Review: “Spectre”

Ian Fleming’s fictional spy, James Bond, returns to theaters in his 24th adventure, Spectre. Before taking a closer look at what may very well be Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond, Nick Fleming briefly looks back at the actor’s mark on both the character and the series at large.

The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS.

The Road to Spectre

After Die Another Day (2002), one gadget-laden and jokey entry in the series too many, James Bond’s future needed a recalibration. An invisible car wasn’t the series’ biggest problem: it was a character who was losing his potency in a post-9/11 world.

Initially a controversial choice, Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to portray Bond in an EON produced film, silenced cynics and gave old fans new reason to rejoice when Casino Royale was released in 2006 to universal acclaim. After years of irrefutable damage, the 21st entry rebooted the series and hearkened back to the core of Ian Fleming’s original interpretation of the character: mostly silent, crude, and somewhat dreary, Bond is a blunt instrument of Her Majesty’s Secret Service dispatched to pull a trigger. He is a killer.

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Beginning with “Casino Royale” (2006), Daniel Craig redeemed a character who had lost his intensity.

After decades in superhero-mode, here was a 007 who got knocked down, bled, loved, and lost. As effortlessly as Sean Connery’s Bond could thwart an entire crime syndicate taking up residence in a hollowed-out volcano is as easy as it was for one man to hurt Craig’s interpretation of the character. The element of physical danger — and for the first time in a long time, emotional turmoil — had returned to the series.

If the specifics of Quantum of Solace (2008) escape you, you are not alone. Though the followup to Casino Royale is mostly forgettable, what is significant is that by the film’s end Bond has made some sort of peace with the ghost of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). True to real life, the first woman he gives his heart to is also the first person to have broken it. Bond never truly lets anyone else inside again. At least not yet.

Her betrayal and death at the end of Casino Royale changes 007 in fundamental ways. Who would have surmised that it was a broken heart that made Bond Bond?

After the culmination of six years and two films setting up the character, 2012’s Skyfall finally saw 007 more akin to the suave portrayals from the days of old without losing the psychological depth and gritty realism Craig had brought to the role. If he was a young and crude agent in the previous entries, he is now smoothly self-confident, sardonically humorous, and older. For the first time in the history of the series, time was allowed to pass and Bond’s age is pointedly addressed. Wounded, suspected by his superiors of having lost a step or two, but by no means inadequate at his job, 007 becomes the hunted as he and M seek refuge against disgraced agent turned cyberterrorist, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

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“Age is no guarantee of efficiency.” Bond down, but not out in “Skyfall” (2012).

Whereas previous entries in the series stuck close to a specific formula that made Goldfinger (1964) a pop-culture phenomenon, director Sam Mendes took it further, planting ideas about the human condition into the action, including: the anxiety that surrounds aging, loyalty to one’s country, and the meditation of the untraditional mother-son relationship between M, Bond, and Skyfall‘s antagonist, Silva. This is not your father’s Roger Moore-romp.

After Skyfall‘s smashing success, there was never any doubt that James Bond would return, but what would be in store for the series that had seemingly reached an all-time high?

“…And Finally, Here We Are”: Spectre Review

After more than four troublesome decades tied up in legal strictures, SPECTRE, the criminal syndicate that first plagued James Bond in 1962’s Dr. No, is back in the fold and up to its old ways in the follow-up to 2012’s Skyfall, the aptly titled Spectre. The sequel, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing and Sam Mendes’ second in the director’s chair, follows 007 in rogue-mode after disobeying M’s (Ralph Fiennes) direct orders. Pursuing a lead left for him by the former head of MI6 (Judi Dench cameos in a short video), Bond travels to Rome, infiltrates the meeting of a mysterious crime syndicate, and identifies the leader at the head of the table as Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).

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The film’s pièce de résistance is one of the film’s quieter moments: the introduction of the head of Spectre, Franz Oberhauser.

From there, the plot falls back onto a formula that both acute fans steeped in the series’ history and casual viewers simply along for the ride will recognize: globetrotting, the larger-than-life villain with a diabolical scheme, the silent right-hand man, explosive gadgets, beautiful women, and tongue-in-cheek humor are all present. Depending on your tastes, this is either Spectre‘s greatest strength or its Achilles heel. 007’s latest adventure falls somewhere in-between, but unfortunately closer to the latter.

On one hand, Spectre can be seen as the culmination of Craig’s four-film cycle; a nine year run that has left the series in a better place than where it started; a celebration of Bond as both a character and as an adjective. Spectre is what it means to be a “Bond movie,” albeit with a contemporary spin.

Unfortunately, the film’s blatant tongue-in-cheekiness feels like a betrayal of the gravitas Casino Royale and Skyfall established so well. Yes, we’re still talking about a Bond film, but wouldn’t you believe that viewers are more inclined to follow along and engage with the plot when the title character shows signs of mortality? The change in tone and 007 himself is simply too fantastic. For instance, whereas Bond struggled to hit his mark in Skyfall, here he is in Superman-mode, shooting down a helicopter high overhead. From a moving speedboat. In the dark.

Earlier in the film, Bond falls from a crumbling building in Mexico City only to land squarely on a well placed sofa.

Either the “7” in “007” is really lucky, or the production team made a misstep in jettisoning the existence of a real person in favor of an action star who blows up Spectre’s entire lair in one shot.

Had Mendes, Craig, and the writers stopped to think that the synthesis of bare-knuckle intensity, emotional stakes, and touch of the fantastic all present in Skyfall were perfectly balanced, would they have kept pushing the limits? Were they so excited to return to the notion of a “classic Bond picture” that they never considered that their previous effort had become the new standard by which both the character and future adventures are measured?

“I understand double-O’s have a very short life expectancy…”

By all means, Spectre is worth the ticket; after all, this is a series built on escapism and 007’s latest has it. Though he’s too bulletproof, Craig’s performance is fun and worth the the look. If he officially announces “never again,” producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson will face the uphill battle of not only having to replace him, but taking the series in new, daring, and hopefully successful directions. Simply bringing in a new actor and having him imitate Craig playing Bond would be as unwise as the time George Lazenby tried to beat Connery at his own game in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Instead, the producers’ best bet is to surround the new man in the tuxedo with a production team of Skyfall and Spectre‘s caliber. Sam Mendes’ staging of the talent and action, Thomas Newman’s score, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography at least make Spectre look and sound as good as whatever your favorite entry in the series may be. Unfortunately, if they exit along with their leading man, it really will feel like starting over again.

Maybe it’s time.

For a series that has faced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs, Spectre is neither that bad nor that good. However, after a well-calculated character trajectory and the return of a classic Bond villain, one wishes the sum of these parts was something greater — and smarter — than Spectre.

James Bond will return. He always does.

James Bond will return. He always does.

Spectre is in theaters now.

Spectre
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
148 minutes
Rated PG-13
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures
United Kingdom
United States
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