As much as I loved Skyfall the film’s insistence on slowly undoing all of Casino Royale‘s franchise retooling – bringing Q and Moneypenny back into the game as well as a curmudgeon old white guy into the M role and re-injecting more of the sly humour – seemed to put whatever mission that followed on bad footing. After seeing Spectre twice now I’m even more convinced that those creative decisions were entirely misjudged.
Mendes returning to the director’s chair and the promise of finally seeing a Craig-era take on S.P.E.C.T.R.E and Blofeld was enticing but it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that all the enthusiasm and class Mendes brought to Skyfall has become somewhat exhausted by dedicating up to five years of his life on this franchise. For so much of the running time, this just feels like Bond by the numbers.
The semi one-take pre-credit sequence comes across like hollow showboating; it’s immediately obvious they didn’t actually do it all in one take and it has very little dramatic purpose, so why bother? The thin plotting is made unnecessarily complicated too and there’s just a bunch of dumb moments. At one point a mouse helps Bond find a secret room. Come on! The female character problems that have always plagued the series come crashing back into play after being mostly avoided for the last few films with Monica Bellucci’s doomed widow. She has little narrative use beyond being de-robed and bedded by Bond, making you think aloud “what year is this?” Much was made of her being an “older Bond girl” but even if you had Craig seducing Dame Maggie Smith, the nobility of that decision would still be cancelled out by the underwriting.
More than anything I’m still pissed about the stupid game the marketing team tried playing with Waltz’ casting. As soon as he was announced as “Franz Oberhauser” everyone rightly guessed it was merely an alias for Ernst Stavro Blofeld. First off, what a boring, obvious casting choice. Secondly, didn’t Stark Trek Into Darkness teach these marketing guys anything? Why be coy about it? When they released the first teasers with Waltz in shadow ominously promising Bond he was “the author of all your pain” – confirming him as Blofeld, basically – the teasing was so blatant that I assumed they were playing up to expectations and secretly planning a bait and switch, an assumption I carried throughout my entire first viewing.
As Spectre slowly inched towards its climax I suspected that Lea Seydoux’s mostly unremarkable Bond femme-in-distress Madeline Swan was going to be revealed as the real Blofeld, which made most of my trepidations in the plodding second act tolerable. As a life-long Bond fan, I became incredibly excited about this concept which was totally in-tune with the kind of bold retconning these Craig movies promised all the way back in 2006. Bond having a female arch nemesis over various movies, how cool would that be? So much potential. It would also explain why they cast such a terrific actress in such a thankless role. Alas, as soon as Waltz hams it up and reveals his true identity any hope I had for this regular old Bond movie to morph into something irregular was instantly extinguished.
This is followed by a silly fourth-act involving a ticking clock game of cat and mouse in a bombed-out MI6 (a cool location!) that feels like something out of any other generic spy thriller, a category these movies should constantly be striving to be better than. The schmaltzy “driving off into the sunset in the Aston Martin” tag also feels like it was dropped in from a totally different movie. Not only does it succumb to the kind of classic-Bond nostalgia that worked in Skyfall but should otherwise be avoided at all costs (see Die Another Day), it also goes against the overreaching arc established from Vesper’s death in Casino Royale of Bond being forever doomed to be alone. Also, Craig and Seydoux just don’t have that much chemistry, making the beat land on even more of a bum note. There are whispers that this is setting up the next chapter as a Craig era On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is certainly intriguing, but given the way this movie totally sidelines dramatic potential in favour of stock beats, I’m hesitant to get my hopes up.
So why the relatively positive rating? Well I still love Craig’s take on this character and the technical side of things almost makes up for a lot of the script’s downfalls. Shot on celluloid by ace DOP Hoyte van Hoytema (stepping in for Roger Deakins who lensed Skyfall beautifully with digital cameras) the film is full of stunning vistas and a chilly colour palette that renders so many stock scenes in alluring shades of shadow and hues. The cast is great across the board too and all make the most out of what they’re given. Let’s just hope the next one – Craig’s last? – gets things back on sure footing.
Watched on blu-ray