” think pieces (and might yet still - Bond aggressively pulls Bellucci’s clothes off while she’s crying, during a weird and unearned seduction). But perhaps in response to Skyfall’s ugly treatment of Sévérine, Bellucci’s Widow Sciarra is in and safely out of the film inside maybe six minutes. One cynically wonders if Sciarra was unceremoniously offed in an earlier draft, but was ultimately spared as a response to that particular Bond trope finally wearing out its welcome in 2012. In any event, in the final film, Monica Bellucci has no reason to exist, and now SPECTRE adds to its list of crimes “caused me to type ‘Monica Bellucci has no reason to exist’.”

Léa Seydoux is another, more damaging casualty, absolutely abandoned by an undercooked script and editing decisions that leave her line readings just sitting in the middle of the room like a stale fart. If the script ever contained any chemistry between Madeleine Swann and James Bond, it sure didn’t make it to the screen, and in a way their romance feels as abrupt and illogical as Bond’s mini-tryst with Mrs. Sciarra, but stretched out to two hours. Madeleine falls for Bond simply because it’s time in the script for her to do that (though I’ll cop to getting a kick out of the way the train fight catalyzes their passion).

The third and biggest, most tragic waste is Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser. The villainous head of SPECTRE - who is, of course, enough already, Ernst Stavro Blofeld - has had his backstory needlessly pasted onto 007’s with all the attention and care of a homework assignment completed on the schoolbus the morning it’s due. As a result, Waltz’s villain gets no menacing buildup and no signature moment to shine, his screen time eaten up connecting some iffy goddamn dots. (A look at the leaked script, and the changes made since, suggests this is the one story element the writers have been struggling with for some time.) Maybe it’s so unenthusiastically mapped out because there’s just no reason for it whatsoever, aside from an attempt at creating a Bruce Wayne/Jack Napier-esque symmetry between Bond and Blofeld, and an MCU-esque interconnectedness between the four most recent films. Not that that’s a model we should be replicating anywhere, but the way it’s backed into here is especially egregious: turns out Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre and Mr. White, Quantum of Solace’s Greene (so begrudgingly and infrequently included in the roster as to be laugh-inducing) and Skyfall’s Silva were all working for Blofeld, who’s spent the past decade ruining Bond’s life. It’s a slippery slope, but where I’m fine with 007 films sort of ignoring continuity, actively retconning it is something else altogether, and even hardcore fans might find their tolerance taxed by the shenanigans afoot here. In failing to satisfactorily map out Blofeld’s motivations, or his connection to the previous villains, the film’s four writers have hobbled the return of 007’s most iconic villain. SPECTRE has oodles of exposition; a little more wasn’t going to hurt anything.

Sense and clarity remain evasive during the “villain’s lair” sequence, in which monologues are delivered, motives uncovered, such as they are, and all is revealed, kind of. But Waltz’ Oberhauser is given fatally short shrift by a script that never cracks his character and instead descends into apathy. “Here’s the scene where we have to make him Blofeld, I guess. I dunno, put a white cat in there.” Where Javier Bardem was given - with barely any more screen time – room to create an unforgettable villain in Skyfall, Waltz is left with a grocery list of things he needs to do and say, awkwardly reverse engineering the return of Blofeld instead of making it count.

In a way it’s worse than the John Harrison/Khan junk from Star Trek Into Darkness, because on top of the name reveal, the “Bond’s foster brother” backstory is tacked on for absolutely no reason. In fishing for one, other critics have taken away that Oberhauser has become the megalomaniacal Blofeld BECAUSE he was jealous of Bond’s relationship with his father. I don’t think that’s correct - Oberhauser was always bad news, I suspect, and whatever Oberhauser says about Bond being responsible for setting him on his path, the connection is essentially a coincidence - but that’s what you get when you gloss over the connective tissue of your script and assume editor Stuart Baird will be there to whisk viewers past your plot holes. Except Baird didn’t edit this movie, and my heart sank as I watched all the air go out of these scenes, bad writing and illogical characters left adrift on a 150-minute sea. Bond fans are used to iffy scripts, but Stuart Baird’s masterful stewardship of these films in the editing room is sorely, sorely missed. Many dialogue scenes are paced like a dry PBS TV drama, and elsewhere the editing renders the action almost discomfiting. Not helping matters is a second-unit shooting style that hews closer to Quantum of Solace than Casino Royale, and the result is a lot of graceless, unengaging action beats.

As repetitive as the “MI6 is in danger of being shut down” plot might sound on paper, SPECTRE (Spectre? Is it not an acronym anymore?) does make an attempt at a thematic shift from Skyfall. In 2012 it was all about “with all the surveillance tech at our disposal, does the world need a 007?” Here the question shifts to “how much should we trust the people in charge of all that surveillance?” But the film never renders a satisfying portrayal of those people, or that threat. It’s broad stroke illuminati shit, and it’s just not enough. Skyfall (and even Casino Royale) were not immune to this “just go with it” brand of storytelling, but again, there we were carried over the gaps by skilled editing that kept things moving too briskly for us to dwell. That doesn’t happen here. The film’s finale, a return to London and a showdown on the Thames, is a bit more rousing, but it’s sort of damage control at that point. The film’s ending is, I think, being misread by folks: literally every one of Connery’s films, and most of Moore’s, ended with 007 fucking off from his job to head into the sunset with his love interest. It’s the most formula thing in the film, yet folks are seeing it as the biggest deviation in the franchise. Is it both? Neither? I’m inclined to blame the messenger.*

Some might see SPECTRE as the end of the line for Daniel Craig’s run as 007. But for fans who’ve endured the series’ many peaks and valleys, we know that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and SPECTRE is a film that leaves us begging for one last film from Craig. After misfiring on the heralded return of Blofeld, he is nonetheless returned, and the pieces are too temptingly in place to not turn Bond 25 into a redemptive swan song.

*In the script but omitted from the film, Bond tells Madeleine as they drive away, “We have all the time in the world”, which not only confirms that he WAS at one point definitely meant to be quitting, but the line all but guaranteed another revenge-soaked chapter for Craig’s Bond.