Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond has arguably been the most consistently successful one since Sean Connery introduced the world to Agent 007 back in 1962. Casino Royale did a terrific job of re-introducing the character and giving the franchise a much-needed darker tone. In 2012 (The 50th anniversary of the Bond films) Skyfall came out in theaters to universal acclaim and broke box office records. It was perhaps one of the best James Bond films to date, with amazing direction by Sam Mendes, breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins and terrific performances by Daniel Craig, Javier Barden and Judy Dench. It left audiences wondering how the hell the next one would top it. Which brings us to today, with the release of Bond’s latest adventure, SPECTRE, bringing back the titular evil organisation for the first time since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever and ostensibly concluding the trilogy of sorts started by the previously mentioned movies (let’s just pretend Quantum of Solace never happened like the producers seem to be doing). So after all the wait and fanfare, does it stack up to its predecessor?
SPECTRE opens with an incredible action set piece in Mexico City during the Dios de Los Muertos celebration, as James Bond (Daniel Craig) is chasing down a man he believes to be a member of the shadowy organisation that has surrounded him over the past few films. Bond soon learns that the organisation in question is none other than SPECTRE, and its leader, the mysterious and threatening Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who is specifically targeting Bond for unknown reasons. With the help of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) as well as his allies at MI6 Including Q (Ben Wishaw), Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond will have to uncover Oberhauser’s plans and take SPECTRE down once and for all.
SPECTRE is a conundrum of a movie. If you were to completely separate it from the James Bond franchise, it would be an enjoyable little spy movie. Unfortunately, you can’t do that because its DNA is inextricably linked to the franchise, and it tries so hard to connect itself to the previous movies that you can’t help but compare it to them. SPECTRE had all the ingredients necessary to make a movie as good if not better than Skyfall. It has the exact same creative team as the previous film and the added bonus of having Christoph Waltz as the villain, a role he has been destined for since he became known to international audiences with Inglorious Basterds. With this incredible pedigree, how is it that SPECTRE failed to live up to its potential?
The answer to that question is that SPECTRE completely falls apart in its second half, ruining all the great tension and intrigue it had built up to that point. The first half is presented as a mystery Bond needs to solve, and the close he gets to finding out what SPECTRE is, the more interesting the film gets. This built-up culminates in the film’s best scenes about forty minutes in, a long, tense segment where James sneaks into a SPECTRE meeting, and eavesdrop on their nefarious plans. It’s there where we are first introduced to Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser, as he immediately commands respect and fear as soon as he enters the room. The scene makes you realise that this is a man Bond should be afraid of, and leaves you excited for the confrontation to come. Unfortunately, that confrontation doesn’t come till much later in the film and fails to live up to what it promised, giving us nothing but a reveal that felt as forced as it did unnecessary and offers a completely ridiculous and childish motivation for the villain that destroys all the mystery and threat he had created for himself up until that point. Other narrative missteps include a dull romance between Bond and Swann and unnecessary and forced call-backs to Casino Royale and Skyfall that do nothing but remind you of better movies and an unsatisfying and rushed ending.
If SPECTRE excels at anything, it’s with the action scenes, which are mostly all really well filmed and expertly directed, especially the opening scene in Mexico City, which stands on equal ground to the opening scenes from Casino Royale and Skyfall. There’s also a great car chase in the streets of Rome and a cool fight between Bond and Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx on a train (a clear homage to the train fight in From Russia with Love). Just try and ignore certain laps in logic, like how Bond appears out of nowhere in a plane while on the top of a snowy mountain. The movie also does well with its sense of style, as all the cars, gadgets and exotic locations are what you would expect from a Bond movie and help increase the “fun” factor of SPECTRE. However, much like with the actual plot, it’s in the third act where all that goodness falls apart. It’s like they ran out of money and had to hastily improvise their set designs and action scenes. Oberhauser’s main base felt sparse and looked more low-tech than a secret base in the 1960s Bond films, not to mention lacking any kind of security system or guards. The climactic action scene, taking place in London, pretty much consisted of recycled elements from earlier parts of the movie, a disappointment when compared to Skyfall’s thrilling final shootout.
Thankfully, all the returning actors are just as good here as they were before as Craig continues to deftly balance the debonair and sophisticated side of Bond with his action ready bad-ass side. The most stand-out performance however, came from Ben Wishaw as Q, who is given a lot more to do here then his small role in Skyfall and provides much-needed levity and comedic relief in an otherwise dour and serious movie. Wishaw’s chemistry with Craig was even better than the Craig’s chemistry with Bond Girl du jour Léa Seydoux, who is completely unremarkable and bland as Madeleine Swann. There has been much attention given to Monica Bellucci being the oldest Bond Girl to date, however, she’s only in the movie for about 6 minutes, and the scene she is in serves only to remind us how sexist James Bond movies can be at their worst. Naomie Harris is great as Moneypenny and builds a good rapport with Bond, but she pretty much disappears later on, another victim of the movie’s problematic second half. And then there’s Christoph Waltz who, by all rights, should have made this movie his. Unfortunately, as far as Christoph Waltz performances go, this is one of his most subdued roles. I don’t know if it’s because of the script or the way he chose to play the character (I would blame the script more), but the only scene where he seemed truly threatening was the SPECTRE meeting where he’s completely in shadows and barely speaks.
Not only is SPECTRE in the shadow of the spectacular Skyfall, it’s also coming out the same year as two much better spy films: Kingsmen: The Secret Service and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, making SPECTRE’s mistakes that much more noticeable in comparison. Again, SPECTRE is a decent film, and any Bond fan will find a lot to like about it, it’s just that the idea of what it could have been ruins what is actually on the screen. Nevertheless, SPECTRE offers just enough escapist entertainment and thrilling action set-pieces to make any viewer satisfied. There certainly have been many worse Bond movies than this, just as there are many better ones as well. With all the rumors swirling around about Craig not wanting to return for future Bond movies (despite having one left on his contract) I’d hate for SPECTRE to be his swan song, but I’d also hate for him to do another one out of a sense of obligation, knowing that his heart’s not in it. No matter what happens, there definitely will be many more James Bond movies in the future, and I’m still eagerly anticipating his next adventure.
Final Grade: 6.5/10