Aren’t franchise spy films supposed to be entertaining?
Welcome, James. It’s been a long time… and, finally, here we are.
Spectre, the 24th film in EON Films’ “official” James Bond series, is a lot like another film directed by Sam Mendes. No, not the box-office shattering Skyfall, Mendes’s first foray into the Bond-verse. That film was a breath of fresh air, reinvigorating the franchise with previously untapped emotional heft and a script that allowed a cast of Oscar winners and nominees to actually act. Nor is it Road to Perdition, where a hitman sought vengeance on those who murdered those he loved, though that does have a rather recent “heavy baggage Bond” ring to it. No, the Mendes film that Spectre most resembles is the 2005 Iraq War film, Jarhead, where Jake Gyllenhaal explores the tedium of war. If you’d forgotten that the insanely dull Jarhead existed then prepare to be reminded, because Bond 24 commits the greatest sin of all. Despite the presence of the expected car chases, shootouts, and spycraft, it’s downright boring.
Spectre actually begins with a sharply directed tracking shot through a Day of the Dead parade in the streets of Mexico City. Thousands of partiers dressed in black and skeletal costumes dance and revel on parade floats as a skeleton-masked Bond slips through the crowd and across rooftops to take out a target. The scene seems an obvious visual hat-tip to the jazz funeral in Live and Let Die, and it’s as good as Spectre ever gets. It and the ensuing helicopter fight are some of the only scenes in the film that capture any sense of energy and, frankly, fun.
As soon as Spectre turns to the title sequence the film becomes stuck in the mud, and fails to regain any traction over the course of its remaining 135 minutes. The entire film plays out as a half-hearted follow-up to Skyfall, one where everyone involved knew that they couldn’t match their previous success and thus decided to phone it in. Adele’s Skyfall theme was an Oscar-winning monster, so Spectre tries its hand with the similarly soulful “Male Adele” Sam Smith, whose song only succeeds as a signifier of the slow, dull unspooling of film to follow and as the background to some weird tentacle-porn in the opening credits.
Bond soon finds himself the posterchild for the messy and outdated state of British Intelligence, with even M (Ralph Fiennes) feeling the public pressure to cancel the 00-program in favor of a new, state of the art surveillance agency headed by newcomer Max Denbeigh, aka “C” (Andrew Scott). Bond is suspended from field duty and told to stay in town.
Of course, this being a James Bond film, that’s something that Bond just can’t do, and he soon slips off to Rome with Q’s (Ben Whishaw) help to investigate a shadowy criminal agency known as Spectre – an organization so dark and shady that it holds its meetings in a purposely gloomy conference room. It’s half-hearted symbolism for a half-hearted film. The subsequent plot is largely paint-by-numbers as Bond investigates the organization and globetrots across continents with the help of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of Bond’s old antagonist Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Along the way he grapples with Mr. Hinx, a nearly wordless hitman played by Dave Bautista, before finally encountering the shadowy figurehead for Spectre, Franz Oberhauser.
I’m sure that this all played out great on paper, but it just doesn’t work in the film. Dave Bautista proved himself to be an adequate strongman actor in Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m sure that Spectre’s creators envisioned him as a modern day Jaws (the Bond villain, not the shark), but Buatista’s character is a paper tiger. With only grunts, groans, and a few spare curse words for dialogue, he comes off as the bond version of Darth Maul, an enemy who’s only scary because of his fighting prowess and because the characters emphatically remind you that he’s a dangerous man.
Then there’s Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser, whose denials about his true identity never fooled anyone while he was wearing that Nehru jacket. Waltz is an incredibly gifted actor, but his knack for skillful dialogue delivery is completely muddled by the poor writing and an unsurprising, lame twist. Waltz’s Oberhauser is a truncated idea shoehorned into a franchise that didn’t need it, and the reveal does nothing but retcon the entirety of the Craig era into a half-assed “master plan,” based on off-handedly mentioned daddy issues. Worse, it forces Spectre’s characters to disappear in the process. If it wasn’t for Waltz’s jacket and white cat, no one would remember anything about his villain in five years. Léa Seydoux gets completely buried in the film’s crushing subservience to its story arc, and poor Monica Bellucci barely gets enough screen time to register with the audience. Both actresses deserve better, and a better film could have used either of them (or both!) as an Irene Adler-esque equal to Bond, but Spectre is too busy with the “Bond saves girl, then they have sex” formula to notice the talent they have on set.
Daniel Craig seems especially exhausted, with none of the depth he instilled into Bond in Skyfall showing up for the sequel. Ben Whishaw and Fiennes seem like they’re trying to have fun with their roles, but their energy is strangled by the lulling film around them. This isn’t a problem unique to the Bond franchise, as Hollywood tentpole series have turned to the unified universe model in the last decade. The Avengers can’t simply go on an adventure anymore. It has to be interconnected six-film “phase.” That was fun for a while, but sometimes it’s more fun to just see someone save the world without the narrative heft of an entire cinematic -verse around them. That’s why Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like such a breath of fresh air while The Avengers: Age of Ultron underperformed. Sometimes there’s just too much baggage, and when that baggage is the heavy, grieving type that Spectre deals in, it drags the entire film down with it. Can’t James Bond just save the world (or, better yet, solve a small-level hostage crisis) without having to go rogue to settle old scores? James Bond should be fun again.
That’s going to seem like a strange request when I also say that Spectre is the campiest Bond of the Craig era, but James Bond skiing a propeller plane down a ski surface and knowingly winking at white cats isn’t really what I mean by fun. Even Spectre’s jokes are lame. “And now we find out what ‘M’ stands for – ‘moron!’” a character quips at one point. No one in my theater laughed, but you could almost hear heads shaking. I’m not asking for a return to the CGI tsunami surfing days of old, but a few solid jokes would be nice.
It only took the Bond franchise four films to return to the bloated excess that was dooming the series before the Casino Royale soft reboot, and I wonder why they even bothered if this was the endgame. I’m sure that EON and MGM were excited to use the Spectre properties after finally getting them back after 50 years of legal squabbling, but couldn’t they have at least celebrated the occasion with a film worthy of including them? It’s no wonder that Daniel Craig has seemed so surly during interviews, and has loudly bemoaned the prospect of another film to finish out his contract. Spectre plays out like a dance fad that is now long past its heyday. Everyone knows all the steps, and Bond fits the car chases and romancing in at the proper times, but it’s more embarrassing than cool at this point and I’d bet the people doing it just wish they hadn’t bothered at all.