Bond is back. After months of hype, and a couple of weeks after it arrived in other international territories, “Spectre,” the 24th official big-screen adventure for Ian Fleming’s spy hero (read our ranking of them all here), opened in North America. And financially, at least, it’s been successful: the film’s already made $100 million in the U.K alone, and took an estimated $73 million this weekend in the States, the second-biggest Bond opening of all time.
But critical and audience responses have been more mixed: an initial wave of mostly glowing reviews from Britain (excluding this disappointed correspondent) gave way to some fairly poor reviews in America, and the film now has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than the much-loathed “Quantum Of Solace.” Much of the film’s highs and lows involve late-in-the-game spoilery stuff we didn’t want to get into until people had a chance to see the film, but now that it’s out there, we’ve dug back in for a look at the good, the bad and the weird of Sam Mendes’ “Spectre,” which you can find below. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments. Major, major *SPOILERS* are ahead.
The opening tracking shot
The first sequence isn’t as thrilling as the motorbike-train-digger sequence in “Skyfall,” but “Spectre” does start off on a high. From “Gravity” to “True Detective,” extended tracking shots are very much in vogue at the moment, but 007’s rarely gone near them, until now, when Daniel Craig’s Bond (in a “Live And Let Die”- homaging Day Of The Dead mask) and a young lady walk through a celebrating Mexico City crowd, up to a hotel, are seemingly about to have sex, only for Craig to step out onto the balcony, climb over the rooftops, and assassinate a few terrorists plotting to blow a stadium. It’s showing off, but it’s a pretty spectacular, logistic-headache-causing way to start the movie in a distinctive way, and seems likely to enter the annals of great 007 openers.
Her character’s underserved by the movie in its later stages, but Lea Seydoux, understandably given that she’s a well-established, hugely talented actress, certainly stands out as the most notable female lead in one of these movies since Eva Green in “Casino Royale.” Making her Madeleine Swann the daughter of the villainous Mr. White is an intriguing twist on the old formula, but Seydoux swiftly makes the character stand out on her own, particularly in her enjoyably drunken scene in the Morocco hotel room. In some ways she might seem like an echo of Green’s Vesper, but that actually works thematically: it would make sense that Bond finally walks away with a woman reminiscent of the one who broke his heart.
With various acclaimed actors and Oscar-lauded performers involved, we’re sort of surprised that one of our favorite performances in the movie comes from a former WWE wrestler, but Dave Bautista builds on his scene-stealing breakout turn in “Guardians Of The Galaxy” to make a hell of an impression as the hulking henchman Mr. Hinx. Again, the character’s underwritten — it’s not like we want a backstory, just some idea of what’s driven him to walk into the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. annual general meeting and gouge a guy’s eyes out to get his boss’s attention — but Bautista has a ton of screen presence, and arguably wears a suit better than Craig, the contrast between Saville Row tailoring and extreme violence making him a fitting adversary for Bond. Frankly, we were a little disappointed he didn’t crop up in the third act, dragging an entire train by the neck with him.
The Train Fight
In a movie where the action mostly underwhelms, it’s good that we have at least one truly memorable set-piece, and it comes in the shape of the Moroccan train fight between Bond and Madeleine, and Bautista’s Mr. Hinx. Like much of the rest of the film, it’s an homage to 007 adventures gone by: in the case the all-time classic throw-down between Connery’s Bond and Robert Shaw in “From Russia With Love.” But it’s also brutal, well-staged, funny, and comes out of character: 007’s clearly outmatched by the physically superior Hinx, and can’t defeat him on his own. More like this, please.
The lighter tone
The Craig era has been a more serious one — short on quips, fantastical elements and the like, long on scowling and moody imagery. To begin with, that was certainly a boon, but it became a bit tired as soon as “Quantum Of Solace,” and as such, it’s nice to see the darkness a little less oppressive here. “Spectre” still has those Nolan-ish serious overtones, certainly, but Sam Mendes and his team seem to have steered into the silliness a little bit more, and it’s sometimes good to remember that this isn’t “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s a movie about an invincible spy taking on a secret organization. It’s not exactly “Spy” in terms of laughs, and it still is a Bond movie where the theme is Bond not wanting to be Bond anymore, but the tone’s somewhat sprightlier than before, and we have some of the better jokes in the Craig era here (the set-up for it is a little torturous, but we’re lying if we didn’t laugh at the payoff of “Now I know what C stands for…”).
Daniel Craig’s consistency
Whatever the ups and downs of his movies are, Craig (like Pierce Brosnan before him, whose movies were significantly worse) owns this role, having reinvented it for the new millennium. And though there are times here when it feels like his eyes have glazed over (he’s not exactly been reticent about talking about the difficulty of making the film on the press tour), Craig still makes every moment, even the sillier ones, utterly believable. He’s the most purely physical Bond (the ‘blunt instrument’ of “Casino Royale” is still around), but still has a classiness and wry humor there. If he is released from his contract after this one, we’ll be sad to see him go.
Strangely choppy editing
Hiring Christopher Nolan’s editor Lee Smith for cutting-room duties sounded like a positive, but it seems that he and Mendes haven’t yet gelled, because there’s some surprisingly odd choices here. Perhaps the post-production was more rushed than usual (the film was delayed both before and during the shoot), but the cutting of the action often feels choppy, the geography is often shaky, there isn’t a ton of suspense, and there’s more than one counter-intuitive choice going on. For instance, that helicopter corkscrew stunt in the opening sequence, which was done for real? It happens three times, but Mendes only lets us see the third of them, cutting to the interior during the first two. It completely deflates the stunt, and feels oddly botched for a movie where the craft is otherwise at such a high level.
It’s long, and slow, and has little momentum
One only has to watch the opening credits, with the full three writers or writing teams permitted by the WGA (“Skyfall” scribe John Logan, Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who’ve at least co-written every Bond pic since “The World Is Not Enough,” and Jez Butterworth), to sense that this might be one of those blockbusters driven not by a singular vision, but by endless panicked rewrites up to and beyond the start of production. Whether or not this is the case, the finished film moves listlessly between the set pieces (probably all planned out in pre-viz long before the script was done) without the momentum of “Skyfall” OR the pleasingly unhurried nature of the second half of “Casino Royale.” And the half-baked mystery never really feels like a mystery, particularly in the useless third act: Bond literally walks into Blofeld’s HQ, and seems to wait around until someone starts torturing him. It’s the longest Bond movie ever and it feels it, particularly thanks to the final, London-set sequence, which feels like a hat on a hat, and is structurally similar to the climax of the last movie. Rarely has a film in this franchise felt as strained as the story does here.
The action is mostly uninspired
Aside from the technical issues of how they’re cut, few of the action sequences here really sing. As we said above, we dug the train fight, but it is a direct nod to an earlier film, while the helicopter flip is an inventive stunt, but one that’s botched in the execution on screen. But the stuff beyond that is pretty disappointing. The big Rome car chase takes place on empty streets, with little real peril or narrative going on beyond ‘cars drive fast.’ It looks pretty, but it’s not exciting. Similarly, the Alpine plane chase has some good stunt work, but little momentum to tie them together: like Bond’s plane, it’s an oddly leaden-footed thing that feels, again, like a throwback to an earlier time, with none of the excitement of other 007 snow-bound sequences. And the third act is mostly made up plot convolutions: stuff blows up repeatedly, but there are no thrills. If you’re going to spend this much money on a Bond film, at least give us a few good setpieces: even the worst of Pierce Brosnan’s movies had some fun sequences.
Blofeld’s secret identity
As most of us had long suspected: we’ve been John Harrison-ed. Just as J.J. Abrams spent months denying that Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the “Spectre” team insisted that Christoph Waltz wasn’t 007’s arch-nemesis, despite him historically having been the head of the evil organization of the film’s title. So it’s hardly a shock when, in the third act, Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser tells a captured Bond that he now goes by the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As in the “Star Trek” film, it’s a revelation that means nothing to the characters, only the audience (and given that it’s over 30 years since Blofeld appeared on screen, only a certain section of the audience at that), which begs the question: what’s the point? Mystery for the sake of mystery isn’t appealing, and the film gains nothing from keeping Blofeld’s identity secret. In fact, it might lose something. Why not have Bond spend the movie tracking sinister S.P.E.C.T.R.E head Blofeld, and then discover later on that he’s really Franz Oberhauser, the boy he grew up with, which is still rubbish, but at least pays off within the reality of the movie?…
Blofeld in general
There’s so much wrong here with the movie’s grand villain that we had to split this out into two separate caps. For one, his big plan is muddy and mundane, closer to the ‘gain a Central American utilities contract’ machinations of “Quantum Of Solace” than the ‘steal diamonds to make a space laser to make nuclear weapons’ stuff of the character’s golden days. It’s something to do with surveillance, but the film’s frankly unclear on exactly what he hopes to achieve with the Ten Eyes system. Is he just hijacking it for his own nefarious purposes, or making money from selling his technology to the world’s governments? Either way, what the film aims in Edward Snowden-ish politics it loses out for by being kind of boring. Furthermore, as far as rebooted characters go, this isn’t exactly Heath Ledger’s Joker — this is more or less the most boring route you could take with a 21st century reboot. In fact, it might be worse, because the idea that he’s been driving everything in the previous four movies because daddy loved James Bond more than him makes him small and petty rather than a character to be genuinely feared. Again, imagine if the Joker wasn’t an agent of chaos, but someone who was really cross over a playground fight with Bruce Wayne. And finally, there’s Waltz himself. Those higher on the actor’s schtick might have more fun with it than we did, and he does at least underplay his tics early on, but we’re soon getting his trademark grin and theatrical line delivery, and it’s hard not to find that there are literally dozens of actors, including several in this movie (when she disappeared in the third act, we briefly thought that the movie was giving as a fake-out, and was going to show that Lea Seydoux was actually Blofeld — the film doesn’t even have that level of imagination), who could have done something more interesting with it.
Speaking of lack of imagination: C. We think Andrew Scott is a terrific actor, and he does a decent enough job with what he’s given here, but every actor carries a certain amount of baggage with them. And in Scott’s case, that baggage is Moriarty from “Sherlock.” We’re delighted he got the blockbuster paycheck here, but if you’re going to try and preserve some degree of ambiguity about whether this uptight new bureaucrat is also an evil mastermind, don’t cast the guy who millions of people only know from being one of the most famous villains in history (and one who we first met hiding in plain sight too). Because it’s crashingly obvious from the start what sort of role C is going to be playing in the movie.
The Bond girls
Some will complain that pointing out sexism in a Bond movie is a fool’s errand — sexism is a part and parcel of the franchise, and has been since the beginning. To which we’d reply: it’s 2015, get with the goddamn program. It’s perfectly possible to make a 007 movie without undervaluing the women, but “Spectre” does not do that at all. Oh, look, it’s Stephanie Sigman, star of the acclaimed “Miss Bala,” in the opening sequence, literally not saying a word! Then we get four minutes of Monica Bellucci, breaking new ground as the first age-appropriate 007 love interest, by which we mean that she’s a grieving widow who throws herself at Bond immediately after the funeral. Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann is a little more dimensionalized, but even then, the love story isn’t as organic as the one with Vesper in “Casino Royale” — one minute, she wants nothing to do with him, the next, they’re apparently in love, but the affair never convinces as something more than physical (perhaps because she and Craig don’t have a ton of chemistry). And then, she attempts to walk away from this life of action (which at least gives her some agency), only to be turned into a literal damsel in distress, trussed up next to a bomb like the love interest in a 1930s serial. Do better, Bond-makers.
“Skyfall” was one of the more sonically pleasing Bond films in history: the first legitimately great theme song, in Adele’s, in years, and a classy, memorable score by the great Thomas Newman. Despite Newman staying on, and Sam ‘the male Adele’ Smith coming on for theme duties, “Spectre” disappoints as far as the music goes. Newman’s score has a couple of moments of flair — the opening score gives a nice Mexican lilt to the classic Bond theme, for instance — but feels most uninspired, and seems to recycle a fair amount from “Skyfall” at that. Meanwhile, Smith’s contribution is just boring — a insipid, gloomy ballad seemingly made for reality TV show sob-stories rather than Bond opening credit sequences (and this credit sequence, by the way, is pretty bad — we positively laughed when it transposed octopus shadows onto a Christoph Waltz silhouette, making him look like Cthulu.
We were promised a boosted-up role for Ben Whishaw’s new Q this time around, and the actor certainly does get a little more to do, including getting involved in the action (if “hiding in a cupboard” qualifies as getting involved). Unfortunately, much of what’s in there is, if not actively bad, kind of baffling. When introduced in “Skyfall,” Whishaw gave the new Q an interestingly Zuckerberg-ish arrogance — he saw Bond as an old-school relic, and constantly seemed to believe he was the smartest man in the room, probably because he was. Here, all that seemed to have disappeared: he’s just a loyal tech-support staff of the kind we’ve seen dozens of times before. He also has a secret lab which can only be reached by ostentatiously speeding down the Thames in a giant fucking boat to get to it, which just seems stupid. The film also reintroduces gadgets, weened out after “Die Another Day”’s invisible car, to the franchise, but as with so much about the movie, they take the most boring possible options: an exploding watch and a car ejector seat that throwback to previous movies without doing anything new with them. The only new piece of technology is completely ludicrous: Q’s magic ring-testing machine (which he handily packed for the Alps), which allows him to show the entire organizational structure of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from the DNA of the previous people who’ve worn it.
The white cat
Look, in this nostalgia-happy age, we get that we’re going to get easter-egg throwbacks to previous movies, and we’ve mostly made our peace with that. But the white cat in the scene where Blofeld reveals himself might be a step too far. An undoubted trademark of the character, sure, but given the length of time since Blofeld was last on screen, viewers are probably more likely to associate the trope with Austin Powers than with Bond, and again, it’s played as a winking gag to audience members rather than something more interesting (as, too, is Blofeld’s CGI scar at the end). In fact, the only noteworthy thing about the lazy gag is that given that we don’t see the cat by the film’s end, we have to assume that the villain’s feline pal passed away when 007 blew up the North African base. James Bond: Cat Murderer.
It’s basically the same movie as “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” but nowhere near as good.
It probably gave Christopher McQuarrie some headaches, but moving the release date of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” might have been one of the smartest things that Paramount have ever done. Originally, the film was set to open this Christmas, but it got bumped up to the summer, and while everyone assumed that it was to get out of the way of “Star Wars” (and we’re sure that was a factor), it may also have been an attempt to get out ahead of “Spectre,” because the movies have virtually the same story. Superspy hero goes up against secret, shadowy terrorist organization? Check. Government bureaucrat attempts to shut down our hero’s employers? Check. Said hero goes solo in an attempt to track the organization down? Check. Tech-support best pal comes and joins him in the field? Check. Trip to North Africa in the second act? Check. Finale revolving around the Thames, before the arch-villain is captured? Check. It’s entirely coincidental, but the problem for 007 is that “Rogue Nation” did it so much more effectively. Few would deny that that film, like this, was to some degree structured around the set pieces, but those set pieces were so much more fun, and the bits in between so much more organic-seeming and fun, that it leaves “Spectre” seeming creaky and dull.
The location for the climax
“Hi mum! Yeah, the internship’s going really well. No, they’re not paying me, but I hope it might lead to something down the line, at least. You know how it is. No, I can’t just ask them for a job. (Pause). What do I actually do? I mean, I’m not really meant to talk about it. It’s all pretty secret. But it’s all kinds of things, really. Whatever they want me to do. Sometimes it’s just fetching Max coffee, or picking up his dry cleaning. But sometimes there are real opportunities. Like today, I had to photocopy a bunch of pictures of people who used to work for the organization, before they died. Then I broke into the old headquarters of MI6 in Vauxhall. Yeah, the one that got blown up a few years ago. Then I stuck up the photocopies around the building. And just strung a bunch of red string around, and some arrows and things. And then on the way out, I sprayed a name onto the memorial for fallen agent. John Blunt, something like that. I wrote it on my hand. (Pause). Yeah, no idea why. They all seem mental, to be honest. Oh shit! I just realized they asked me to take a net down, and I completely forgot. Bollocks. Ah, well. I did everything else. Anyway, I’ve got to go and rent a helicopter for some reason. Talk at the weekend. Love to dad.”
The Pale King
We could be wrong, but we suspect that someone bought Sam Mendes the “True Detective” boxset for Christmas. Almost immediately after that extended opening tracking shot, we get a reference to The Pale King, yet another alias for Oberhauser/Blofeld. It’s reminiscent of the Yellow King from the first season of the HBO crime drama, obviously (or possibly a weird David Foster Wallace reference — we half hoped that the Blofeld reveal would involve a bandana-wearing Jason Segel) but aside from that it appears to be completely useless: it’s dropped a few times, than never referred to or referenced again. What’s the point?
Reckless helicopter fighting
Post “Man Of Steel,” there’s been a fair amount of talk over the consideration of civilian casualties in giant action movies — hell, both “Age Of Ultron” and “Civil War” seem to use those as jumping off points to some degrees. And yes, there’s always a degree to which our heroes will be smashing up property and the like in a way that, in the real world, would lead to some stern questioning after. But that opening “Spectre” helicopter sequence, as 007 fistfights in a chopper above a crowd full of tens of thousands of revellers seems particularly shaky. However dark you make him, Bond should be a hero, and the ethics of risking the death of hundreds if the helicopter he’s in crashes, as he searches for a ring based mostly on personal grudges, is decidedly shaky. At least let him show some degree of concern for the innocent people around him, rather than a sociopathic focus — of if you want to go the latter route, at least pay that off somehow.
Anything else that you loved or hated about “Spectre?” Anything you want to see in the next Bond outing? Disagree completely with our take? Let us know in the comments.