We open on the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. A lovely tracking shot follows the celebrating, skeleton-dressed crowd, landing on a man in a suit with a girl on his arm as he tails another man dressed all in white. The man is James Bond (Daniel Craig) and he ditches the girl to find a window where he can assassinate the man in white, but ends up blowing up an entire city block in a cheap explosion, lands on his feet, chases the guy into an overdone, improbable helicopter battle, wins and then flies off into the distance, never to see the girl again. Bond is back—sadly it’s just not the Bond we want.
I thought that Bond—one who simply beds the girl, beats up the bad guy, foils an elaborate plot and drives off into the night— died long ago, replaced with an intense, complex spy we had never seen before. But “Spectre” proves that you can never really develop a character like Bond, growing and shaping him. You can only get a whack at that piñata once before you realize there’s nothing inside but Whoppers and Laffy-Taffy.
It’s all proven in the story. Bond causes an international incident without regard for civilian life, “M” (Ralph Fiennes) reprimands him, Bond charmingly tells him to f*** himself in ways only the English can and then goes about trying to foil an elaborate plot to save the world and get the girl.
This plot is motivated by an obviously hastily filmed and blunt “final message” image from the original “M” (Judi Dench) to “find this man and kill him.” Bond obliges and goes off to do so.
Of course this is all totally unreasonable in the eyes of MI6’s top agent, so he goes off the grid with cool toys from Q (Ben Whishaw) and does, well, what Bond always does.
One incident leads to another, which usually has a pretty woman involved. One woman is the great Monica Belluci, who at 50 is the oldest Bond girl yet. But that seems more like PC-driven marketing move, as she is woefully underutilized as the one throwaway Bond girl who gives him what little info she has and then her body, never to be seen again.
Of course there are always two Bond girls, the “main one” is played by the lovely Lea Seydoux from France. I wish I could say more about her, but the movie doesn’t give me more to say.
But, I digress. Let me just make it clear that most of what follows is simply Bond going from one stunning locale to the next trying to find what little pieces of the plot he can, punches a dude and moves on. We have no clear picture of who the villain is, only to get tidbits of an elaborate scheme in a B- plot involving “M” and the head of a new organization (Andrew Scott) who was really teamed with the main bad guy all along (queue sinister laugh).
There is indeed a villain though, Franz Oberhauser, which is all the more depressing realizing he’s played by the incomparable Christoph Waltz, but is only really seen and felt in the final 30-minutes—a cinematic crime in my book. Then his character arc is rushed into trying to prove he’s been the man pulling the strings all along in the last three films, due to some head-scratching reason in Bond’s past. It’s a plot device trying to deepen Bond’s character and link the previous three films together, but comes off so unconvincingly it falls flat on its face. Oh, and he also is trying to take over the world somehow using computers or something.
Here is where you can tell director Sam Mendes and writer John Logan were trying to make a complex action film but couldn’t figure out how to do it. They wanted it to be a movie about Bond finally confronting his past. The problem is that the whole movie features action scenes and plot movers that have nothing to do with Bond as a man but more so as a figure—one who punches, drinks and loves women with the best suit in the business.
Yet when the movie tries to wrap itself up, no one seems to really care what’s going because everything leading up to it seems so disjointed. Bond doesn’t seem to care who the villain really is and Oberhauser just wants him dead. There is no gravitas or emotion to any of their scenes together (or any leading up to them) because everyone knows this is just business as usual masqueraded as depth.
You can see it in the end, when Bond takes down Oberhauser’s helicopter in the lamest way possible that would make a toddler roll their eyes, the bad guy is thrown in jail and Bond drives off with the girl. Bad guys zero, Bond 24.
Even though the film looks beautiful thanks to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema—with beautiful wide shots and moody atmosphere—all while Craig, Waltz and Seydoux give it their all, it’s wasted on a messy, unsurprising, been-there-done-that outing that could’ve been something far greater had anyone given the time to make it that way. The thing to take away from this is that the Craig-Era Bond movies play out like the stock market: for every glorious high there’s a crushing low that leaves many screaming for answers and crying under desks.