Editor’s Note: Spectre opens in wide theatrical release on November 6th. For an additional perspective on the film, read SPECTRE: Gripping and Technically Adventurous.
Depending on your perspective, I’m either the most qualified to write a review of a James Bond film, or the least. Full disclosure: I am most certainly NOT a Bond purist. I find this longest-running film franchise to also be one of the most archaic and repetitive of film franchises, fraught with a redundant episodic form that seems to forget anything from previous films ever existed, and seized by a casual sexism that seems so expected and ingrained that it’s creepy at best. Even the so-called “greatest” of the 007 adventures suffer from these crutches, or curses, or as ardent fans would refer to them, “series hallmarks.” The fact that this entity has persisted over decades and is held dear by so many is either a sign that, deep down, we cling to the undying vestiges of establishment regression…or there’s a trigger in our collective consciousness that cries out for hapless kitsch. I view Bond movies similar to the way I view Star Wars movies, except the latter are admittedly more visionary – iconography aside, bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking.
Okay, so now that the dyed-in-the-wools have already labeled me a helpless hater and have, thus, stopped reading, allow me to unveil my revelation upon seeing Casino Royale in 2006. It was a near-brilliant action vehicle, taut and smart and sexy, sort of the embodiment of what the Bond franchise was supposed to be, except for real. And why? Because it seemed to eschew all of the classic Bond trappings with a sly wink and a casual middle finger. It felt like, with a modern eye and a brooding new lead in Daniel Craig, the franchise was starting from scratch.
On the evidence of the subsequent three films in Craig’s tenure, Casino Royale wasn’t so much an indication of “starting from scratch” as rebooting a legend. This new era of Bond was met with an ebb and flow in terms of critical reception (Quantum of Solace was largely rebuffed, Skyfall was largely celebrated), but everyone can agree that the Craig films have been more complex in their construction and more mature in their ambition than the output from virtually any other Bond era.
Which brings me to Spectre, the latest entry in the Craig epoch – and perhaps the last. This one has been the subject of much back-and-forth among the critical class, with some praising it as a worthy torch-bearer of the Craig legacy and others deriding it as an unmitigated failure on nearly every level. As one who is a Bond contrarian of sorts – though not an intentional one, believe me – I will disclose that I liked Spectre, in spite of a great many flaws and missteps, and I actually like it even more than Skyfall, which means for most of you I’ve now crossed over into full blasphemy.
Allow me to explain. I finally grasp – and appreciate – the long game in this iteration of Bond. I was in the unimpressed minority on Spectre’s much-heralded 2012 predecessor because, in spite of Sam Mendes’ ambitious direction and Roger Deakins’ always-brilliant cinematography and that soaring, Oscar-winning Adele theme song, I felt that film tore down the anti-establishment tone of Craig’s first two outings and ushered the series back into its regressive cultural patterns of goofball absurdity and uncomfortable sexism…and by the end it even swapped out Judi Dench’s trailblazing female “M” for a standardized male replacement (wonderful as Ralph Fiennes is, don’t get me wrong). But Spectre pays off what Skyfall could only set in motion: a coalescing of characters, plots, and themes across the four films. For the first time in its history, the James Bond franchise is dabbling in broad continuity, building a world in a series heretofore reliant on episodic one-offs.
One could – and many will, to be sure – cast this off as the Bond team going on a Marvel-ian tangent of tie-ins and manufactured revelations. There is, I must admit, a certain truth to that argument. But the move also ushers Bond into the modern era, and provides viewers with something substantial to latch onto, while for decades all viewers had the opportunity to grasp was smirks, shootouts, and sexualized babes.
Perhaps the world-building aspect became necessary due to the fact that the Spectre plot, on its own, is about as thinly transparent as, well, a specter (or spectre…choose your spelling). The patented Bond opening sequence this time takes us to Mexico City during the Day of the Dead parade, where Bond offs an Italian kingpin on the direction of a cryptic video message from the now-deceased former “M” (hi, Dame Judi!). After an isolated tryst with the kingpin’s widow (Monica Bellucci, whose inclusion as a 51-year-old femme fatale might indicate a sneaking progress in Bond-ian ageism, proving even mature women can be interrogated, bedded, and swiftly discarded by 007), it’s revealed that said kingpin was connected to a villainous secret society that appears to link the events of Royale, Quantum, and Skyfall. The organization, Spectre, is led by the shadowy Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), whose megalomaniacal bent centers on total world surveillance, which is rather generic but sounds dastardly when spoken with Waltz’s droll specificity.
Bond is joined in his mission of discovery by Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the estranged daughter of frequent nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). She presents our hero with his most significant –and therefore dangerous – love interest since Royale’s Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who still haunts his memories. Swann is the typical damsel without much agency, and in the same vein, Waltz’s villain is a typical Bond antagonist that Waltz could play in his sleep. There’s nothing overwhelming or extraordinary about Spectre in and of itself – it’s a solid spy thriller with big action set pieces, well-acted by Craig and Co. and well-mounted by Mendes, this time working with another brilliant lensman, Hoyte Van Hoytema. What elevates it – at least for this admitted “Bond Hater” – is how this new Bond era has ushered in a sense of continuity and consequence for its iconic hero. It’s loose continuity and only vague consequence, but at least this team seems willing to probe deeper than the thickness of each film’s individual screenplay.
Now, if only everyone involved could sign on for one more film to wrap up this Bond ethos, send the character into the sunset, and place a moratorium on all future installments…but maybe that’s just my own personal desire…