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Spectre (2015) – Movie Review

It’s a strange thing, being a James Bond fan. With respect to things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, everyone’s favorite sex-crazed, sociopath super spy predates all of them. The Bond franchise has a long and storied history in print, film, and other media that goes back to the middle of last century. Odds are, the character has been a cultural icon since before your parents were even born. Maybe even your grandparents. Hell, the way James Bond gets around, he probably IS your grandparents. So as a Bond fan, I derive great satisfaction from the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters is such a consistent, culturally dominating force.

It’s the sense of self-satisfaction you get only when you create something, or become emotionally invested enough on someone else’s creation that you forget it’s not yours.

So believe me when I say it took a long time for me to comfortably accept the fact that despite being so clearly awesome, James Bond is also kind of stupid. The biggest part of any franchise’s long term success hinges on remaining culturally relevant. You could do it by setting complex stories in rich worlds. You could fill those worlds with compelling characters, endowed with well thought out developmental arcs. You could tackle relevant issues in unconventional but culturally relevant ways. Or, you could just go with another goddamn nuclear-jet-pack/secret-volcano-laser story. As influential and groundbreaking as the franchise has been, its gateway to longevity has been largely through the establishment and perpetuation of familiar tropes.

In other words, we go to the next Bond film because we kind of want to see the same thing we saw last time. You can’t blame the filmmakers entirely; whenever they tried something different (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Daniel Craig), people became uncomfortable. So we get the same gadgets, the same girls, the same jokes, and the same unnecessarily convoluted plans for world domination as the last time. Sometimes it works (Goldfinger), and sometimes it doesn’t (Die Another Day). But for some people, quality of content is less important than quantity. The easy familiarity that comes with knowing what to expect is the only thing they really want.

Sandler
As long as you keep watching them, he’ll keep making them.

That’s fine if you’re standing in line at McDonald’s, or pre-ordering tickets for the next Adam Sandler movie. But after decades of wearing ruts deep into the same ground, it looked like James Bond was finally ready to grow up with the release of Casino Royale in 2006. As tired as we all may be of seeing familiar things re-imagined as “darker” and “grittier”, the Bond franchise was past due for a makeover when Daniel Craig took over. Here was a new, shorter, blonder Bond who looked more like a prizefighter than an accountant. There was no Moneypenny. There was no Q. There were almost no gadgets. Casino Royale was a thrilling character study of a complex man coming to terms with who he is, and perhaps even learning to have a mother for the first time in his life.

It was the kind of story, and the kind of tone we hadn’t seen outside of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where we saw (the underrated) George Lazenby’s Bond fall in love, get married, and become a widower in what may still be the most mature film of the franchise. Sadly, that experiment failed after only one film. But there was hope, after Casino Royale, that this time the Bond franchise might finally develop a consistent reputation for good storytelling as well as explosions and bikinis. 

Well, those hopes were dashed by whatever the hell Quantum of Solace was supposed to be. That’s more than a little ironic because that film, more than any other, is the biggest reason we have Spectre today. Quantum seemed like a footnote by the time Skyfall appeared, and even though that film didn’t make a goddamn lick of sense, it largely recaptured what had been special about Casino Royale. Once again, Bond went off the beaten path and once again, the franchise seemed poised to outgrow its campy, repetitive past and flirt with newness.

And then, God damn it all to hell, here comes Spectre. “Spectre”, if you’re wondering, is the global terrorist organization introduced in You Only Live Twice, which is the Bond film that memorably introduced both the “secret volcano lair” and “Sean Connery wears racist yellow face disguise” tropes.

Connery
“I think I’m turning Japaneesh”

This is the genesis of the relationship between the two weakest entries in the Daniel Craig Bond oeuvre.

If you’re wondering why they didn’t just call Quantum of Solace “Spectre of Solace” or “Quantum of Spectre”, entire books have been written on that subject. But if you’re dying to know, this Hollywood Reporter article breaks it down for you. Basically, “Quantum” was supposed to be the new “Spectre”, but now that the lawyers have all been paid, the name is again fair game. That’s great, but if Bond HAS to have an international organization of professional rogues to match wits with (and I’m not so sure that he does, now that 1967 has come and gone), why do this? Why send the DeLorean back for something that, while a beloved piece of canon, is a central part of the Cold War era interpretation this incarnation of Bond has tried so hard to disavow?

I’m going to call it fan service, but this is hardly the first time a Bond film has felt derivative. If that was the only thing wrong with Spectre it would hardly be worth mentioning. But the shortcomings run deeper, and many of them are present right from the opening scene.

Thanks to a posthumous message his former boss (Judi Dench) conveniently recorded sometime before her unexpected death, Bond tracks a terrorist named Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) to Mexico City. What you’re not supposed to notice is that it’s never established how she obtained this information or when during the timeline of Skyfall she made this improbable recording. It’s just a contrivance meant to set the story in motion and then be forgotten about. I can accept that, but unfortunately the entire plot is constructed this way. Every story beat feels oddly perfunctory, as though we’re just ticking off boxes on the Bond Movie To-Do List. As such, the first breakthrough in Bond’s investigation comes not as the result of smart detective work. He’s just lucky that Spectre is the kind of terrorist organization where everyone wears conspicuous silver rings emblazoned with the corporate logo.  

Isis
You know, just like real terrorists.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t open with a bang. Hoyte van Hoytema (say that ten times fast) is a gifted cinematographer who is making a name for himself in American cinema, and Spectre should be at the top of his resume. Like most Bond movies, this one crisscrosses the globe, providing remarkable vistas both indoors and out. Every scene is staged, lit, colored and presented in absolutely gorgeous ways that occasionally save the film from itself. But Bond films always look good; it’s the story that’s usually the weak point, and this is especially true for Spectre. Yes, it’s exciting to see Bond and his enemy struggle for control of a helicopter as it spins out of control over a crowd of thousands.

It’s a competently shot sequence, it’s exciting, the music is very good, but there’s something not right.

Oh, wait. I know what it is.

The only reason any of this is happening is because five minutes earlier, Bond went after a room full of terrorists with a sniper rifle and managed to murder everyone except the guy he was after. We can all agree that James Bond kind of sucks at his job, right?  At some point in every film, the plot hinges on the fact that he shot the wrong guy, had sex with the wrong woman, or blew up half of Mexico City trying to catch one middle aged Spaniard. And not only is it better to be lucky than good, but it seems to be the only way Bond knows how to work. Spectre isn’t a spy thriller, it’s  a series of gimmicks that can only be overcome by Bond rage punching everything until a clue falls out, and then we’re on a plane to Morocco repeat the process.

It’s like Carmen San Diego for psychos.

Carmen
…or, Mandalorians…

Of course we know Bond isn’t going to die. Of course we know he’ll prevail in the end. But there is almost no dramatic momentum behind Spectre and therefore, little sense of danger. It’s just Bond, scowling and murdering his way from one obvious, conveniently placed clue after another – and I feel like the marketing campaign behind this film promised us more than that. What’s worse is that when we finally get to the climax, it all feels so…anticlimactic. Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan reunite their writing talents with director Sam Mendes. They attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Skyfall, but putting the band back together doesn’t produce nearly as satisfying a tune this time around.

And that’s not even a veiled reference to Sam Smith’s theme song, which proves how wrong I was when I assumed nothing could make me want to die more than that brain-raping monstrosity Jack White and Alicia Keys wrote for the Quantum of Solace soundtrack

But the true hubris of Spectre is reflected in an attempt to resurrect the Bond canon’s most famous – and outdated – villain. Cristoph Waltz plays the head of Spectre, a character old school Bond fans may remember, while everyone else will most likely shrug. Waltz is a fine actor who acquits himself well, but there’s precious little for him to do, depending on how much you like listening to monologues. There’s also a relationship between him and Bond that was not present in the original films. Not only does it make very little sense, but it actually manages to make James Bond feel even more implausible than he already is. Even worse, Spectre attempts to retcon the Daniel Craig era by linking the events of the previous three films to this one – something that requires some monumental leaps of logic.

head-explode1
“WTF?!? Makes…no…sense…unghhh….”

All films require a certain suspension of disbelief, but Spectre asks too much, and the rewards are so few. I remember immediately feeling palpable hostility toward most of Spectre’s baffling and unnecessary twists and turns. There is no particular reason the villain in this story specifically needed to be Spectre, instead of Quantum, or Exxon, or The League of Evil Clowns. It doesn’t matter, because the whole thing feels like an attempt to earn a free pass by cribbing character names from a film you enjoyed years ago, thereby guaranteeing you will enjoy this one!

Hey, remember that one movie you liked decades ago? Well this is an unrelated story written with little-to-no understanding of the original material, but it’s totally the same characters!

Give us your money!

NotKhan
All of it.

Hey, it’s not all bad. Dave Bautista takes a crack at Bond villain history as Spectre’s highly lethal Mr. Hinx – and while he doesn’t quite hit it out of the park, he holds his own. His pivotal train fight with Daniel Craig evokes – and nearly equals – a similar scene between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love. Unfortunately, neither Bautista or the rest of the rather large supporting cast get enough screen time. This particularly applies to Léa Seydoux, who plays Bond’s love interest. But there’s so little chemistry between her and Craig, and her character is so insubstantial, she barely seems visible even when she’s on screen. Monica Belluci, proudly touted as the oldest “Bond Girl” in history, is literally present in this film just long enough for Bond to enter her.

Yeah, really progressive guys. So Bond is into MILFs now. Way to break down barriers.

Even Moneypenny and Q fare poorly. Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris are as individually as delightful as ever, but their characters serve only to pay the price for Bond’s bad decisions, and it makes you wonder why they ever try to help him. Which reminds me, Craig himself spends the whole film looking like he’d rather slit his wrists than be onscreen. Just between you and me, it doesn’t help.

There’s also a subplot pitting Rory Kinnear as a bureaucratic foil for Ralph Feinnes’ M. Apparently someone’s talking about shutting down MI6 section, which would be an exciting development, if that hadn’t already been part of the plot to Skyfall. While technically relevant to the main plot, this sub-story is mainly boring and repetitive. It also forces you to sit through a  lot of hand wringing and monologuing about government surveillance, which I assume was meant to be a timely, socially conscious gesture. Instead, it feels like an ostentatious adornment meant to add fat to the story. It does, but not in the intended way, I’m sure.

There’s nothing particularly interesting or frightening about Spectre’s super confusing evil plan, and every time it’s explained it just sounds more like lazy, ripped-from-the-headlines pabulum. And when you add to all this a completely bonkers, utterly incomprehensible ending, I can’t stress enough how unsatisfied I felt at the end of Spectre. This film is every bit as terrible as Quantum of Solace, but it feels more disappointing in the afterglow of Skyfall. Instead of building on its predecessor’s momentum, Spectre feels like a film made on a dare. It goes through the motions but is all too content to play it safe, cash a paycheck and clock out early because it would rather be doing something else.

CraigFU
“Like me!”

If you’re keeping track at home, the four Bond films Daniel Craig have made have alternated between fantastic and awful. Obviously, this means that should he choose to make another, quality wise, it should be the proper spiritual successor to Casino Royale and Skyfall. Sadly, it’s beginning to look like Craig is through with the role, making him the second Bond in a row to leave a ton of potential on the table on his way out the door.

It’s a strange thing, being a James Bond fan. I guess the secret is learning to live with disappointment.

 

Jack Burton View All

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

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