A cluster of goosebumps ran up my arm the moment the legendary gun-barrel sequence crawled across the screen at the opening of the latest James Bond film Spectre. That iconic moment, paired with the equally iconic music, can only mean one thing. James Bond is back. Daniel Craig returns to the role that made him a household name, with director Sam Mendes returning as well after his successes with Skyfall. While not as great a film as Skyfall that came before it, Spectre manages to still entertain despite some glaring problems.
The movie starts with a cold open, as is tradition with the Bond films. We’re dropped smack dab in the middle of the Day of the Dead festival in a well worn, but beautiful Mexico City. Bond, dressed in typical Day of the Dead garb, walks through the crowd with a beautiful woman on his arm. They make their way to a hotel room, but rather than a whirlwind Bond romance breaking out 007 is out the window and on to his mission. It’s a run of the mill assassination for Bond that goes downhill after a building collapses. What follows is a high octane helicopter sequence that, however improbable, is still just as thrilling.
After the Mexico City misadventure Bond returns to MI6 and is scolded for his mess. We’re told MI6 is merging with MI5 and that a new surveillance program will allow all governments access to each others intel and spy networks. It’s the kind of government overreach that’s mirrored by current affairs.
Bond is grounded for wrecking Mexico City, but you can’t keep a good secret agent down. After the death of Judi Dench’s M he’s given clues to follow that lead him to the discovery of the super secret evil organization Spectre. Apparently this organization has been behind all of the conflicts that have transpired in the Daniel Craig Bond films. It’s a bit far fetched, but I went along with it. The leader of this group is an old childhood frenemy of Bond’s named Franz Oberhauser, played with an eery calm by Christoph Waltz. After being outed in a meeting full of these cackling, multicultural evil doers Oberhauser’s menacing henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) chases after Bond in a remarkably dull car chase. While both men are driving at top speeds there’s no real danger and neither man seem phased by what they’re doing. It just feels like an 80MPH morning commute. Low stakes don’t make for much excitement, and after the helicopter sequence in the opening this car chase feels limp.
With our villain revealed we next are introduced to our Bond girl Madeleine Swann who’s given a strong portrayal by Lea Seydoux. Swann is the daughter of Mr. White, a man we met in Casino Royale and later in Quantum of Solace. It was nice having some closure for the Mr. White story, but in the end it felt somewhat forced. We didn’t really need the connection to the past films, but it didn’t hurt the film either. It had much bigger problems.
With all the players revealed the movie unfolds in a typical Bond fashion. There’s a monologue by Oberhauser in his suitably over the top evil lair. There’s a bombastic final showdown with plenty of action, and in the end Bond gets the girl. The Bond formula is alive and well in Spectre, but I genuinely feel it’s not a good thing this time around.
The past Craig Bond films have been hinting at the traditional Bond ways. Skyfall gave us Moneypenny, Q and a new M with a handful of gadgets but it was all done with a wink and a nod. Specter doesn’t seem to know what it wants. It neither goes all the way into the classic Bond pool, nor does it maintain Skyfall’s subtleties. It’s a shame because a perfect melding of the Casino Royale style mixed with the classic Bond tropes could be really fantastic, but Spectre just isn’t it.
The biggest problem with this film is the writing. Oberhauser is the weakest villain we’ve got in a Bond film since Mr. Green in Quantum of Solace. At least Mr. Green had a clear motivation and reason behind what he was doing. It was all money for Mr. Green. Oberhauser is motivated by petty childhood squabbles. His main motivator is that his father took a liking to Bond and Oberhauser was jealous. To start a giant criminal enterprise with far reaching governmental influence over a grudge seems just plain stupid. There’s also a torture sequence where Bond is strapped to a chair with little drills lined up to puncture his skull. Oberhauser tells him of the grievous affects this will have on Bond. The drills go in, Bond screams in pain, then nothing. There’s no ill affect. There’s no explanation for this other than I assume it would be inconvenient for the rest of the film for Bond to be blind, or unable to remember and recognize faces. There was absolutely no reason for that scene and it instantly pulled me out of the film. I knew something would be amiss when during the opening credits I saw a total of four “written by” credits. Can’t have four writers without something getting lost in the shuffle.
Ultimately this is a solid Bond film. It’s not the worst of them, but it’s not the best. It’s better than Quantum of Solace, but fails to reach the highs of Skyfall and Casino Royale. As a standalone film it’s not good at all. I think that’s an important distinction to make. Bond has a lot of wiggle room for inane plot problems and overall dopiness. For fans of Bond this is right in 007’s swing zone. All the usual Bond elements are there. I just wish they did more with them.