Sam Mendes is no stranger to risks. The veteran filmmaker took a huge gamble directing Skyfall, a bold revisionist take on Ian Flemings’ ever-popular spy character James Bond. That film, the third in the long-running franchise to feature star Daniel Craig, proved that risks can pay off. It was easily one of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful films in the history of the Bond franchise.
Skyfall is an integral part of the discussion surrounding the new 007 film Spectre, which reunites Mendes with star Craig and screenwriters John Logan and Neil Purvis. With a few exceptions, the 26th outing of the british spy takes an almost completely opposite approach. This is a very traditional Bond film, one that features numerous callbacks to the franchise’s past while doing practically nothing to ensure its future or carve out an identity of its own. The result is severely underwhelming.
In a stunning extended-shot opening sequence, we find Bond in Mexico City during a large Day of the Dead celebration. It initially appears he’s there for revelry, but, as usual, there’s a large plan afoot. He ditches his typically beautiful arm candy to hunt down a Mexican drug lord he believes is part of a shadowy organization called Spectre, which appears to be responsible for a series of terrorist attacks across the globe. After promptly disposing of the baddie, he infiltrates the organization in an attempt to gain access to its leader, the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
Meanwhile, Bond’s MI6 cohorts back in Britain are facing bureaucratic struggles. The newly appointed M (Ralph Finnes) butts heads with his new superior, the hard-headed C (Andrew Scott), who seeks to demolish the antiquated 007 program and replace it with a more computerized, futuristic version of spy technology. Returning MI6 members Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are forced to support Bond’s globetrotting antics in secret, under the nose of their boss.
The returning characters are all a delight; it certainly helps that they’re played by wonderful actors, and actually given something to do. Harris in particular is my favorite version of Moneypenny; she’s strong, independent, and written to be so much more than eye candy. The new characters are intriguing but ultimately less satisfying. They include two new Bond girls, one old (Monica Bellucci’s Lucia), one young (Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swan) and henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista), who recalls many classic burly Bond baddies, most readily the iconic Jaws.
In the film’s antiquated gender politics, women like Lucia are tossed aside as sex objects. I’m not really the one to complain about such things in a James Bond film, but when a character is set up as being important to the plot in some form, it’s disappointing when she ends up simply existing for Bond’s momentary pleasure. Swan is thankfully given much more development; she and Bond fall in love, a love they say is true and real. But we’re given so much less to work with than the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale that it’s hard to take seriously. It is refreshing to see Bond truly taking an interest in protecting someone, even at the risk of his own life, rather than using her simply for sex.
Spectre is even more deliberately paced than Skyfall. This movie is slow; I’d go so far as to call it a drag. I certainly don’t need my Bond film to be action-packed; Casino Royale’s extended poker sequence comes to mind. But when everything feels as low-stakes as it does here, the emotional impact of the quieter scenes is weakened. There’s nothing here that gets the heart racing; the action sequences, minus one memorable fight on a train, feel as sleepy and devoid of genuine drama as the rest of the film. Part of the problem may be the film’s cinematography, which features tons of drab beiges and blacks. Roger Deakins’ magnetic presence, which made every scene of Skyfall sing, is sorely missed here. The other issue is the film’s almost slavish devotion to formula: aerial fight sequence, sex scene, car chase, quiet scene of dialogue to give the audience a breather, train fight, other sex scene, torture scene, etc. When we can almost predict every scene, the pacing loses much of its impact.
With a cast and crew this talented, there are bound to be some pros to a film like Spectre. The story is quite good; it brings the Craig era of the franchise full-circle and sets up Spectre as the proper evil organization Bond fans love to hate. The way it manages to tie everything together is satisfying on a plot level.
Thank God for Christoph Waltz. The actor, who has already won two Oscars, can seem to do no wrong. He absolutely steals every scene he’s in; the rapport between him and Bond is absolutely electric. He strikes the perfect balance between charming and menacing that many felt had been missing from recent Bond films. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of him, but he manages to almost single-handedly enliven the final third of the film.
Unfortunately you have to slog through the rest of the film to get to the good stuff. And what a slog it is. Spectre is a dull and dreary experience of interminable length. Nothing is outright bad here, but nothing grips you either. Longtime franchise fans will likely get a lot out of the film’s numerous throwbacks and intriguing story, but everyone else may be scratching their heads wondering where it all went wrong.