Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
Directed by Sam Mendes
“It’s just a matter of perspective,” says James Bond to evil mastermind Oberhausen as they discuss the difference between killing and dying, and this line best sums up how much an audience will enjoy Spectre, the latest – and quite possibly final – outing for Craig’s iteration of 007. Director Sam Mendes and crew have all but abandoned the Freudian subtext of Skyfall to go all-in on the classic James Bond formula (even blatantly referencing some of the film series’ greatest hits), while at the same time pitting Bond and his team up against a 21st-century threat involving global surveillance. What results is an interesting balance struck between pushing all the right buttons for a film series that is now 24 films long and over half a century old, while also making it relevant for today’s audiences, and for the most part it succeeds. Fans of old-school Bond will find plenty to love, as the film doubles down on its tropes, while those hoping Mendes would expand on the rich themes of the previous outing may find things have become far more superficial.
After a literally explosive opening sequence during the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is dragged over the coals by M (Ralph Fiennes) for going off book for the umpteenth time. This is the last straw, however, as new departmental secretary Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) plans to scrap the 00 program in favour of a new global surveillance initiative, and M advises Bond to pull his head in. Of course, 007 immediately ignores these warnings and jets off to Rome, following a lead left by an old friend which draws him toward a secret society called SPECTRE and it’s enigmatic leader Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who seems to have his tentacles wrapped around all levels of international power and influence, and whom Bond recognises from his own past.
What becomes immediately apparent in Spectre is that it is the Bond film that producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have wanted to make since Casino Royale. The noble attempt to reboot the character when Daniel Craig came on board worked at first, but the grittier Bond of Quantum of Solace threatened to finish this iteration for good. There seemed to be a struggle to come to terms with what relevance a character like James Bond has in the 21st Century. When Sam Mendes came on board for Skyfall he immediately addressed this issue by bringing it right to the front, exploring the notion of an “old dog” in a world full of new tricks. Spectre pushes this even further with the introduction of surveillance programs and drone strikes replacing the need for human agents, but these ideas are relegated to the background to make way for the spectacle, because what this film achieves above the previous three is its unashamed embrace of the style and spectacle Bond is famous for.
What is most striking about this approach is how the film remixes old set pieces from the film series’ greatest hits while still making them feel vital. Once Bond runs afoul of the eponymous secret society the references come thick and fast; a car chase along the banks of the Tiber where Bond tries to employ gadgets in his Aston Martin is straight out of Goldfinger, a resort clinic on a snow-capped mountain where Bond meets love interest Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) feels like an outtake from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a fistfight between Bond and henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista) in a train car is possibly even more intense than the one between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, and the location of the SPECTRE headquarters, inside a giant crater, is reminiscent of their volcano base in You Only Live Twice. All of these references are handled deftly and fit with the overall tone of the film, which is the perfect way to bring the series back to a more recognizable template, obviously what Wilson and Broccoli have been chasing all these years.
However, it doesn’t all work. It is a little disappointing that the attempt in this new film to provide Bond with backstory feels extremely rudimentary. Somewhere amongst the larger-than-life set pieces, exotic locales and goofy humour is a vague and not fully explored connection between Bond and his nemesis which just becomes frustrating to try and figure out. Oberhauser’s plot tracks right back to Casino Royale and is part of some grand plan for revenge against Bond for something that occurred at some time or other in their past, but is so under-explained to be almost non-existent. Another element that doesn’t quite work is the attempt to turn the film into an ensemble. When the supporting actors in the film are as good as Fiennes, Harris and Wishaw, of course the impulse to give them something to do is a strong one, but having their scenes take place on the other side of the world makes their actions feel less than when in Bond’s orbit. It’s great to see M, Moneypenny and Q doing more than just providing the hero with exposition, but if they were all brought together with Bond the threat would feel much more vital, rather than cutting away from Bond to see what they are all up to.
Enjoyment of Spectre really is a matter of perspective. A love of classic Bond and of Craig’s portrayal of the character will service audiences well here, but any hopes of a more fulfilling thematic experience will be dashed. Bond has come through the crucible of the 21st Century and has emerged as a more streamlined version of his older self. It’s great to see Craig finally having a bit of fun and the series playing to its strengths (gone are the woeful double entendres). Of course, like all Bond films it is overlong and perhaps suffers from one set piece too many, but if this is Craig’s swan song he should be happy to go out on this one. Mendes too has set the bar for whoever follows him, crafting what could possibly be the modern Bond film’s Goldfinger by installing the template that will be followed going forward. Not to say that Spectre is on par with that film, but it does finally put a lot of the elements in place that are quintessentially Bond; it’s brash, bombastic, silly and thoroughly entertaining.
This article is part of our 007 marathon. You can find all the entries by clicking here.