Review: SPECTRE Does Not Rid The Bond Series Of Its Demons

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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Review: SPECTRE Does Not Rid The Bond Series Of Its Demons
Any review of a James Bond film should probably start with a short overview of the reviewer's opinions with regards to the whole franchise. What kind of Bond does he or she prefer? Which tropes are considered delightful, harmful, funny or irritating? How strong a bullshit-filter is applied, and does that differ between Bond-films and other thrillers?

So I'll begin with answering the questions above. I grew up in the Roger Moore Bond-era, and therefore he used to be my favorite Bond. Each Bond film is basically a compilation catalogue of what is considered cool at the time of release, be it clothes, science, cars, swimsuit models, and music, and the Moore films presented these with a humor, glamour and cheek which later Bonds failed to match. As I do not regard these films as having a narrative seriously worth following, I don't apply the same rules and demands to a Bond film that I'd use with a regular thriller. I fully allow Bonds to be totally ridiculous without it harming my enjoyment, a luxury other thrillers need to earn first. As long as James' exploits are fantastic and sensational, I'm good.

Or thrilling. Thrilling is good too. I love From Russia With Love, despite it being a Connery Bond.

Which brings us to the Daniel Craig era. Casino Royale was actually rather low on the fantastical and sensational front, but it was thrilling as hell, and provided an alternative, grittier take on the character which was surprisingly palatable. Instead of mannequins, with Bond and Lynd we got actual characters, with actual chemistry. Tentatively judging the film on its own merits as a decent thriller was possible, and it even got itself an on-and-off relationship with IMDB's famous Top-250 best-rated films list. Me, I loved it so much, it is now my favorite James Bond, and so is Daniel Craig.

And while Quantum of Solace wasn't too hot on the stand-alone front, combined with Casino Royale it actually provided a good bit of universe building, with Bond brushing up against something big and invisible in the background, an Illuminati-like pact of controlling evil. Could it be... (gasp) SPECTRE?!

So when the news became known that the new film was going to be called Spectre, we all went ooooooooh... would it address some of the plot-related issues in the previous two films? Would Blofeld make an appearance?
Even better yet: the early teasers were excellent while low on action, pointing towards a dark thriller with loads of dread and drama. I was stoked.

Now that the end result had arrived here in cinemas for all to see (I'm Netherlands-based), I couldn't wait to check it out. And a dark thriller with loads of dread and drama is what we got... for a large part. Be warned though: the remainder is filled with the silly impossible stuff I used to need that Bond-bullshit-filter for. Spectre hits some of the highs of Skyfall, but unfortunately also most of its lows: it's breathtakingly beautiful at times, yet teethgnashingly stupid at other times.

The film starts very, very strong, with James attending a huge "Day of the Dead" festivity in Mexico in one of the whole franchise's most gorgeous pre-credit opening sequences. Bond is there to kill someone, things get a lot more explosive than he planned, and James needs to be his most tenacious self to make things work out in the end. Cue a dark, sexy title sequence and a cold welcome in the London office of MI-6, where Bond's rather visible approach is not appreciated.

But Bond is obviously hiding something from both friends and foes, and especially from his colleagues who might be both. For unknown to MI-6, James has received a secret assignment from an old acquaintance, and a chance to strike back at an invisible enemy which has been plaguing him...

So, yeah... dark thriller, dread, drama. Check, check, and check. The flashy universe of James Bond has never looked hazier and murkier than in Spectre. That this doesn't become ugly or visually boring is because of excellent work by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who we all love for Let the Right One In, Interstellar, and (most fitting) Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Skyfall was rightfully lauded for Roger Deakins' great cinematography, and I wouldn't be surprised if Hoyte van Hoytema's work here gets equally appreciated.

While its story takes a few strands and pointers from Quantum of Solace, Spectre is far more a companion piece to Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes helmed both, and both films share a focus on James' past character development. Unfortunately, both films also share some serious blind spots with regards to logic. Back in 2012, Brian Clarke saw Skyfall, and check this quote from his review:
There are a few baffling jumps in the plot, which I normally wouldn't mention in a review of a Bond movie, except that the movie is so assured most of the time that they are difficult to ignore. There are also a few thematic threads that Mendes inexplicably hammers home over and over again even though they weren't terribly profound or important in the first place.
Whoa. True words, all of them, and fully applicable to Spectre as well. And once again Bond gets baggage added to his "mythos" that isn't... well... actually adding anything.

This is a film which does fine work setting up a serious atmosphere and suspension of disbelief in one scene... only to see it all wasted in the next scene when some of the Bond franchise's silliest tropes make a re-appearance. We have a superhuman henchman, car porn, a genius super-villain who nevertheless lets Bond keep his gadgets during interrogation... ugh. Things like these would normally be called par for the course in a Bond, but when the groundwork has been set to advance to something better, when the filmmakers actively invite you to take away your bullshit filter... it hurts to then be hit with silly bullshit.

I get that a Bond film needs to be entertaining, but does that imply it has to be stupid as well? You'll see James Bond secretly investigating something in Morocco, staying inconspicuous by having a ravishing Léa Seydoux in a very revealing glamorous dress traipse through the back-allies of Tangier. Yep, that doesn't attract attention at all. There are far better and more jarring examples, but they'd include spoilers.

Speaking of Léa Seydoux, she's fine, though she is a constant reminder that James Bond is no longer the only player on the glamorous spy market. I couldn't help wondering if she fell off of that tower in Mission Impossible 4 to arrive straight into the hospital where we first find her in Spectre. At least she has more to do than Monica Belucci, whose appearance here was much-heralded (with many cries of "finally Bond dates someone his own age!"), though it amounts to little more than a brief cameo. Christoph Waltz is there as well and doesn't make a buffoon of himself, but he never gets to be as charismatic as Javier Bardem was in Skyfall. Then again, that is a rather high bar to reach I suppose...

The action is a mixed bag as well. The intimate fights are great, and I loved seeing Daniel Craig and Dave Bautista square off against each other. But throughout the movie, the bigger the explosions become, the more obviously fake the stunts are. Another ugh..

All in all I liked Spectre, but it's too flawed for me to love it. Merging a serious story with Bond's sillier shenanigans may be difficult, but Casino Royale somehow managed it. Spectre, however, falls well short of that high-mark, and as great as some of its moments are, it might actually be the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond movies.


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rustdogOctober 30, 2015 11:13 AM

Excellent review, sir. I think I rank Skyfall as my favorite Craig Bond film. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here with Craig's public announcement of his aversion to ever play the character again.

Todd HarringtonOctober 30, 2015 11:34 AM

That Brian Clarke quote underlines my issue with Sam Mendes in general. I find in every one of his film so many "this is IMPORTANT" bits that I refer to him as "Tom Oakley" among my friends -- beautiful visualist and great actor's director, but a little too self-impressed when it comes to his handling of themes and subtext. "THAT'S reality."

KurtOctober 30, 2015 3:05 PM

I'm kind of a QUANTUM OF SOLACE apologist. I wasn't overly impressed with CASINO ROYALE (and I love me some Mads). Liked SKYFALL a lot, but Bardem's plans seemed clumsy and convenient to me. (And that was a waste of damn good scotch.)

RolandDeschain1 .October 30, 2015 5:39 PM

Agreed. Never moreso than in the case of ROAD TO PERDITION.

That movie was so precious and in love with its own artistry Mendes forgot that a pulpy bit of material like that sometimes needs a bit of gratuitousness.

Unflinching_EyeOctober 30, 2015 7:23 PM

Weaker than Quantum? Ouch.

arturoOctober 31, 2015 4:32 PM

You're just nit-picking, I saw Spectre and it's a solid Bond movie, much to enjoy, I loved the cold dreaded feel throughout the movie and Dave Bautista makes a modern day Jaws villain.

UilickMcGeeOctober 31, 2015 4:57 PM

I wasn't sold on the whole "something from Bond's past" aspect of the plot. Watched it this morning expecting his life to be turned upside down with some big revelation. Then it's told to him and his reaction is pretty much "meh". Movie carries on as normal and it means nothing in the long run.

To me it just felt like a flippant attempt at creating depth within a franchise that's been pidgeon-holed into a shallow rehash of plot devices and and character conventions. Pointless and inconsequential, like mammaries on a nun.

UilickMcGeeOctober 31, 2015 5:08 PM

In many ways I found Oberhauser's slip into idiocy even more glaring than Silva's. This guy is head of a large and extremely powerful organisation, one that everyone other than Bond is terrified by. Yet Franz can't help but dabble in the same theatrics and villainous foreplay that got all of his previous employees caught and/or killed by Bond.

Chiwrtr72October 31, 2015 6:17 PM

Wow... any reviewer who states his favorite Bond is Roger Moore immediately disqualifies himself as capable of reviewing Bond.

GBannisOctober 31, 2015 10:07 PM

Roger Moore became something of a joke as his Bond movies got worse and worse, but he's a good actor and made a great spy in the beginning. One day, take a look at his TV series, "The Saint."

Chiwrtr72November 1, 2015 12:11 AM

I agree that the Saint is quality. My observation was strictly about Bond. Anyone whose favorite Bond is Moore has no credibility reviewing Bond movies.

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 7:36 AM

QUANTUM is a bit of an odd story when seen by itself, but it makes a great epilogue for CASINO ROYALE, and I'd have loved it even more if it had turned out to be the middle part of a trilogy.

The powers that be decided to do something different though, and SKYFALL / SPECTRE happened.

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 7:37 AM

K-ching. My biggest nit-pick. Like with SKYFALL, Bond encounters a villain who has already won, who already has the world at his feet. Boredom and petty neurotics kill them, rather than Bond.

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 7:41 AM

Bar the nit-picking part (why, you little...) I actually agree with everything you say. I like the film as a Bond, I love the dread, and I really liked Dave as a human wall for Bond to bounce against.

It's just that the film offers a peek at something greater than a Bond film, and when it has already achieved that, it does a "nah, why bother" and lets it all fall to a lower level again. And I think that's a shame.

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 7:44 AM

Yeah, we had a discussion here at TwitchFilm Central whether my appalling taste would disqualify me, and overrule me having seen the film a few days earlier than my colleagues. In the end I was allowed to write this review, on the condition I put this big-ass disclaimer at the start.

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 7:44 AM

(sniff...)

Ard VijnNovember 1, 2015 8:39 AM

I like Roger Moore even more paired up with Tony Curtis in THE PERSUADERS. Great, great fun with two decadent friends ad-libbing half of their lines.

Unflinching_EyeNovember 1, 2015 1:44 PM

I'll have to revisit QOS again at some point. One of my main issues with it was that I didn't like the way some of the action was filmed. I remember thinking at the time that it felt more like one of the Bourne films than a Bond film.

tman418November 9, 2015 8:33 PM

So, is it just me, or did anyone else notice this...?

Bond clearly does not give a S*** about the consequences of his actions, or innocent civilians. He almost brings down a helicopter over a huge crowd, blows up an entire apartment complex just to kill one guy, and crashes into HOUSES in a mountain to rescue one girl. It is by sheer luck, and ONLY luck, that he doesn't hurt many others (and himself) in the process.

But what can expect from the guy who stormed an embassy and blew it up afterwards in Casino Royale?