Full disclosure: I’ve never been a real fan of the James Bond franchise. I’ve seen most of the films before, but they just don’t appeal to me. They’re mindless action with a main character who really isn’t a character at all. It wasn’t until Daniel Craig’s turn at Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale that I finally really enjoyed 007. It remains my favorite film in the franchise. Craig and Casino seemed to cast off the tired Bond tropes that had become so cliche over the years. This Bond was more introspective and less constantly suave. This was a Bond who had flaws and got the shit kicked out of him. This was a Bond that, when asked if he wanted his martini shaken or stirred replied, “Does it look like I give a damn?” This was my Bond.
In Spectre we’ve come full circle and my Bond is gone. The movie not only fully embraces the tired cliches that the series is known for, the story bends over backward to make sure we can fit them all in. It’s Bond as we’ve seen him over and over again. It’s also not very good.
Spectre picks up in the events following Skyfall, showing that the continuity that is so rarely used within the franchise will once again be employed here. James Bond (Daniel Craig) blows up half of Mexico City to prevent a different part of Mexico City from being blown up. The introduction to the scene (and the movie) is done in one long sweeping take capturing the wild beauty of Mexico City mid-Day of the Dead celebration. This scene is impressive, if not completely pointless and sets a tone and editing pace that the rest of the film will completely abandon.
Back in London, Bond is grounded for his reckless actions by the new M (Ralph Fiennes). We learn that Bond was in Mexico at the request of M’s predecessor (Judy Dench), tracking down a man in league with an evil organization known as SPECTRE. How or why M was privilege to this information is something that the movie can’t be bothered to tell us.
Bond goes rogue because of course he does, and the movie follows him as he chases around the evil SPECTRE organization, attempting to thwart their plans. Along the way, we hit just about every traditional Bond stereotype you can think of. The bedding and forgetting of a recent widow (Monica Bellucci), an epic fistfight with a silent but badass henchmen (Dave Bautista), and a verbal sparring match with a tough, capable blonde (Lea Seydoux) who seems immune to Bond’s charms. That is, until the script tells her not to be.
It is the script that’s at the core of the problems with Spectre. Credited to four different writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth), it is largely a nonsensical exposition fest where characters are forced to explain their actions and motivations rather than let us just see them. The story has so much backfilled information to catch the audience up on that it doesn’t have much time for anything else. It’s also forced to take astonishingly illogical leaps to propel the narrative. This is a movie in which a clandestine evil organization inexplicably includes the DNA of every single one of their members on their secret decoder ring that they carry around with them. To quote my editor, Matt, that’s “almost too stupid to criticize.” Almost.
Daniel Craig plays Bond with a sense of dull boredom. Gone is the emotive, rough-edged Bond that Craig played in Casino Royale, replaced instead by basically one facial expression for the entire 150 minute runtime. Craig and Seydoux, playing Bond’s love interest Dr. Madeleine Swann, have so little chemistry it makes me long for the Pierce Brosnan/Denise Richards match ups of yesteryear. The script doesn’t bother to explain why these two would fall in love, it just tells us that they are and expects us to go with it.
The same can be said of Christoph Waltz’s turn as the villain of the piece. Waltz (who is totally not playing Bond arch nemesis Blofeld, I promise) is almost criminally underused here. When I wrote about Waltz late last year I mentioned that I was worried no one knows how to properly write for and direct him like Quentin Tarantino does. Spectre has confirmed this. Waltz’s Oberhausen is mysteriously absent for much of a film that is desperately trying to build him up as a terrifying nemesis to Bond. When the true history of Oberhausen’s past is revealed it falls flat, because none of it means anything to the audience. You can see that Waltz is trying to do his best with the material, but the script doesn’t let him really emote. He’s the exposition fairy, who monologues more than any other Bond villain I’ve ever seen.
Director Sam Mendes, who did a really great job with Skyfall does good work here too. The action scenes are kinetic and well shot. As mentioned before, the opening scene is expertly done, and a mid-movie car chase on the streets of Rome is a blast. But Mendes is hamstrung by an undercooked script. So much of Spectre is the movie explaining what happens that he isn’t able to really show us much of anything. We move from action set piece to set piece in strict, formulaic fashion.
At the end of the day Spectre is a very standard James Bond movie. If you love Bond, you’ll probably find something to love here as well. The series has stumbled through bad scripts before and somehow managed to come through it. For me though, Casino Royale proved that Bond could be something more than the standard fare. We didn’t need to have our hero hooked up to a death chair with needles and lasers while the villain monologues about his nefarious plan all while the love interest stands to the side, powerless to help. Bond could be more. In Spectre, Bond is just Bond and he wants his vodka martinis shaken, not stirred.