After 23 previous films in the franchise, Bond films have a certain rhythm to them, a formula that involves breathtaking action sequences, seduction scenes and a light dialog that offers a wink to the viewer that it’s all ultimately in fun: there’s peril and danger, but it’s James Bond, he’s not going to really get killed at any point. Some directors have balanced these elements in their films perfectly, like Skyfall, and others have ended up with a mess, a parody of the tough, urbane Bond in a daft story, like the ghastly Moonraker.
Spectre follows directly on the Skyfall storyline. Importantly, Skyfall offered a reinvention of the cast and story with a new “M” running the British Intelligence agency MI-6, a new “Q” supplying Bond with weapons and gadgets, and even a new Moneypenny who is a field agent, not M’s secretary. The franchise has seen a remarkable number of actors portray 007, and Spectre marks the fourth outing for the rugged Daniel Craig, but he’s getting a bit old for the role, as both Skyfall and Spectre acknowledges.
Starting with an exciting action sequence tied to the Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City, Spectre proves to be a terrifically entertaining new entry in the franchise, even if it’s not quite as thoughtful and balanced as its predecessor. Bond is in Mexico City trying to track down a mysterious underworld figure on an off-the-books mission, and by the time he leaves, he’s killed two would-be terrorists, caused a building to collapse, wrought havoc on the parade and national celebration and sparked an international incident.
In a curious parallel to the organizational merger that propels Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, this new film has MI-5 and MI-6 being merged into a single intelligence agency, to be headed by “C” (Andrew Scott). Under duress, “M” (Ralph Fiennes) puts Bond on administrative leave for his unsanctioned actions in Mexico and has “Q” (Ben Whishaw) inject Bond with smart blood, allowing the agency to track him anywhere in the world.
But Bond has a very good motivation for pursuing the terrorist he encountered in Mexico City, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and attends Sciarra’s funeral in Rome instead of staying in England. It’s okay, Q is covering for him. He sneaks into a meeting of a vast criminal conspiracy, an organization known as Spectre, headed by the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Walktz), and is soon racing through the streets of Rome trying to evade Spectre enforcer Hinx (Dave Bautista), a satisfyingly tough Bond bad guy.
The action switches to a remote resort atop a snow-covered peak in the Austrian Alps where Bond meets up with Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), who can lead him to the mysterious “L’Americain”, and thence to Spectre itself, an organization with its base in the middle of Saharan Africa. Finally, the last acts of the film take place back in London, where Bond finds himself in the derelict MI-6 building (destroyed in Skyfall) and comes face to face with Oberhauser for the final showdown.
It’s a modern, sprawling epic film that takes place across continents, with each location highlighted in an action sequence, whether it’s a crazy helicopter ride in Mexico City, a plane careening down the mountains in Austria, a somewhat implausible shoot out at the African Spectre headquarters, or a high-speed helicopter pursuit — from a speedboat — along the Thames in the final sequence. And the action is consistently excellent, exciting, well staged, tense and entertaining. The dialog is good, the two romantic entanglements Bond has in the film, first with Sciarra’s widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), and then with Swann, are framed for modern times, though there’s an uncomfortable overtone of rape in Bond’s seduction of Lucia.
There are times when the storyline becomes too convoluted, however, and many audience members were left confused by plot twists and events in Bond’s personal history referenced but not explained. Hinx (Batista) is a good opponent — and their fight on the train is particularly visceral in its impact — but as the main bad guy, Oberhauser is surprisingly flat. Christoph Waltz is a brilliant actor (see his Academy Award winning performance in Inglorious Bastards for example) but he gets too little screen time and is insufficiently menacing, which makes the final showdown lack real menace. Scott is also wasted, an actor with a remarkable skill for projecting an unstable menace (see his recurring role as Moriarty on the BBC series Sherlock) but stuck here as more of a bureaucrat.
Still, the pieces are all good, they all fit together, and there are plenty of nods to Bond enthusiasts with a knowledge of the franchise — I challenge anyone knowledgeable not to smile knowingly when a certain animal appears — and many of the scenes are homage to previous films, but while Skyfall was a home run, Spectre ultimately stands as just a very good, very entertaining entry.
Spectre is definitely quite fun, I’ll go see it again, and I’d even place it on a top ten list of Bond films. But it’s not quite as good as I’d hoped.
Disclaimer: There are certain changes I’ve made to character names to protect an important plot twist in Spectre. Unfortunately most reviewers have not done so, from what I’ve seen, which is really too bad.