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If you take a life, do you know what you’ll give?

by Thom Yee

Spectre images courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures.

Spectre images courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures.

When we first set out on building GOO Reviews, Skyfall was the first new review we wrote after the first batch of ten template reviews we’d initially mocked up to work out the kinks of our reviewing process. It’s been a long time since that cold November night back in 2012 when we first saw Skyfall, and now, even though it’s been three years of learning and growing as movie reviewers for us, I still can’t get over how good the opening to my Skyfall review was. The rest of my review sucked though, and right now my thoughts about that long-ago review mirror my feelings about Spectre, the latest Bond movie.

At the moment, it’s hard not to be a little down on the whole Bond franchise with ongoing speculation around a new Bond and talk of how badly current star Daniel Craig wants out. A lot of that talk was taken out of context and Craig is believed to already be contracted for a fifth installment, but there’s no better way to take the wind out of the sails (or tear the sails right off the ship) of a long-running series than to have its star at least seem to openly talk crap about it. It’s too bad really, because Craig’s era as Bond has moved forward in fits and starts after the hugely promising first chapter, Casino Royale, with its followup, Quantum of Solace, disappointing both fans and critics, and then Skyfall releasing a longer-than-usual four years later due to MGM’s financial woes back in 2010.

I was a lot more excited for Spectre towards the beginning of the year more than I am now at its release. Director Sam Mendes’ return to the series, which seemed unlikely at one point, was reassuring after his turn with Skyfall, and the plot for Spectre appeared to be of much more of a personal nature than these movies tend to be, promising a strong connection between the series’ protagonist and its mysterious new villain played by Christoph Waltz. But, in terms of major movie releases, this year’s been pretty disappointing on a lot of fronts, and by the time we got to November I’d pretty much lost hope in all of the movies I had once been so excited for at the beginning of the year (with the possible exception of The Force Awakens). So does Spectre live up to expectations? Easily, but only after a year of those expectations being lowered.

What’s it about?

On a mission from the previous head of MI6, James Bond (Daniel Craig) discovers evidence of a mysterious organization but is quickly suspended from field duty when MI6 comes under the purview of C (Andrew Scott), head of the newly formed Joint Intelligence Service, a merger of MI5 and MI6 with plans to form a cooperative intelligence network between nine member countries and to shut down the ‘00’ program. Disobeying orders, Bond travels to Rome, Austria, and Morocco in pursuit the terrorist organization, along the way coming into conflict with Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), head of the mysterious organization, and reuniting with Mr. White, former member of Quantum, who gives him important information in exchange for protecting his daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), who reveals the organization’s name — SPECTRE. Will Bond overcome his enemies and uncover the link between SPECTRE, the Joint Intelligence Service, and his own distant childhood?


I personally hold Quantum of Solace responsible for the derailing and subsequent abandonment of Craig’s early run as James Bond, resulting in the loss of some of its better elements like the Quantum organization, Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, and never again mentioning the Vesper martini by name (or origin). Spy movies depend on mystery as a central storytelling conceit, and with Quantum’s successor Skyfall choosing to de-emphasize the Quantum organization — initially presented as an unknowable force of evil with people everywhere — the actual strength of that organization (and Mr. White as its figurehead) felt very much slighted. Of course now, with SPECTRE’s return to the series after legal disputes kept it out of the Bond movies since the late ‘70s, Quantum now stands even more exposed as an empty shell of a threat and a temporary stand-in for the real thing.

So this happened in a James Bond movie once.

So this happened in a James Bond movie once.

It’s disappointing that it took almost ten years to get to the fourth of Daniel Craig’s Bond movies as the general cadence of Bond movie releases since the early ‘60s has hewed much closer to one every two years. The realities of today’s movie-making processes may suggest that such a quick pace may not be possible going forward for the series (though Quantum of Solace did come out only two years after Casino Royale), but the protracted release schedule has so far resulted in fewer installments than I would have liked with an actor who’s widely considered to be one of the top two Bonds. While Bond fans will generally have sentimental favourites (I actually liked Timothy Dalton), Craig’s turn as Bond has entered him into that rarified space usually only reserved for the likes of the original Bond, Sean Connery, and for fans it’s almost tragic to live in a world where we’ve only gotten and may only ever get four Daniel Craig James Bond movies when Roger Moore got seven of them.

Compounding the issue is that the first three Daniel Craig Bonds were all origin stories of a sort. Casino Royale was obviously a reboot for the series, but its follow-up was a direct sequel that merely closed its predecessors loop, and due to Quantum’s failure as a movie, Skyfall also sort of had to reboot things while coming full circle with the series by reinstalling stalwart elements like Moneypenny, Q, and a more traditional M. Because of this, all three of the Bond movies we’ve previously gotten have felt like their own starts to the series, making Spectre the first actual step forward into a new status quo. And now Craig’s Bond is over (or at least is very close to)? Tragic.

Is it any good?

In every basic sense of a Bond movie, Spectre is good. It’s got suspenseful, engaging action scenes, attractive Bond girls, a reasonable level of intrigue, and a killer opening scene made to look like a single, five-minute continuous tracking shot as we follow our hero from a busy Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, into a hotel and through its lobby, up several floors to his room, through the room’s window, and along a set of rooftops until he reaches his spot, sets his rifle, and aims at his intended target in the building over. It’s a scene that sets the tone of the character as less a spy than an assassin, a term used several times throughout the movie and one with which he describes his own employment. While the character has always been licensed to kill, that’s more often been an incidental part of his missions rather than the point, but in Spectre it serves as just a slight enough twist to make the concept of the character seem a little more modern (and potentially much more sinister).

Despite the stunted starts Daniel Craig’s Bond has received in each of the last three installments, the Bond we meet in Spectre is a grizzled veteran, both from of the extremity of the missions he’s completed and because of what modern espionage culture currently represents. Disappearing are the days of romance, handguns, and field work, instead replaced with electronic surveillance, computer code, and drones, a fact only playfully hinted at in the last installment with the first prickly encounter between Bond and Q, but now clearly made the overarching reality with the emergence of C as the new head of British intelligence (and soon the world if he gets his way). Soon enough, with Bond’s movements officially restricted, our hero is injected not with a simple tracer but with nano-infused smartblood, requiring Bond to coerce Q into feeding their superiors false information to cover his tracks.

What Bond is thinking just before he finds out this is the new Q: "Why the hell did this guy sit RIGHT beside me? There's a whole rest of the gallery and he has to sit here?"

What Bond is thinking just before he finds out this is the new Q: “Why the hell did this guy sit RIGHT beside me? There’s a whole rest of the gallery and he has to sit RIGHT HERE?”

Bond has now a symbol of the old ways and representative of the worst excesses of the old days in his superior’s’ eyes, and it’s a curious position to take given that he’s one of at least two ‘00’s acknowledged in this movie and probably at least one of nine given what we know of the ’00 program in this era. Eventually Bond steals what is intended to be 009’s Aston Martin DB10 in pursuit of SPECTRE, and this theft leads to two of the strongest scenes in the movie — first the meeting of SPECTRE and the car chase that follows when Bond needs to make his escape. There’s a real, palpable tension in the scene when Christoph Waltz enters the meeting, at first in shadows, and it’s clear that his Franz Oberhauser commands a terrifying authority in the room. It’s probably the single most convincing scene in the entire movie, and when it’s revealed that Oberhauser is well aware of Bond’s presence at the meeting, the ensuing chase between Bond’s DB10 and the Mr. Hinx’s (Dave Bautista) Jaguar C-X75 is fast-paced, well-done, and playful with the franchise’s central concepts (“Ejector seat, you’re joking.”) in a way that none of Craig’s Bonds have ever allowed themselves to be.


But that’s also where the movie starts to go a bit wrong. Longtime fans can appreciate series callbacks, but it’s precisely that Craig’s Bond movies didn’t allow themselves anything more than slight nods to the past that gave them weight with a newer generation of viewers, and between lighter moments like Bond falling off a crumbling building only to land safely on a couch or his later use of a plane to crash Mr. Hinks’s Land Rover that stretch credibility. Neither of those two instances are too much to take in and of themselves, but the numerous moments like them can serve to undo the more serious work the series has done in the modern era than they may cause an adrenal response from our treasured memories of the series’ past. They also represent and embody a sloppiness to the overall movie that makes the entire thing feel more like a playful game than a particularly deadly one.

Waltz: "People think I could beat him up, right? They don't know I'm only 5'5", right??

Waltz: “People think I could beat Bond up, right? They don’t know I’m only 5’5”, right??

I liked the sinister, all-encompassing nature of the SPECTRE organization and I especially appreciated the reappearance of Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White from the series’ earlier installments, but there’s an attempt to wrap all of the events of Craig’s Bond movies in a neat and tidy manner that’s supposed to be revelatory but is, instead, something that diminishes previous chapters more than it does to make this one any more meaningful. Shoehorning in a backstory behind Craig’s Bond and Waltz’ Oberhauser makes a kind of sense and may be an especially strong move if Spectre does prove to be the final chapter for Daniel Craig, but trying to make him the architect of all of Bond’s recent heartbreaks doesn’t actually add up. It’s easy for Oberhauser to simply take credit for Vesper Lynd’s betrayal, Le Chiffre’s financial machinations, M’s death, and Silva’s general freakish-ness, but there’s no actual connective tissue between himself and those cited examples. As the movie’s (and series’) main villain, Oberhauser also just doesn’t add up to a serious threat to Bond given the apparent difference in stature between the two, and as much as Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx may be more than a physical match for Bond and can be quite sinister in uttering almost no words throughout the movie, he winds up being a villain who’s quickly undone. As is SPECTRE really, and during the movie’s climactic moments I was left to wonder what happened to all the people and resources in this giant organization with people everywhere when Bond essentially eliminates the threat with no more particular effort than he typically applies to any other situation.

The eventual love story between Craig’s Bond and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann is also unconvincing, particularly in contrast to the one between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale (even if that relationship was built on deceit and half-truths), and the seemingly undying affection the two are supposed to have and the weight that relationship has in the movie’s concluding chapters feels far from the sincerity it needs to really land. Given that we’re earlier outright told by Mr. White that his daughter Madeleine knows how to take care of herself, it’s also disappointing that she’s still used as damsel in distress several times throughout the movie.

... I take back what I just said about falling in love.

… I take back what I just said about not being convinced that James Bond could instantly fall in love with Lea Seydoux.

Finally, the movie’s subplot with C taking over the remnants of MI6 felt like it wasn’t given enough space to find any more meaning beyond the apparent and its dependence on a heavy presence from M, Q, and Moneypenny sometimes made those three seem ineffective. Clearly these are characters not built for fieldwork like James Bond and it’s unfair to expect them to perform at the same level, but taking them so far out of their elements made them seem less competent overall, particularly given how much they all sang in their roles in Skyfall.

So should I see it?

Look at the size of this gun. I'll probably use it, like, once, then get thrown off a train or something.

Look at the size of this gun! It’s double-barreled! I’ll probably use it, like, once, then get thrown off a train or something.

One of the reasons we usually allow one week between the release of a new movie and our review of it (sometimes more depending on scheduling issues) is because it takes time to really think through how we feel about the movies we see. We’re not here to prevent you from seeing a bad movie so much as we’re trying to give you something to think about it before or after. For me, one of the best indicators of a strong screenplay is how clearly I can recall the progression of events of a movie I’ve seen a few days after viewing. The more clearly I remember the story, the stronger that story most likely was. If I’m being honest, it’s not hard to remember a lot of the specific scenes and sequences of Spectre, but I have to put in a real effort to connect those scenes and sequences together. There just isn’t enough in the story that stuck with me.

There’s been a lot of modernist talk questioning the role of a James Bond in our constant-surveillance, post-Snowden world, in movie circles and even within these movies themselves, but how much you enjoy a Bond movie shouldn’t be governed by the character’s place in the broader espionage stories of our real lives so much as it should simply be a question of how good the movie was. The Bond character may have sprung forth in the midst of the Cold War, but he doesn’t really have much to say about it beyond maybe ‘thanks for inspiring me.’ Casino Royale set out with the big, hairy, audacious goal of finally making the character matter by feeling at least somewhat real, maybe for the first time in his existence, and it succeeded to an unreasonable level that’s cast its own spectre over all of the movies that followed. Because it’s really good. It’s still the only installment in the long-running series that I have any real affection for and I still feel a little bit of heartache over the loss of James Bond’s first love because I felt the romance between Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd far more than I felt anything else from any other part of any other Bond movie.

Spectre is a perfectly serviceable James Bond movie, but it’s far outstripped by some of its predecessors and not close enough to the ambitions it seemed to promise from its early trailers. If you can divorce yourself from the expectations set by some of those predecessors (Casino Royale and Skyfall), then it’s an easy movie to enjoy, though not one to be taken very seriously. Maybe that means the series really has come full circle. I was just hoping for more.

Thom’s Spectre final score

3-stars.svg


On the Edge

  • I wonder if Monica Bellucci’s Lucia ever made it to Felix. Ah, doesn’t matter.
  • I wonder about 009. Seems like a bit of a putz just letting 007 steal his car.
  • D*mn, another Daniel-Craig James Bond without an appearance from Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter. This time they even mention him by name, but he still doesn’t show up! He’s probably never coming back! P*ss me off!
  • Christoph Waltz/Lea Seydoux reunion!

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Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures

Casino Royale review

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures

Quantum of Solace review

Skyfall review

Skyfall review

 

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