So begins Spectre, with these four words blazoned across the screen, before cutting to Mexico City in the midst of its Day of the Dead celebrations. And while it at first glance these words appears to be about the street party in the midst of which British spy James Bond (Daniel Craig) is surveilling a target, it is actually the theme of the whole film. Spectre is a story filled with dead men walking. Some are in circumstances where they know that their end is near. Others are those who have been believed dead. And some are literally dead, but whose influence continues to be felt in Bond’s personal and professional life. As an assassin for Her Majesty’s government, Bond’s adventures have always been filled with death, but the five-decades old franchise has never really dealt with that fact in quite this thematic fashion before. It’s a refreshing aspect of the film, even if its surface text is a bit shopworn around the edges.
The film opens with James Bond’s superiors not quite being able to keep their top spy in control, as he is prone to continue to follow up on clues and leads left dangling from his previous cases. A recorded message from the previous head of MI6 (Dame Judy Dench) sends Bond down a road that will eventually lead him to the architect of all the things he has been fighting against since he received his license to kill. Meanwhile, his current boss, M (Ralph Finnes), is fighting off an attempt to consolidate his intelligence agency with their domestic counterpart, MI5. The head of MI5 wants Britain to sign off on a joint intelligence gathering project called Nine Eyes which would supply the top industrialized nations with unprecedented information gathering powers., something that M has serious misgivings about.
With twenty-three installments in the metaphorical Aston Martin rear-view mirror, it is hard for Spectre to present its audience with something wholly new and original. And there are segments of the film that do play out as a parade of “Bond’s greatest hits.” We get a fight in a cramped train compartment, another fight in an out of control aircraft, a chase down a snowy mountain, the prerequisite gadget-laden car. Returning director Sam Mendes still manages to breath some new life into these old complications, giving them their own identity. Helping in that is Thomas Newman’s score, which is often decidedly non-Bondian in spots. That is to its credit, as his eschewing of traditional Bond soundtrack motifs help to contribute to the new and fresh feel of these these familiar action sequences.
One of the hallmarks of director Sam Mendes’ previous Bond film, Skyfall, was the sense of cinema that he brought to the film. Along with Cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes brought a real sense of visual artistry not often found in the series. This time, though, Mendes is without Deakins and the loss is palpable. Although the film does open with a long, three-minute uninterrupted shot that starts in the streets of the aforementioned Day of the Dead celebrations and ends on a roof top as Bond prepares to kill a terrorist planning an attack in the city, the balance of the film disappointingly just doesn’t retain the panache that we saw previous.
Around the midpoint of the movie, there is a sequence in which Bond chases after a group of Blofeld’s henchmen after they have kidnapped Bond’s love interest for the film, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux ) from the mountaintop clinic that she works at as the plane he has commandeered begins to literally fall to pieces. On paper, it ranks fairly high on the improbability scale, and wouldn’t feel out of place among the sillier excess of the 1970s Bond films that starred Roger Moore. But Mendes still manages to make the scene taut, exciting and just on the right side of the believability line.
The best films of the Bond franchise has always had one foot in real world politics and security issues. That SPECTRE’s Nine Eyes surveillance program plot McGuffin still feels relevant while at the same time echoing other political thrillers all the way back to the 1970s perhaps says something about the state of the world today. But the screenplay here manages to find some deeper moral issues within the idea, specifically debating the efficiency of using a drone to kill an enemy of the state versus having an actual person who could make a judgment based on immediate intelligence as to whether or not to pull the trigger.
Ironically, while this new iteration of Bond that started when Craig took over the role in 200-‘s Casino Royale has been acting very much the lone wolf, the supporting cast is much more active in Spectre than they have been in the past several films. It seems that the standard Bond film formula has him receiving his orders from his superior M, his gadgets from the secret service’s armorer Q and have a quick flirt with Miss Moneypenny before heading out on a mission. Here, all of those characters, plus M’s Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, play a much more active role in the narrative. Moneypenny and Q both aid Bond in ways that require them to go behind their superior M’s back. And it is M’s dealing with the political side of the Nine Eyes program and the prospect of his intelligence branch being merged with MI5 that bring his character into an active and needed role in the film’s third act.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as well served by the film’s script as the franchise’s returning cast are. It is almost to be expected that Seydoux’s role as this installment’s Bond girl will be underwritten, which is a shame as if there was more depth to her role, it would help support certain actions that take place at the end of the film. Waltz’s Blofeld is also thinly defined and given that he has what should be a rather complicated relationship with Bond just based on the set up of this movie that comes as a disappointment. (We’re going to leave aside the logic of the character faking his own death and becoming the leader of the biggest terrorist organization on Earth, apparently just to fuck with his step-brother.)
Particularly shortchanged in the cast is Dave Batista. The MMA fighter-turned-actor displayed some impressive chops for a tyro actor in his Guardians Of The Galaxy debut last summer. Unfortunately, he is given far less to do here outside of being a hulking, physical presence. Sure, this is a character who could conceivably become as iconic as Goldfinger’s Odd Job (Harold Sakata) for a similar strong and silent screen presence, but when we know that Batista can deliver more than that it does feel as a bit of a waste here.
If we stand back and take a look at the Daniel Craig Bond-era in total, we can definitely see how the actor has taken the character on a long arc. From Casino Royale (2006) through 2008’s Quantum Of Solace and 2012’s Skyfall, we have slowly seen the growth of Bond as a Double-0 agent and explored the forces that have shaped him into the man he is. In Spectre, these forces are still at play and the foundation of the first three films is still very much an influence on his life. But in many ways, the film is also a very typical Bond adventure, just one of many.
If the next Bond film, and as the credits always tells us “James Bond Will Return,” is indeed Craig’s final outing as he has indicated, one does have to wonder where this arc will take us. Will Bond, in the body of the currently 47-year-old Craig, have a true confrontation with his own age and encroaching mortality? It almost seems logical to have Bond meet his death, as a way of closing off the current cycle of films to make way for a new actor in the role, though I doubt that the producers would want to kill off this golden egg-laying-goose even temporarily.