Skyfall gave us Moneypenny, and it gave us Q. It gave us a smart gun, a pocket transceiver, and a wicked cool retro-style Aston Martin that may or may not have had an ejection seat. It gracefully retired franchise mainstay Judi Dench while instating a new M who — as in the earliest Bond films — was male. Bond and his colleagues were forced to question whether their Cold War-era methods and way of thinking had any place in the post-9/11 Internet age. And last but not least, after Quantum of Solace made such a big show out of giving Bond closure after the death of Vesper Lynd, Skyfall made it clear that the issue was closed.
Basically put, Skyfall was a promise. It was crafted and delivered in such a way as to reassure the audience that Bond was back like never before. It revived and reinvented so many retro aspects of the franchise that had been lost in the reboot, and did so in a way that was fun and faithful without ever descending into camp. What’s more, it seemed like the series was set for a course correction, ditching the dead weight of Vesper and Quantum while bringing up questions about the changing world of surveillance and global security.
Then came word that the 24th Bond film would be called Spectre. This, too, was a promise. The promotions overtly swore that the series would start its newest chapter with a bang by reintroducing James Bond’s greatest adversary; the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terror, Revenge, and Extortion. SPECTRE, who hadn’t been seen in a Bond movie since Diamonds are Forever way back in 1971. On top of that, word came down that director Sam Mendes (returning from Skyfall) was looking for an iconic henchman worthy to join the ranks of Jaws and Oddjob. The role was eventually cast as Dave Bautista, fresh off his breakout role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Christoph Waltz — the Oscar-winning erstwhile Nazi himself — was cast to play the lead villain, and by now we were all so hyped that speculation was running rampant about whether or not he would be playing Bond’s signature archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
And of course, we mustn’t forget that this movie reportedly cost somewhere in the ballpark of $300 million dollars. Which (as we learned from the Sony leaks) makes it the most expensive movie Sony has ever produced. In fact, save only for the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films, that makes it the most expensive movie of all time.
Put simply, everything about Spectre was potential. Everything about it was a promise. Audience expectations for this one were through the roof, but at least we had the previous movie to help guide where the franchise had to go. And while the promises of Skyfall weren’t exactly broken, they were certainly mishandled.
Take, for example, the conflict of old-fashioned spies in the field to modern-day cyber-snooping and drones. It worked superbly in Skyfall because it was the franchise’s 50th anniversary and it seemed an appropriate time to question why James Bond still matters. Moreover, the issue was addressed in a nicely even-handed way, and the occasional monologue delivered with Judi Dench’s charisma certainly didn’t hurt.
Compare that to this movie, in which the big superthreat is some vague international cooperative venture of nine global superpowers policing the internet through a swanky new building in London. And it’s presented in such a cartoonishly evil manner that the character spearheading this project is played by Andrew Scott, best known as the guy on BBC’s “Sherlock” who plays James Fucking Moriarty. I’m sorry, but there’s absolutely no way to hold a thoughtful and intelligent conversation about online surveillance when it’s so explicitly clear from start to finish that the online surveillance system is an evil plot. That’s just not gonna happen.
Then we have the callbacks. As I’ve said before, Skyfall seemed to make it perfectly clear that the past was past with regards to the three rebooted films to date and we’re moving forward. Cut to Spectre, which is positively lousy with callbacks. Everyone in this movie loves to rub it in James Bond’s face that Silva, Le Chiffre, Quantum, and the deaths of so many innocent people — not to mention pretty much all of Bond’s previous lady loves — can be traced directly back to Spectre.
How? Never explained! Seriously, there’s never even a token effort at explaining how all three of the previous films tie back to Spectre, we’re just repeatedly told that it’s so and we have to take it for granted.
What’s even worse is that Judi Dench gets a brief cameo by way of a previously recorded info-dump. How did she come to find this information? Why didn’t she mention any of this to Bond or give it to another agent before she died? Again, it’s never explained.
In summary, the callbacks in this movie are cheap and lazy ways of getting the audience to give a shit about the plot by way of tapping into our connection with the previous movies. Either that or it’s a cheap and lazy way to cover up plot holes. Either way, the callbacks are cheap and lazy, and they’re done over and over and OVER again.
Then we have Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw, all of whom were given very promising debuts in Skyfall. Fiennes plays an authoritative M, and Ben Whishaw actually gets a bit of action away from a computer screen, both of which are welcome to see. But the biggest disappointment is Naomie Harris, who exploded onto the scene in a big way during the opening action sequence of Skyfall. This iteration of Moneypenny was supposed to be a worthy ally for Bond, perfectly capable of holding her own in an action sequence or in a flirting match. Alas, though Harris’ chemistry with Craig is still beautifully on point, Moneypenny is stuck behind a computer through pretty much the entire running time. Such a waste.
Speaking of love interests, there’s the matter of Lea Seydoux. I love her and I would gladly call myself a fan, so it breaks my heart that she had nothing to work with here. The character of Madeleine Swann is pathetically bland, with a nasty tendency to only be as competent and proactive as the plot needs her to be at any given time. Hell, she only had a bit part in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and her turn in that movie was far and away more badass and memorable. What’s even worse is that Seydoux’s terrible chemistry with Craig is a non-starter, and the characters’ romance is such a huge part of the plot that it comes damn close to being a dealbreaker.
In fact, Bond’s makeout sessions in this movie are laughably bad. Whether it’s Lea Seydoux or Monica Bellucci, their love scenes are unintentionally hilarious in how they begin and how they’re presented.
This brings me to Monica Bellucci, who is criminally wasted in this picture. As one of the greatest living exotic beauties known to Hollywood, Bellucci was way, way, WAY overdue to join the ranks of the Bond girls (She would have left a far greater impression than Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, Olga Kurylenko in Quantum of Solace, or Berenice Marlohe in Skyfall. Just saying.). In fact, Bellucci is now the very first bona fide Bond woman in franchise history to have been cast over the age of 50. And then Bellucci is unceremoniously escorted out of the movie after something like four minutes of screen time, having accomplished just short of jack. I seriously want to slap the filmmakers for making such a criminal waste.
Moving on to the villains, I’m sorry to say that Dave Bautista doesn’t get to show off any more of his beloved comedy chops. He’s stuck playing a huge pile of muscle, but at least it’s a job he does better than most. Christoph Waltz seems to be sleepwalking through his role, but the man was born to play a Bond villain, so it still works. I’d elaborate more on Waltz’ character, but so much of it is tied up in spoilers so contrived and ridiculous that I couldn’t make sense of them on paper if I tried.
So let’s move on to the retro flavor. Skyfall promised that we’d see updated versions of the old Bond tropes we’ve come to know and love, and the movie does a halfway decent job delivering on that promise. We do see villains placing Bond in overly elaborate death traps that of course he eventually escapes from, Q does hand out the occasional spy gadget, and we do get a brand new tricked-out Aston Martin that does indeed come equipped with an ejection seat.
But then we have the action scenes, which are all over the place. Of course the action set pieces are all huge and destructive in uniquely creative ways, but they left a lot to be desired in terms of style. A key example is the opening sequence, which might have been passable if it didn’t invite comparisons to the uniformly incredible opening sequences of the past three movies. Watching the foot chase in the opening, with its terrible shaky-cam and its uninspired action, I found myself longing for the breathtaking experience of the parkour chase at the start of Casino Royale. Bond fights some guys in a helicopter, but it wasn’t even half as tense or exciting or cleanly presented as the train sequence at the start of Skyfall. And say what you will about Quantum of Solace, but that opening car chase sequence was far and away greater than any of the car chases in this movie.
To be entirely fair, Skyfall was shot by grandmaster Roger Deakins, who scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination for that movie. That’s a tough act to follow, even for someone with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s outstanding body of work. Credit is also due to Stuart Baird, the editor who stitched together such gorgeous action sequences for Casino Royale and Skyfall. Anyone would fare badly in a comparison to such monumental work, and that sadly goes for Lee Smith.
Oh, and let’s not forget Sam Smith. Letting him perform a Bond theme song works about as well as letting The Wiggles play at Woodstock. And of course he fares even worse in comparison to Adele’s Oscar-winning “Skyfall”, easily one of the all-time greatest theme tunes in franchise history.
Spectre is absolutely a fun movie on its own merit — the returning cast members are all very enjoyable to watch and the action is 007’s unique brand of over-the-top. Unfortunately, it falls short of being a good movie. Leaving aside the mishandled female leads, the movie focuses far and away too much on the three movies that came before, but not in such a way that it adds anything new to those films we already thought we knew. It alienates viewers coming in cold, it pads out the running time, it invites comparisons to Casino Royale and Skyfall — both far better movies — and it’s just lazy writing.
It’s good to see that the filmmakers are at least trying to reintroduce the cartoonish villains and fancy gadgets that are iconic to the series, and I appreciate that they’re looking for a way of doing that in a way that’s consistent with the morally ambiguous nature of our modern world and the rebooted franchise. Unfortunately, while I appreciate the effort, they haven’t yet found a way to make the balance work.
It’s still worth seeing, but ONLY if you’ve been catching up on the rebooted Bond so far. Those just getting started and those who’ve stopped caring need not apply. And as for the IMAX premium, forget it.