After three films and nearly an entire decade, James Bond’s personality crisis appears to be over. Since the series overhaul in 2006, we’ve seen the character as a vulnerable, untested novice (Casino Royale); a crazed, vengeful killing machine (Quantum of Solace); and a damaged, haunted shadow of his former self (Skyfall). Surely Daniel Craig has been put through the ringer more than any Bond actor to date in terms of expectation for the character (losing his front teeth on the set of Royale couldn’t have been easy, either). For many Bond fans, the desire to see a fully-fledged, recognizable 007 on a classic mission in the vein of Connery or Brosnan has long been denied. For that breed of Bond fan, of which I count myself a member, Spectre is fantasy wish fulfillment. For others, particularly those brought into the fold by Skyfall and hoping for further divergence into soul-searching and character deconstruction, the latest film might be a disappointment. In any case, Spectre reflects the cumulative atmosphere and appeal of the Bond series as a whole more than any of the Craig entries thus far.
This time around, we follow Bond as he tracks down a lead left behind by his former boss (Judi Dench). The pre-credits act, a single shot from street-level Dia de los Muertos celebrations to a cliffhanger high above the Mexico City skyline, is one of the slickest sequences the series has pulled off in years, something even the film’s detractors have acknowledged.
After causing an international incident during said sequence, Bond finds himself “grounded” in London, where a beleaguered MI6 finds itself facing both the termination of the double-O program and a merger with an MI5-backed international surveillance department to be headed by C, played by a smarmy Andrew Scott (Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock). While the prospect of Bond disobeying orders and “going rogue” once more seems a bit overdone as of late, it makes for some entertaining scenes with the new supporting character lineup of M, Q and Moneypenny. In particular, we get to see an expanded Q Branch with requisite gadgetry, an element missing from the last three entries.
Soon, 007 pursues a lead from Rome to the Austrian alps to North Africa to uncover the shadowy cabal behind every villainous plot Craig’s Bond has faced thus far. SPECTRE, well known to fans of the series, is an evil organization in the most classic sense of the word, pitched somewhere between the Illuminati and ABC’s Shark Tank. While the previous few villains had recognizable methods (profit, revenge, land-grabbing), there is an almost ritualistic devotion to wrongdoing in the amorphous underground society headed by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) that conjures fond memories of classic entries like Thunderball. On the way, Bond continues to tie up loose ends from the messier previous missions, once again encountering the slippery Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) and meeting his estranged daughter, Madeleine Swan (Léa Seydoux). There is also a good deal of fun in the sideline characters: Dave Bautista is a classic indestructible henchman in the role of Mr. Hinx, and Monica Bellucci makes the best of her brief appearance as a mysterious widow.
In fact, there are elements taken from all of the other 23 entries to keep many a die-hard fan busy. These range from the instantly recognizable (Oberhauser’s Persian cat, Bond’s classic Aston Martin DB5) to the more subtly placed (a mountaintop facility that recalls On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a sequence on a train that mirrors one seen in From Russia with Love). The frequent trips Spectre takes down memory lane may seem derivative to some, but after 10 years in “gritty reboot” mode, it’s nice to see a Bond film comfortable in its own universe. Instead of struggling to stay ahead of the curve of modern action cinema (The Bourne series, Christopher Nolan’s Batman) Spectre realizes that Bond films are their own genre, and nobody does it better.
By the end of the film, the stage is set for a new era in the Bond franchise, one that promises more continuity and a better understanding of how a 50-year-old series will look in the 21st century. The producers must walk a fine line between nostalgia and cliché, innovation to the formula and distortion of what defines Bond’s appeal. Director Sam Mendes has brought a good deal of gravity and beauty to his two entries, and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) this time around establishes a new benchmark for sumptuous scenery. The sense of detail, refinement and cruel decadence has always set the franchise apart, keeping a channel open between the present and the fading, smoky world of Ian Fleming.
To round out our review for true Bond fans, we’ll conclude with a set of Spectre’s pros and cons.
1. Reintroduction of a classic villain.
2. Nostalgia/fan Easter eggs.
3. Fiendish torture!
4. Age-appropriate Bond woman.
5. Awesome secret lair.
6. Extra gifts from Q-Branch.
7. Moneypenny’s upper hand in her relationship with Bond.
1. Bond’s murky,hard-to-follow past.
2. Questionable romantic chemistry.
3. Sam Smith’s lullaby-esque theme (The Weeknd’s theme for Fifty Shades of Grey sounds decidedly more Bondian).
4. Poorly explained villainous motives.
5. Poorly explained fiendish torture.
6. Briefly used secret lair.
7. Nine whole years to tie up Bond’s character evolution from Casino Royale.