Standard, satisfying Bond fare that will please many, surprise none.
Spectre, Sam Mendes‘ latest riff on the classic James Bond formula, comes with all the trimmings fans have come to expect from the undying international superspy series: Daniel Craig‘s 007 kicks henchman ass, kisses gorgeous women, sips on his famous martinis, stares death square in the face more than once, and causes some serious property damage as he visits some of the most ridiculously picturesque places on earth in search of a European big bad hellbent on world domination. It’s the same old schtick, but it’s a schtick millions have come to embrace as a moviegoing staple, one we can count on to deliver insanely expensive-looking action and a fair amount of clean-cut operatic drama. It’s a good Bond film, though there’s nothing remarkable enough about it that it’ll be a standout in the series.
As he’s liable to do, Christoph Waltz plays the film’s central villain, Oberhauser, a worldwide crime boss and tech terrorist who plans to hold humanity in his clutches via some kind of big brother surveillance system. Bond’s path to finding Oberhauser starts in Mexico City, where he causes an explosive international incident involving a helicopter spinning out of control above the city’s annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. It’s an eye-popping opener with clever staging (Bond’s life is saved by a couch) and a sky-high fight scene that’s sure to have those afraid of heights hanging onto their armrests for dear life.
Following his mid-air dance of death, Bond’s journey takes him to Rome, then back home to London, then to Austria, then to Tangier, and back to London again. Mendes doesn’t stray from the series’ touristic traditions one bit, throwing up jaw-dropping locales onto the screen rapid-fire. From the snowy peaks of Austria to the serene desert sprawl of Tangier, mother earth looks her beauty-pageant best, and she’s rocking some shiny jewelry to boot: the baddies’ fortresses look like marvels of modern architecture and the stunning cars Bond rockets around in will make you drool. Bond movies have become increasingly obsessed with suit-modeling and vista-ogling in recent years, but that’s not a bad thing. At least not yet.
Bond’s allies aren’t in short supply in his latest romp: M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and gadget maven Q (Ben Wishaw) have all got 007’s back, though the bad guys’ eyes-everywhere tech prevents them from aiding Bond remotely. Spending the most time with him is newbie Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the latest addition to his ever-growing list of doomed lovers. She’s the daughter of an old villain who operated under the Oberhauser umbrella, and she insists she’s got no interest in bedding James like the rest of his international floozies. But who’s she fooling? After a romantic train ride and a close-quarters fistfight with one of Oberhauser goons (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista), the sexual tension becomes too strong for even the strong-willed Madeleine to resist.
Craig’s got his Bond routine down to a science by now, hunting down his villainous prey with that same signature cold-eyed scowl he uses to make women melt. He’s a very good James Bond, but what slows him down in Spectre is his romance with Seydoux’s Madeleine, which unfolds in such a cursory fashion it’s laughable. She confesses her love for him after spending only a few days together, and even an actor of Seydoux’s talent can’t make such an unlikely leap in affection feel natural. If this is the girl Bond’s meant to consider leaving the spy life for, the writers (Neal Purvis, John Logan, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth) don’t do enough to convince us of it.
Thankfully, the rushed romance one of only two of the film’s major downers (the other is the movie’s theme song, by Sam Smith, which is insufferable). The action set pieces are all show-stoppers, though the thrills of the opening helicopter scene are never outdone. A close-quarters fight scene between Craig, Bautista and Seydoux is a lot of fun and reminds us that Mendes doesn’t need pricey visual effects to keep us on the edge of our seats (the scene’s absence of music is a great touch that makes the brawl doubly tense). The movie isn’t exactly action-packed, though, as the explosions and car chases are used to punctuate the long stretches of character development/plot progression. Skyfall had a more striking and cohesive visual style than Spectre does (shadows and blackness are the recurring themes, but none of the inky images stick), but Mendes’ craftsmanship is never less than elegant and fully composed.
There’s a twist to Waltz’s character that I won’t spoil here, but what I will say is that he disappoints, again, by playing a villain exactly the way we all expect him to. The man’s capable of great things, but we’ve seen him play this smirking, unfazed, cold-blooded a million times before, and it’s a letdown every time he decides to stay in the pocket and not add any new dimensions to his act. Harris and Wishaw make a better effort, and it’ll be nice to continue watching them support Bond in future entries.
If Skyfall was the pinnacle of Craig’s run as Bond, Spectre signals a slight downturn and a need for the series to break new ground and redefine who James Bond is for the next generation. Mendes has made a fine movie that pays homage to Bond lore in surprising and delightful ways (there’s something off about that Oberhauser…) but it feels like the timing’s right for a change of the guard. Craig is perhaps the quintessential alpha-male Bond, always in control of his situation and surroundings; maybe it’s time for a double-0 who gets a bit more shaken and stirred in the face of danger.