The latest chapter in the adventures of James Bond, the world’s least secret agent, is nothing if not two and a half hours of people being really depressed about ruining shit in amazing, spectacular ways. If I was flying a plane through somebody’s woodshed, I wouldn’t be a brooding misery-guts about it, but I would be smirking like an idiot, giggling and blowing raspberries to twats watching the spectacle in horror – but what the hell do I know.
Under first impressions, Spectre is a very typical entry in the Daniel Craig generation of Bond films, in being a well-balanced, well written action spectacle that hovers somewhere between ‘very good’ and ‘superb’. It keeps you well invested in the action and story, while actually deciding to do something interesting with the actual characters of the Bond canon. So yeah, Spectre is some pretty decent action that, while nothing near the level of Mad Max: Fury Road, the best action films of the year, does a decently good job and particularly the opening sequence in Mexico City celebrating Dia de Muertos is the best I have ever seen in the series of films. So it’s good. See it. That’s my advice for you. You’re welcome.
So, there are many good things in this addition to the franchise in particular, including solid performances from Andrew Scott, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista. All casting choices are top notch, and particularly Andrew Scott and Christoph Waltz seem to have an indecent amount of fun hamming it up and chewing shit out in their roles. The action scenes flow beautifully from one to the next with shit getting ruined to a really satisfying degree, and Sam Mendes has even done a nice job adding nice, small bits of comedy into the flow of destruction.
I’d rate Spectre below the absolutely brilliant Skyfall, mostly because that one stayed tighter and better focused to the end of the film, and overall Javier Bardem’s Silva was a more menacing villain and nemesis to M and Bond. Though Christoph Waltz and Andrew Scott are both doing a good job, they don’t come quite near their best – Andrew Scott was more fiendishly demented and enjoyable as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock and Christoph Waltz’s performance is not quite as chilling as the wonderfully sadistic Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds.
Christoph Waltz absolutely kills in his introduction as the head of Spectre, controlling people around him with quiet whispers and ominous presence – only to be sadly undermined later in the plot in the way all Bond villains are, with cartoonishly elaborate and convoluted plans to kill Bond, which are of course easily escaped, as if Christoph Waltz’s strangely omnipresent villain was suddenly replaced in the plot by Mike Myers’ parodical Dr. Evil. The surgical lobotomy robot is a very weird introduction in the series in its dumb, dumb, convoluted nature. Silva would never bother with such impractical devices when simply shooting someone in the face is an option, and when Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chifre wanted to torture Bond, all he needed to do was strap him into a chair and start walloping him in the bollocks.
The weakest point of the entire film itself seems to be the arse-backwards way of attempting to interconnect all the previous Daniel Craig generation films together through Christoph Waltz’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld having a strangely personal and psychotic grudge against Bond himself. The convoluted and baffling reasoning behind his grudge falls really short from what the makers probably intended, and his characters motivations seem really undermined in the process. Rather than a calculating sociopathic mastermind, he comes across as more of a Norman Bates-esque infantile loonie. The attempt to reinvent the Bond canon does fall flat on its arse on this front and it would have worked out much better to keep Stavro as a detached and calculating opportunist, rather than a fumbling psychotic. Rather than avoid the trap of cliche Bond villains parodied in Austin Powers or even the Kingsman, Stavro seems to fall face first in the trap here and recycle what is really, really old, rather than give it a fresh spin. In fact, it might have even worked better to scrap the old scarred twat from the story and let the role of the arc villain go to Andrew Scott’s C. Yeah, it would also have been cliche and predictable, but they had to right kind of talent in their hands to pull off the role of the elusive nemesis.
In fact, the attempt to retcon the overarching story has served to alienate a lot of viewers – not something that I personally considered a deal-breaker, but did create the image of an olympic diver delivering a stunning display of acrobatics and gracefully diving in the pool with judges and viewers applauding them around the hall, but climbing out to notice their speedos still floating on the water surface.
Where Spectre really shines is developing Daniel Craig’s James Bond himself. James Bond has always been very flat as a character: he chugs back martinis, shags birds, drives cards and shoots blokes. That’s his job in life, and for about 20 films he really didn’t move beyond that point. Sean Connery did such a good job as Bond his character was really cemented for decades from the first minute of Dr. No, even if all did was turn up on the set and more or less just act out his own personality.
Sean Connery was a real character definer and his suave and charming Bond really acted as an object of male projection: powerful and eternally confident gentleman spy who has the coolest gadgets, prettiest whores and fastest cars. Sean Connery’s Bond was, however, always a static character who didn’t grow or change in any way during any of his adventures. He could shoot someone in the face or burn them to death without flinching, and dismiss all the death around him with quips and one-liners, such as the classic “Shocking…” after electrocuting a faceless henchman to death. He’d slap women, murder people all day, flirt with his boss’ dick-hungry secretary and laugh at his quartermaster’s exasperation about destroying custom engineered spy cars.
Sean Connery’s James Bond started off a sexy bastard drinking stirred martinis, shagging hot ladies, driving fast cars and shooting cartoonishly demented villains in Dr. No in 1962, and Bond never changed from that same sexy bastard drinking fast cars, shooting stirred ladies and shagging cartoonishly demented villains. Sean Connery came and went, while being replaced with shit Roger Moore, Tim Dalton and even more shit Pierce Brosnan, who were all mostly concerned with recapturing the magic of Connery’s iconic Bond.
Really Bond films were a holding pattern: every single one followed the same pattern of improbably demented villains rising up to somehow threaten international security and Bond slapping them down like a game of terrorist whack-a-mole, only using guns, flamethrowers or laser emitters he’d cunningly stuffed down his pants. They all worked through changing the fluff around Bond: the villain, the bird, the gadgets and which Aston Martin he happened to drive that time, while Bond himself remained eternally youthful, masculine, vibrant and unchanged through the action.
Of course, Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels and the following series of films were a product of a radically different time. Back in the uncivilized days of the Cold War people lived and persisted with the knowledge they might be living the literal final days of humanity, as national and ideological stupidity had helped create a tangible potential and real likelihood of a nuclear devastation. The change from the Stepford Wives to Fallout could happen in an instant, with the crucial difference there would be no exciting mutants or energy weapons – everyone would just be depressingly dead. Any madman could escalate the conflict and lead the Soviet and NATO blocks into nuclear exchange, and the character of a secret agent acting in the shadows and protecting the world from anarchy was probably a very resonant one to the poor bastards living through the 1950 and 1960s.
So, since the 21st century is a more enlightened, socially aware and complicated age, the Daniel Craig generation of Bond films have been working hard to develop their material and particularly Bond himself. The new James Bond has been challenged by more complex and powerful women, particularly Judi Dench’s M, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, who get under Bond’s skin as much as he get’s under theirs. The most important change is of course the fact that murdering people all day long is supposed to be kind of hard, and the new generation of Bonds has been working hard to weave that point into part of the story.
Acting like a sociopathic thug is shown to hold a tough price for Bond, both mentally and physically. His medical exam and psychological history in Skyfall show a man slowly cracking from alcoholism, explosions, gunfire and being a jaded prick, who really should be pulled from service; something that his boss overrules simply because he is the best at acting like a sociopathic thug.
Bond seems to realise serving her Majesty mostly involves killing more people than a medium-grade natural disaster and he is only made miserable through his work, and all the liquor, cars and tantalising women only hide a lonely life of a licenced hitman in a snazzy suit. When asked about his profession, he simply states he kills people and refers to himself an assassin, rather that a spy, agent or even murder ordnance demonstrator.
The head of his agency, Lord Voldemort, also agrees to admit the 00-designated agents are functionally trigger men, who seem a bit out of place in the modern world, where mad scientists have given way to terrorists and spies to neckbearded hackers – and where national defense is mostly maintained through hacking ISIS leader instagram accounts and using drone strikes to turn them, and everything within short hiking distance of them, into a puddle of molten glass at the bottom of a really big crater.
Lord Voldemort spins this around by pointing out the license to kill is also a licence to let live, a point that is vindicated by the end of the film, where Bond has a choice to pull the trigger on Christoph Waltz and, for the first time, decides to lower his weapon instead and walk away.
By the end Bond decides he doesn’t want to go on being his Majesty’s gunman, and leaves MI6 to drive off to the sunset with his girl and classic Aston Martin. The violence around Bond is shown to have worn him down and exhausted his will to keep killing people.
Most probably the series is going to keep going, no matter how many statements Daniel Craig makes and back-pedals from, as the 00′ agents remain established as relevant to British defence, and they have established the mysterious international organization of evil that is SPECTRE, with infinite potential for pumping out cartoonish demented villains and plotlines.
SPECTRE, Skyfall and Casino Royale have all worked hard to strip a lot of fluff around James Bond with ridiculous explosive hankies and helicopter cars, and instead have gotten a lot more mileage out of the actual central characters and giving them tangible problems, motivations and complexities, which have all revitalized the character and made the series more intelligent as a whole. While at the same time, SPECTRE still has all the iconic features of martinis, action sequences, car chases, knobbing pretty ladies and running out of exploding buildings, it also seems to progress as a whole rather than be satisfied with playing out safe tropes*.
So yeah, it’s good. Worth seeing. Nothing near a 10/10, but a solid 7/10. Certainly worth spending a few hours in a seat next to sweaty people accidentally hitting you in the face with ballistic pieces of popcorn.
* Apart from the strangely fumbling episode with the lobotomy-seat, combining the primitive childhood fears of needles and dentistry clinics.
I came out the theater with a much more positive attitude towards SPECTRE and the original post reflected that genuine excitement with a mostly glowing post, sidelining a lot of the weaker points of this film. Over time and several viewings later, it’s gotten edited and toned down as the more shit points of the film have become more prominent to me over time.
So in conclusion about a year later: kind of a wasted opportunity, had its good points but the whole becomes dragged down by the weight of the stupid decisions surrounding Waltz’s character and the completely clumsy and needless decision to retcon the whole series.
A forgettable Bond with good points in character development, shame about wasting Cristoph Waltz’s talent, give Skyfall another watch instead.
And while we’re on the topic, an Oscar for “Writing’s on the Wall”? Seriously?