Ian Fleming’s suave British superspy, James Bond, has been a pop culture icon for over 50 years. Evolving from a literary character to the quintessential blockbuster action hero, he’s gone through decades of re-invention that both innovates and reflects where contemporary cinema goers are in terms of pop culture and what they like from their pulp escapism and fantasy. Who is James Bond? Why ‘nobody does it better’? What drives him and these films about him? These questions rarely came up in Bond’s early days until the radical 2006 re-invention Casino Royale, the 1st time Daniel Craig stepped in the role. That was the moment the franchise began to wrestle with what made the man tick, and the next two films, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were all about moving this anachronistic character into our modern world, or at least the heightened/romanticized “Bond” equivalent to it. The Bond films have been about many things, some even as ridiculous as cloning and space lasers but the one thing they have never been about is nostalgia. These were movies of their time, occasionally forward-thinking enough to define genre movie-making for the foreseeable future. All Spectre does is regurgitate well-worn tropes without any clue how to re-engineer them for modern standards. Everything old felt new in Skyfall but here, everything is just old. The movie actually would even be just fine as a love letter/homage to those tropes but a lack of strong narrative tissue connecting those beats only compound their ineffectuality. Spectre is a movie so obsessed with regressing Bond back to the past that it plays like a soulless greatest hits cover album.
I’ll give Spectre one-up on what we consider to be most “bad” Bond films though: director Sam Mendes. The filmmaker is back from the success of Skyfall and his direction is still amusing and stylish, but only to a point this time. The movie’s missing the lush cinematography of Roger Deakins and the crisp editing of Stuart Baird, but their replacements, Hoyte Van Hoytema and Lee Smith, aren’t amateurs in either of their fields. The movie opens cold with an elaborate single-take tracking shot (recalling Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman) that leads to one of the best action sequences in the series’ history. It’s just downhill from there and it’s hard to argue that Spectre’s not quite as gorgeous or propulsive as it could be. The story – a really dismal work credited to John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth is misbegotten and sick with shallow cliches (with little understanding how those function) and movie-breaking plot gaps. After a bizarre Lovecraftian horror-meets Japanese tentacle porn credits sequence set to Sam Smith’s terrible song, Spectre sluggishly (and often illogically) trudges from location to location, occasionally stopping to have a bafflingly poorly shot & edited action sequence and/or have Bond “seduce” someone (Craig is strangely asexual this time) and/or receive exposition. The movie finds Bond on the hunt for the titular organization and that would be strong enough to carry any other movie forward (Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation showed what you can do with a simple/straightforward yet efficient throughline) but Spectre adds in other threads like a commentary on government surveillance, a tale of two brothers and a love story into the mix while woefully under developing all of them in the hopes that they can skate by on homage/call-backs. None of the movie’s story/narrative problems would really matter if the action were up to the modern standard (as it was with Skyfall), but this is not the case here. There is one great action scene and a few serviceable ones but most are poor. Time and time again the action scenes never climax so much as fizzle and they all have issues of timing, editing and geographic incoherence that keeps them from being genuinely thrilling and/or visually interesting.
Spectre isn’t just a bad movie, it is a bewildering mess of a story completely driven by clichés. The film is both too long and not long enough. Characters are supposed to hit certain points in the narrative but the film does not spend time to actually sketch the arc from Point A to Point B and all the while reducing action scenes to stake-less tedium. There is no sense of discovery or excitement in Spectre, and it’s one of those movies that play the JJ Abrams-card of hiding information from the audience for no good reason. When Bond infiltrates a SPECTRE meeting, he comes face to face with the group’s leader, who looks at him and says “CUCKOO!!” (I’m not joking) and then we spend the next 90 minutes unsure what the point of that was. Bond knows (he tells us he knows), the bad guy obviously knows, the movie just refuses tell us. It’s not funny enough to be entertaining but it is also not serious enough to be engrossing and, along the way, it diminishes James Bond and ruins one of his great recurring antagonists (from the novels and films). Christoph Waltz (who is clearly slumming it) plays a man who claims that he is “the author” of all of Bond’s pain, and is given a motivation so lame that I thought it was a prank. His character and his motivation aren’t the problems in and of themselves so much as the fact that the film refuses to do anything remotely interesting with them (keeping them a mystery for the majority of the film only makes matters worse). Add that to clumsily forcing this movie to “tie” with the three past Daniel Craig movies and you have a recipe for narrative disaster.
All the more frustrating is seeing the potential for a solid movie threatening to push its way onto the screen. Spectre fleetingly uses iconography and nomenclature from occult lore suggesting a True Detective style re-imagining of the titular organization into a contemporary pulp shadow menace but instead we get something out of an after school special. The commentary on imperialism and global security is not only gutless but it is made uninteresting when juxtaposed with the otherwise fantastical nature this Bond adventure keeps trying to be. And the movie’s attempts at bringing sex, sexuality and romanticization to the proceedings are strangely clinical and cold. The cast assembled would be gangbusters in any other film but not here. Actresses Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux are absolutely wasted in their respective roles: the former is a glorified cameo and the latter portraying Bond’s “love interest.” Allow me to digress about Seydoux for a moment: I believe she is one of the finest actresses of our time and she does her damndest to make something of her first mainstream starring role (she’s been relegated to foreign and art-house films) but the story and dialogue gives her little material to work with. Seydoux is reduced to little more than a sexy lamp and I can’t say whether she has any “chemistry” with Daniel Craig or not simply because they are given zero scenes to provide their “love story” an actual arc (far more effective is Craig’s scene with Bellucci but that’s not saying much since he kisses her as if he’s giving mouth-to-mouth to a dead fish). The rest of the supporting cast does not fare well either: Ralph Finnes, Naomi Harris, Ben Wishaw and Rory Kinnear are basically flesh & blood iPhone apps for Bond to call up when the movie can’t figure out how it needs to get to the next checkpoint. Also Jesper Christensen (returning from Casino Royale & Quantum) and Andrew Scott show up to look menacing while former-wrestler Dave Bautista tries to have fun with a couple fisticuffs. The worst offense is Waltz and it supports my hypothesis about him: when he’s not in a Quentin Tarantino film, he is utterly underused and terrible. You always get a sense of what Waltz and the movie is trying to do but every speech Waltz must deliver is so uninspired that his otherwise menacing delivery makes him sound like the high school principal of an 80s sitcom. Daniel Craig really grew into his role in the last 2 films but this time he really seems uncomfortable with any scene that requires his Bond to do anything but glower and pose. Any character development Craig’s Bond had is undone by his stiffness here in (admittedly ill-conceived) attempts at pathos in this film: a scene in which Bond pleads for another character to look away from something may as well have been Craig talking to us about the movie.
The most heartbreaking aspect of the film is the supposed finality of it. Is this the end of the Bond franchise? Obviously not, and Daniel Craig has one more movie on his contract, but considering not just where the film goes but how it goes about it, I am no longer particularly interested to see what happens next. Spectre has echoes of Star Trek Into Darkness in that it’s a film concerned purely with regurgitating the familiar through a filter of misguided re-interpretation while avoiding an identity of its own. It also destroys any of the goodwill that has been built up since 2006, which is something even the ambitious-yet poorly executed Quantum of Solace couldn’t accomplish. The next Bond film – and there will be another – needs major course correction: for a film franchise so based on re-invention and evolution, looking back to past hits is the wrong thing to do. They should take extra care with the next film; after all we have all the time in the world.