Unfortunately, Spectre is to Skyfall what Quantum of Solace was to Casino Royale; that is to say: less inspired in just about every way.
Spectre catches up with James Bond (Daniel Craig) in the new (but all too familiar) paradigm of his MI6 espionage career. However, instead of working with his now trusted team - M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) - Bond is busy going rogue, taking on a final mission from M's late great predecessor (Judi Dench). From beyond the grave, lady M tasks Bond to uncover a clandestine organization - one that has been influencing world events from the day James got his 007 license.
However, as James' quest leads him to dig into dangling threads from his own past (such as the enigmatic Mr. White), he quickly realizes that the organization he thinks he's hunting is actually hunting him, his teammates, and the entire MI6 organization. All of these machinations seem to converge into the shape of just one man: Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a villainous mastermind who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with watching 007's life - and slowly destroying it.
The twenty-fourth film in the James Bond franchise, and the second installment from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall), Spectre arrives at a time when hopes for the Bond franchise are once again high. Unfortunately, Spectre is to Skyfall what Quantum of Solace was to Casino Royale; that is to say: less inspired in just about every way. It officially rounds out Craig's four-film run as 007 as a hit-miss pattern - and while the film is fine as standard action movie fare, is that really acceptable when it comes to something as beloved as James Bond?
Sam Mendes perfectly balanced his penchant for visual iconography and metaphoric imagery with tropes of the action/espionage sub-genre to make Skyfall a truly cinematic experience, which made Bond literally look more prestigious and artful than he ever has before. That same high-minded level of cinema is largely missing from Spectre, which plays more like a by-the-numbers generic action flick, and reveals a collective "phone it in" malaise from the filmmakers and most of the cast (read: Craig).
Ironically enough, this uninspired 007 film also happens to mark the evolution of Craig's Bond into a more classical version of the debonair and suave secret agent man. Indeed, Spectre is in many ways an homage to the days of Roger Moore's Bond, adding a much-needed dose of wit and fun to the grim Craig-Bond films. It feels like vintage 007 - but oddly enough, that same vintage feel kind of makes James Bond's world seem as outdated as the new snooty defense minister, C (Andrew Scott), is constantly reminding us it is.
On a technical level, multi-Oscar nominated Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins has been replaced by Hoyte Van Hoytema - but despite having some acclaimed films on his resume (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar), it's clear that Van Hoytema is taking on a new action filmmaking challenge with Spectre, and he doesn't exactly rise to that challenge. Indeed, Hoytema and Mendes are great at framing and sequencing stiller moments, but once the action ramps up to the expected Bond levels, the seams quickly begin to show in the filmmakers' technique. Right from an opening sequence in Mexico City, we get rough (at times incoherent) cuts of action that feel mired in the '90s - complete with shoddy editing, telegraphed stuntman maneuvers, and quick-cut edits that take the place of having to actually create smooth kinetic action onscreen (see: the car chase sequence). It all feels "been there, done that" cliched, with nary a memorable sequence or moment to even justify the film as a theater-going experience, rather than a future rental.
The script for Spectre is probably the weakest link in the chain - and inexplicably so, considering that this is the sixth Bond film for writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis. Even though the pair have some of the most reviled Bond films under their collective belt (The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Quantum of Solace), one would think they'd at least learned from some of their considerable mistakes - but that doesn't seem to be the case. If anything, Spectre is a storytelling backslide from Skyfall, which wasn't without its own narrative issues either. Like Quantum, Spectre is a tedious progression of point-to-point questing, with vague or weak objectives that keep the moment-to-moment momentum, but instantly reveal their flimsiness when examined critically. At a nearly three-hour runtime, the episodic and meandering pace begins to drag about halfway through.
Narrative expectations were even higher for Oscar-nomiated writer John Logan (Gladiator), who helped elevate Skyfall into something more powerful than the usual Bond flick. It seems that in Spectre, Logan's dramatic gravitas is wholly at odds with Wade and Purvis' more kitschy take on the character, and that mishmash creates a weird shifting tone that manages to smother any real gravitas or impact from blossoming - leaving us to simply observe events that happen onscreen, with little feeling about said actions.
Without dropping SPOILERS, an attempt to reformat some classic elements of the Bond franchise into a modern telling (like the SPECTRE organization) wind up falling flat on their face, arguably diluting some of the most beloved and iconic elements of the franchise. Equally mishandled is the attempt to wrangle all four of the Daniel Craig films into a larger serialized storyline: it is literally left to diagrams and exposition to tell us that all these threads are connected - but aside from seeing pics of some old baddies, the writers lean heavily on a "tell, don't show" mentality that is pretty much the antithesis of good script writing.
Performance-wise, Spectre has probably the least going for it than any of the other "Blond Bond" films Craig has starred in. Craig himself is more monotone and stone-faced than ever; it's unclear whether he ever embraced this installment of Bond as an actual character in a dramatic work, or simply phoned in his best Roger Moore impression while taking it a bit easier on the stunt work and fight sequencing (editing definitely pays the deficit of Craig's physicality). The supporting cast is sharper than ever as an ensemble (Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw); however, some great actresses (Stephanie Sigman, Monica Bellucci, Léa Seydoux) undermine their talents by playing ridiculously outdated "Bond Girl" caricatures - strong, smart, women who (on the turn of a sappy melodramatic dime) melt into objects of Bond's desire. The Bond Girl love scenes from Spectre inspire wholly unintentional laughs, further proving that this whole franchise may be the relic of a bygone era of cinematic misogyny.
On the "Bond villain" side: Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) has little more to do than walk around like a physically imposing Terminator type; it works, but doesn't leave us with another iconic Bond henchman, so much as a walking excuse for an action sequence (he does get a nice intro, though). The main attraction is of course Christoph Waltz' Franz Oberhauser, and all the mysteries surrounding him. Unfortunately, Waltz achieves less of his Inglourious Basterds acclaim, and more of his Green Hornet shame, by once again creating an inexplicably odd and idiosyncratic villain that's somehow still bland and forgettable. Spectre is so imbalanced that Waltz only actually appears in a handful of scenes, with pretty much all of his character's "development" and interaction with Craig left to scenes of massive exposition dumps. By the end, Obenhauser (and his status as a "mastermind criminal") is as vague and enigmatic as when we first meet him. A big disappointment.
All in all, Spectre is simply "Bond by the numbers," committing the faux pas of being mundane and forgettable. Given the fact that it is James Bond at the center of it all, the film does get an automatic boost of nostalgia and familiarity - but Ian Fleming's super spy is surely starting to feel like he may have officially overstayed his welcome. Bring on 008?
Spectre is now in theaters. It is 148 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language.
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