It’s the classiest $300 million blockbuster you’ll ever see. It’s also the dullest James Bond movie ever made.
There’s a lot to like in Spectre, including four standout (albeit all-too-brief) action sequences that represent some of the most memorable Bond set pieces of the Brosnan-Craig era, and a lot of nods to earlier films in the series and classic Bond lore.
And there’s a real sense of directorial vision in the work of Sam Mendes, the first Bond director to make back-to-back features since John Glen in the 1980s (though Martin Campbell made the two best films since then, a decade apart, in Goldeneye and Casino Royale). Mendes was seemingly given free rein – and the second-highest budget of any film, ever – to take this pop icon and craft a no-shit art film. Kudos.
But did it have to be so tedious? Lengthy sequences in this 148-minute feature – the longest Bond movie to date – simply flatline, sitting up on the screen devoid of tension or suspense. I’m shocked the producers didn’t force their director to punch things up a bit.
Spectre begins in Mexico with a minutes-long tracking shot through a Day of the Dead procession (shades of similar sequences in Moonraker and Live and Let Die) that follows Daniel Craig’s Bond through the streets, into a hotel, and onto the rooftops as he tracks a target. Pure cinema.
There, he assassinates a group of people before toppling (accidentally?) an entire building complex, which crumbles to the ground in familiar 9/11/Man of Steel type imagery. Bond wipes out a solid city block in the midst of shoulder-to-shoulder street traffic – costing what must amount to thousands of innocent lives, worse than anything the villains do in this movie – and gets a snarky headline in The Guardian and stern talking-to from Ralph Fiennes’ M.
That’s an unfortunately irresponsible blockbuster mentality, but the surrounding action sequence – culminating with Bond attempting to do battle aboard a helicopter while dangling from its open doors – is first-rate action movie stuff.
This wowser of an opener is followed by a credits sequence that boasts Sam Smith’s overwrought Writing’s On The Wall – which falls well short of Adele’s title tune in Skyfall – though things are livened up by a bizarre tentacle porn-laced arrangement that features Bond girl silhouettes with octopuses and glimpses from the previous features.
Throughout Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, Bond faced off against the usual villains while slowly tracking the overarching criminal organization that bears this film’s title. In Spectre, everything comes to a head, delivered along with all the pointless Bond backstory that Ian Fleming never thought to dream up. An hour’s worth of the film is expository dialogue detailing the backstory of Spectre and Bond’s childhood and Blofeld and his father and blah blah blah. Tedium.
Meanwhile, MI6’s 00 program is threatened with being dismantled in London by new head C (Andrew Scott) in a plotline that feels borrowed from the most recent Mission: Impossible movies. That results in Fiennes’ M, secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) getting in on the action as they attempt to assist Bond.
It’s a departure for the franchise, but it’s nice to see these characters getting more screen time; still, the TMI politics-heavy London storyline (shades of the Star Wars prequels) isn’t an improvement over the expository Bond/Spectre stuff.
The revelation of Blofeld is handled as a surprise, but any Bond fan will be expecting it in a movie titled Spectre, and the name won’t mean a thing to anyone else. Christoph Waltz is the archvillian behind everything, but his mild-mannered, soft-spoken performance here leaves you wanting; Dr. Evil was a more imposing threat.
Much more fun is Dave Bautista’s hulking Jaws/Oddjob-like henchman, who is never named onscreen (he’s credited as “Hinx”) and has a single word of dialogue. Still, he features in three of the film’s standout action sequences, and provides the formidable villain that Waltz’s Blofeld lacks.
The highlights: a slam-bang car chase in Rome with Bond in the Aston Martin and Hinx in a sleek Jaguar; a wonderfully over-the-top sequence that culminates in Bond steering a wingless plane down the Austrian Alps; and a show-stopping hand-to-hand fight scene aboard a train that nods to a similar sequence in From Russia with Love.
The action here is so good – and Mendes’ handling of it has improved greatly since Skyfall – that I wanted to forgive Spectre its story weaknesses. But to get to the good stuff, you have to sit through all the listless exposition.
A big deal was made about Monica Belluci’s appearance as a Bond girl: at 50, she’s the oldest yet (Honor Blackman, 38 in Goldfinger, comes next). But Belluci gets all of three minutes of screen time; I’d have much rather seen her featured over Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), who is fine but nothing out of the ordinary as Bond’s leading femme.
Forbes’ Scott Mendelson is calling this the “worst Bond in 30 years.” That’s an overreaction, lest we forget the brainless Die Another Day or the disposable actioners Tomorrow Never Dies or The World is Not Enough.
Whatever else it might be, Spectre is neither brainless nor disposable. It’s a ballsy attempt at crafting a refined and elegant art-film Bond from existing pop culture pieces, and if it doesn’t work it’s at least a noble failure. Like the classic Bond films of the Roger Moore era, it’s worth seeing for the parts if not the whole.