SPECTRE: It Could Have Been Great

We’ve seen Bond undergo a lot of changes for over fifty years: the globe-trotting playboy whose license to kill spared no evil doer or anonymous henchman. James Bond, the catalyst of Ian Fleming‘s romanticized panorama of espionage, grew from fiction novels to a film series that would become a cinematic phenomenon spanning over fifty years. Of course, how do you keep a character whose foundation was laid during the heat of the Cold War relevant and viable for so long?

Well, fans and detractors of the series alike know that the success of the Bond films has gone through some high points and some low points. Connery started a cultural phenomenon, Moore kept the train going if also descending the character into a caricature of itself, Dalton’s tenure was cut short after two films, and Pierce Brosnan helmed the ship with promise, though he then unfortunately steered it into an iceberg with his invisible Aston Martin and kite surfing. Finally, it looked as if the series had run out of momentum that for years had seemed inexhaustible.

New Generation

The proverbial return to form was the celebrated inauguration of Daniel Craig in the seminal 2006 film Casino Royale. Fans cheered when they saw the adrenaline-filled Casino Royale, squirmed when it looked like Bond was taking too many cues from Jason Bourne in 2008 with Quantum of Solaceand cheered even harder when Sam Mendes won nearly everybody over with his superior direction of Skyfall.

It seemed as if Bond had spanned another generation, and the international super spy would bask in the glory of a reinvigorated franchise. While many considered Skyfall the best in the franchise (a bold statement), could Mendes and the EON production team outdo themselves with the eagerly anticipated successor Spectre?

Better Than Skyfall?

When the opening credits started, I felt a rush of excitement seeing that barrel aimed at Daniel Craig, the way we remember almost every other Bond film opening. Being the first Daniel Craig film with the famous barrel sequence, it was exciting to see him taking the stride of honor as did Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan before him.

This trademark opening is paramount in the Bond films, and almost a mark of authenticity to the series. It would serve as a pat on the back for fans as well as a foreshadowing introduction that Spectre would adhere to the Bond film formula more so than we had seen in the recent thread of Craig films; though this isn’t one of the film’s strong notes.

I had my suspicions that Skyfall was the product of overtly self-aware filmmakers who spend more time side-stepping what could be expected spoilers, and then recalibrating calibrated expectations of what people expect of a Bond movie – rather than simply assemble a successful Bond film. This pattern of playing against form is so common that playing into form cancels it out, and the result is a narrative composed of self-referential double bluffs that inevitably takes you out of the movie.

source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Another tradition that Spectre set out to satisfy in Bond films is the pre-title action sequence, and the satisfaction that this loaded entry opens with was nothing short of extraordinary. It starts with a tracking shot in the spirit of Touch of Evil (or even I Am Cuba given the weightless camera), and is loaded with the high-paced action, stunts, and decisive camera work that you can tell is the artful slight of hand imbued by director Mendes.

The Baroque (even by Bond standards) title sequence is replete with suggestive images of dancing women and PPKs. Sam Smith’s vocals blare over the barrage of images, though it still pales next to Adele’s Oscar-winning Skyfall song. Despite the level of intrigue, the payoff lends little to the narrative other than putting Bond in front of M’s desk and being scolded as if he was sent to the principal’s office.

New School – Old School

While the movie follows through with its revisionist promise of a more mature, politically correct secret agent, it falls short on the credibility factor. While “credibility” isn’t synonymous with James Bond films, the action in Craig’s series felt more palatable than anything we’d seen in the films previous, and I felt that this in part was lost in Spectre.

While Skyfall reintroduced audiences to the series’ Q-branch (responsible for famous gadgets, too many to name), it was capped with a snarky technician ending the encounter with the quip: “what did you expect, an exploding pen?” Yet Q (Ben Whishaw) does play a more active role in Spectre, nullifying his previous stance by giving Bond an exploding watch and supplying a car with flame-throwing exhaust pipes. Anyone else getting déjà vu?

Following in the footsteps of Skyfall, Bond is once again going after the titular organization that we hadn’t heard of since the sixties, as it was frequently associated with Cold War politics. While Bond punches and shoots his way into the Illuminati-inspired courtly proceeding of the Spectre organization, an even more tightly wound M (Ralph Fiennes, who is great as always), is fighting a bureaucratic battle back at MI-6 against a snarky official named “C” (played by Andrew Scott).

The 00 branch is on the verge of obsolescence next to the modern world of combat, where drones and high-tech surveillance threaten the validity of good old-fashioned man power. This theme is consistent with other films, now that our endeared movie heroes (super or not so) have to contend with the terrorist age, drones, and invasive surveillance. It is the world we live in, so why can’t Bond infiltrate the NSA?

source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Of course, Bond proves the pencil pusher wrong by waging his typical one man war against the powers of evil. This time around, however, the villains from the last three movies reappear as though they were all a part of the same evil organization called Spectre.

Christoph Waltz is pulling the strings this time, and while he’s an actor of considerable power and menace (his Oscar for playing Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds is proof he’s no slouch), he’s restricted to the speechifying we thought we had evolved past since waving goodbye to cartoonish baddies who would rather tie their nemesis to a contraption than just simply kill them. There’s even a Goldfinger reference when Bond is touring the evil Spectre lair.

“Oh James….”

The recent updating of Bond has made him somewhat less of a womanizer (30% reduction perhaps?), with Léya Seydoux playing his main love interest. She puts on airs that she’s immune to debonair super spy charms but, of course, throws herself at him after one of the film’s better action sequences.

A tradition (I love) in British cinema is the good old-fashioned train fight. While From Russia with Love might have the title for “best train fight”, Spectre places as a close second. While pyrotechnics and action are plentiful, the playful side of Bond comes back out with a few too many winks, quips, and fortunate turns of fate that allow our heroes to wriggle away from danger.

Craig’s interpretation of the character seemed more lethal as a “blunt instrument” (M’s words, not mine) when he was punching bad guys, throwing them off buildings, and figuring out a new use for a nail gun. But this time around, he’s flying planes down mountains, shooting down helicopters, and steering them from harms way while clobbering the pilot. When Bond and Madeline Swan (Seydoux) escape from Spectre’s lair, we see some more well-choreographed action, and when it seems like evil is overthrown we know you only live twice, even if you’re the bad guy.

source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The tradition is that everyone’s favorite Bond is the current one, but Daniel Craig has done great work and his slot will be a hard act to follow. It’s rumored that this will be his last outing, which is too bad. While Skyfall seemed like an artistic director was the franchise’s answer to keep it from repeating itself, Spectre ended up doing just that. Again, this latest outing wasn’t bad, but it’s not the top shelf ingredient that we’ve seen since Daniel Craig shook up this franchise in 2006.

This may sound like a lot of nit-picking, but it’s hard not to notice these shortcomings with so much potential and talent at work. Sam Mendes and the production team conjure some truly captivating images and eye-grabbing action set pieces, and the cast is great. However, Spectre seems to trip over its shoelaces a few times too many.

It’s not that the film isn’t fun, because it is. But as a lifelong fan of the series, I really wanted to see something more enticing. This round left me wanting, which is a hard conclusion to reach because I really wanted to like this movie more than I did.

Daniel Come Home?

Long story short: Spectre is entertaining. It is a decent Bond film, and it retains the qualities of what we expect from the series, but it’s not on the level of greatness we expected given the previous films. However, James Bond does what James Bond does best, and that is to save the world from evil by any means necessary. And in times like these, whats wrong with that? I will say that the motivation behind Spectre was enjoyable, as it was more human. Instead of a “list” or some other plot device, Bond is driven for personal reasons, ergo his war against the odds is easier to root for.

The action is plentiful, the performances solid, and the script is functionary to the right of its purpose. Perhaps Casino Royale and Skyfall were hard acts to follow, or that this ebb and flow in the series is elemental, as we’ve seen it happen so many times before.

Regardless, the titles end with the quintessential “Bond will Return”, and as far as I can remember the EON team has made good on that promise. Let’s just hope that Daniel Craig will change his mind about being the leading man in one of cinema’s most enduring franchises.

Is this information-laden era detrimental to movie making? Have we used too many boots in our franchises?

(top image source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

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