Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci
Director: Sam Mendes
Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Spectre is the 24th film in the James Bond series and the fourth starring Daniel Craig. It contains many of the franchise's most endearing components--large-scale action, quippy one-liners, beautiful globe-trotting locales, a vast maniacal conspiracy shrouded in darkness--as well as some of the weaker aspects; dumb character motivations, over-plotting, rampant misogyny, and about 20 minutes that could have easily been lopped off. Basically, it's a Bond picture through and through; an engaging romp through the history of the franchise as well as a sort of revisionist take on the iconic character's lineage. In that way, it's not any better or worse than some of the best entries, and there are plenty of lousy ones. It certainly lacks the gritty verisimilitude of Casino Royale and the emotional dimension of Skyfall, but it does throw out the dour self-seriousness which dragged down Craig's second entry, The Quantum of Solace. To place Spectre within context, Skyfall may have set the bar too high for those hoping returning director Sam Mendes would continue to fashion a post-Christopher Nolan universe for Bond where real-world digital innovation brushed up against the sight of a tux-wearing hero sipping a martini. Truthfully, though, Bond has no business taking place in reality, and even though Skyfall was a stylish stab at de-mythologizing the standard Bond ethos, it never really felt like a Bond movie. It was, to put a finer point on things, a Bond film for those who don't enjoy Bond films.
Spectre, on the other hand, seems to synthesize the dopier elements of the Roger Moore and Pierce Bronson entries with the contemporary milieu of the post-911 Craig series. There's a lot of nodding and winking going on here, with references to older Bond pictures criss-crossing with the sight of a man who always seems broken down, abused, and struggling to keep his tie on straight. The plot, of course, is absolutely ludicrous, though it does make a certain kind of sense in the constructed Bond universe. MI6 is being overtaken by MI5, spearheading by a cocky entrepreneur (a scowling Andrew Scott), who wants to push global digital surveillance instead of putting agents out in the field. Meanwhile, M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) try to keep tabs on the globe-trotting Bond, who is tracking a mysterious villain named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), and so on it goes. None of the plot particulars really matter, nor does the ultimate reveal regarding Oberhauser's connection to Bond and his overly complicated evil plan. What matters here is why we come to Bond movies in the first place; the action, the gadgets, the beautiful locations, the hard-edged zingers, the tuxedos and shaken martinis, gorgeous women wearing gorgeous clothes, the insistent misogyny--this is Bond. Now, whether such surface pleasures make a successfully entertaining cinematic experience is debatable, but let's not for a moment pretend that anyone really cares about Bond as a broken child who grew up to become a stoic killer with a haunted past.
Even if Skyfall hinted at deeper human dimensions and emotional weight (particularly in regards to his relationship with Eva Green's deceased love interest and Judi Dench's motherly M), Bond has always been a fantasy character. There's a slightly disconcerting male entitlement hook going on throughout this series spanning the decades. For here's a seemingly invincible man performing unbelievably heroic acts while looking unbelievably dapper doing it, and getting to bed a revolving door of attractive women without bothering about the consequences of such attachments. Problematic, to be sure, but still a major reason why the franchise has endured for so long. That Craig brings hints of wounded vulnerability and empathy to the role, forgoing the usual cheesy Bond signifiers, is certainly noteworthy, but not necessarily essential to embodying the archetype. In terms of misogyny, Mendes and his writers have tried to skirt the issue somewhat. Skyfall downplayed Bond's distasteful attitude toward women by giving him a strong relationship with Dench's M as well as a legitimate loss over Green's Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale. Here, there's a definite attempt to give Bond a fondness for Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), a woman who gets caught up in the action; hop-scotching with Bond from London to Rome to the Austrian Alps to Tangier and the Sahara. While there's still a sexual attraction going on (this is a Bond movie, after all), Seydoux brings a beguiling mixture of innocence and tenacity that somewhat offsets the fact that Bond is ultimately a creepy old man with commitment issues.
Let's face it: James Bond is a fading symbol in our overly sensitive, PC era. Calling out the franchise for it's treatment of women and encouraging male wish fulfillment fantasies is instructive, but only up to a point. What Spectre provides is pure escapism, which is not a reflection of our actual society, but rather, a withdrawal from it. Helicopter fist-fights, ridiculous costume changes, Dave Bautista as a hulking henchman crushing in eye sockets, a board room full of shadowy figures making nefarious plans, Waltz purring it up as a classic Bond villain--this is what the series can offer. Now, whether or not it does so in a thrilling enough fashion (especially coming on the heels of action fare like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation) is certainly a matter of contention, but there's no doubt that Mendes prides a certain level of craftsmanship to the proceedings. Many will point to the extended tracking shot during the opening sequence, but Mendes offers superficial delights throughout; faces cross-dissolving through mirrors, a throwback two-shot in the desert which invokes Hitchcock's North By Northwest, sunlight pouring in through cracks on a speeding train as Bond and Madeline engage in some lip-locking eroticism. Even if the plot remains a mishmash of other Bond films and the pacing gets baggy at times, Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keep things humming visually.
Spectre is a Bond movie. It breaks no new and offers few legitimate surprises, but there's still an undeniable comfort in that. The incorporation of a revisionist mentality in terms of weaving in elements from the history of the character feels a bit like fan-service, and there's no denying that the third act featuring a bomb, damsel in distress, and an unnecessarily complicated plan by Waltz's conniving villain to fuck with Bond's head, goes south. Meanwhile, Bond's final decision during the anticlimax hints at something possibly subversive, but then Mendes and the screenwriters feel the need to keep things open-ended enough to warrant the next installment. Then again, do we really need subversion in our decades-spanning franchise formula? Bond will most certainly be back, and with him, our insatiable need for car chases, beautiful women, oversized heavies, and the immortal lines "shaken, not stirred."