Spectre Review: Also known as “Christopher Waltz was born to do this”

If there is one overarching flaw in the fourth Daniel Craig-led James Bond film, it is that much of the plot relies on a character—Mr. White—who played a critical role in the weakest of the past four films: Quantum of Solace. But since so much of Spectre’s plot revolves around retroactively tying all the prior Craig/Bond films together, you’re forced to take the bad with the good. And while Quantum was definitely “not good,” Spectre is certainly “not bad.” It’s not as stellar as Casino Royale, but it’s also not as plot-hole ridden as Skyfall. It’s not as beautiful to look at as Skyfall either, so depending on what you want out of your movie you will probably place this movie near the top of the list (in terms of recent films) but not at the top. So far none of the recent films has topped Craig’s first outing.

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And that’s the other thing to note about the latest James Bond flick: It ends with the character essentially 100% committed to the role as it was originally written by Flemming. With Casino Royale, both the character of James Bond and the film series itself was rebooted. After the “ridiculous to the point of stupidity” style that the Brosnan films had devolved into, a gritty and down to earth reboot was welcomed. The first Craig movie nailed it. It’s followup suffered, in part because the writers strike that was going on at the time hindered development. Skyfall brought the first taste of the old James Bond films, but still stripped down and lacking the bombastic excess of the Brosnan and Moore movies.

The longer Spectre rolled on, the more those old over the top layers were added. It was like watching someone peel an onion in reverse. If you liked the down to earth Bonds of the new millennium you will like this movie, but you will walk away with the disappointed understanding that the next Bond film will likely return to the excess. That’s not to say Bond will go riding around in invisible cars, or have a showdown inside Fort Knox, or freaking journey into space, but things will be less grounded from here on out, if the ending to this movie is any indication.

It’s likely that we will look back on these four Craig-led movies as one large saga (and Spectre’s plot certainly connects the dots too) that establishes the man, and then later, the mythos of James Bond. So many classic James Bond motifs are reintroduced in this movie…

  • One action scene ends with Bond falling from a rooftop, several stories high, only to land safely on a couch.
  • Bond gets suspended from active duty
  • Bond goes rogue
  • Bond fights a hulking henchman of the main villain
  • Bond finds himself strapped down to a futuristic torture-chair
  • Bond escapes thanks to his special watch given to him by Q

That’s comfort food as done by James Bond. It’s what you think of when you think of Bond. And that doesn’t even get into Blofeld and his white cat. That character was a walking homage in the second half of the movie.

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Skyfall did away with the long-running rumor/theory that “James Bond” was a codename for several people who serve MI6, making it so that each different actor’s series of movies exist in their own self-contained universe. The Craig-movies are even more contained, as Christopher Waltz’s Blofeld reveals that he was the mastermind in the shadows, orchestrating all of the enemy activity from Casino Royale to the present moment. It’s a big reveal that almost works, but it relies too much on retroactive plotting; you have to suspend your disbelief and forget that the “Quantum” organization in Quantum of Solace was talked about by fans as a substitute for Spectre, and not—as it is revealed in this movie—a subsidiary of it. The events of Casino Royale have to be remembered as a piece of a puzzle and not, as it was at the time, a brilliant self-contained Bond adventure (that happened to spawn a largely—at the time—unnecessary direct sequel). The great turn by Javier Bardem in Skyfall was just a puppet whose strings were pulled off camera by the real baddie. A baddie who literally utters the line “it was me all along” which, if you have to actually say that, your screenplay has probably gone a bridge too far.

Still, the problems with the plot as it fits in the big picture of Daniel Craig’s series are not enough to completely cripple the film. The movie begins with one of the most stunning and impressive “Bond cold opens” in franchise history. It may not have been as visceral as the opening to GoldenEye (a personal favorite), but it will surely be remembered for its technical accomplishment: It’s a 5+ minute single take steadicam tour through Mexico’s Day of the Dad festival, with Bond on the trail of a baddie on whom he hopes to apply his license to kill. The camera swings in and out, over and under all the action in one brilliant take that takes your breath away. It’s a sequence so good the rest of the movie suffers from visual mundanity in comparison.

There’s a fine enough subplot involving MI6 being phased out and folded into a larger British Intelligence service, one that is much more modern and technologically equipped to spy on everyone from enemies to allies. That subplot itself eventually gets folded into the main plot, leaving the viewer to wonder if there is anything that Blofeld isn’t involved in. He even survives a seemingly unsurvivable explosion and walks away with only a very famous scar to show for it. He’s practically omnipotent and omniscient, up until the finale which comes twenty minutes after the movie felt like it had ended.

Whether or not Blofeld will return in later installments to terrorize MI6 and its famous hero is not yet known. He ends the movie in custody but a character as intelligent and crafty as he is will surely find a way out. I’d love to see Christopher Nolan directing that prison escape. Here’s hoping Waltz is back for another go at the character because his screentime is woefully small for such a great performance (and for getting second-to-top billing after Daniel Craig).

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Every James Bond movie needs four things in order to succeed. It needs (1) a cohesive plot to keep things going without anyone getting too confused. It needs (2) big action scenes that serve as exclamation points at various moments throughout the film. It needs (3) beautiful women to serve as friend and/or foe. And it needs (4) exotic locals.

It’s hard to nail all four parts; most Bond films settle for getting two or at best three of them down. Only the very best of the best have managed to get all four (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, GoldenEye, Casino Royale). Skyfall managed to nail the last three but it missed the first rule with a plot that made less sense the more you thought of it. Spectre actually hits all four points but it only does so barely. It never really does any of them excellently. It does all of them adequately. The plot is fine but very by the book (and it runs a bit too long). The action scenes are good but only one—the great car chase with Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx—will be remembered. Both “Bond girls” do their job well but Monica Bellucci is underused and Lea Seydoux isn’t given a lot to do, despite being given a lot of screentime. And while some of the vistas are pretty to behold they don’t hold a candle to the sights found in Skyfall. It’s all very good, but none of it is very great.

And that’s the simplest way to put it: Spectre is a very good Bond film, but not a very great one.

8/10 – see it in theaters if you’re a die hard fan. Definitely see it on home video otherwise.

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  • Paul Baack

    Very good review! (Although you need to watch your spelling: “Fleming” is spelled with only one ‘m’.) As a long-time fan who grew up on James Bond movies in the 1960s – and hence suffered through the 12 year Roger Moore tenure, I’ll take “Very Good” anytime. I don’t expect the series to hit the high-water marks of “Casino Royale” or “From Russia with Love” or “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” every time, but I’ll live with minor plot holes or oddball absurdities as long as the general thrust of the film is true to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s fantasy universe and the tonal tropes of the early films. I’m pretty much in 100% agreement with your assessment of this film, as well as its immediate predecessor. Nice job.

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