Blog 025: Spectre (2015)

After marathoning all twenty-three previous official James Bond films, I was so excited to see Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). I’m not disappointed either; in fact, I think that having watched the earlier movies so recently actually increased my enjoyment of this one because of all the callbacks it has.

Since the three Daniel Craig-starring films featured Bond “becoming Bond,” the iconic gun-barrel sequence was placed at different points. Its appearance at the beginning of Spectre signals a return to “classic” Bond. Sure, the film kind of shares its predecessors’ concerns with themes, character development, and realism, but it also emphasizes some lighthearted aspects of the pre-reboot era that had ended with Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002).

While the organization SPECTRE from the old films appears here, the (clunky) acronym’s meaning of SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion does not. Interestingly, the film’s title is not capitalized, suggesting that it refers as much to this organization as to the specter of Bond’s past (after all, the opening text reads, “The dead are alive”). Another specter that the film must deal with is Bond’s cinematic past, as Spectre tries to reconcile the seriousness of Craig’s run with the earlier silliness of the franchise. For the most part, this reconciliation is successful.

What I liked most is that Spectre manages to check every box that a Bond fan would want to see: pre-title sequence featuring an elaborate stunt; Bond receiving a dressing-down in M’s (Ralph Fiennes) office; Q (Ben Whishaw) equipping Bond with gadgets; Bond flirting with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); a brutal henchman (Dave Bautista’s Hinx); a car chase featuring a gadget-laden car; a villain’s lair in a remote location; the villain monologuing; Bond being elaborately tortured; and probably the best use of locations in the series (Mexico City, London, Rome, Austria, and Morocco).

Nonetheless, it never feels like the parts add up to the whole that set Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) and Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) apart as being my favorite entries in the series. That’s not to say that Spectre is a bad film; it’s just not as unique as those two.

And I think that’s exactly the predicament Spectre faced. The three previous Craig films had strayed so far from the traditional Bond formula that fans (myself included) were excited to see what the Craig series would be like if it more closely followed this formula. The answer? A lot like a traditional Bond film, and with very few surprises.

When the movie ended, my girlfriend commented that it just didn’t seem memorable. We’ll see how time treats Spectre, but I do love that the ending could signal a satisfying finale for Craig’s interpretation of the character and a point-of-entry for a new actor and/or the first part of a storyline that could carry through future installments.

There is still much to like here. Beyond the inclusion of so many franchise elements, I enjoyed the obvious references to Craig’s three films as well as the more subtle nods to the cinematic and literary Bond canon (especially the name of the MI6 safe house being “The Hildebrand Rarity”, the title of an Ian Fleming-written short story included in the collection For Your Eyes Only [1960]). Even at 148 minutes, the pacing remains brisk. Finally, the action scenes are well-made, and most of the characters (especially the MI6 regulars) are handled exceptionally well.

But there are some issues as well. First, why does Thomas Newman’s score recycle so much from his work on Skyfall? I suppose it’s meant to emphasize this film’s connection to its predecessor, but the repetition was distracting at first (most people won’t mind at all, though). Second, we’re meant to accept that Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) fall in love, but it never feels right. There’s a nice exchange between them on board a train, and – while this recalls a wonderful, similar scene from Casino Royale – a fight abruptly breaks out (admittedly, this fight is one of the best in the franchise). Third, the twist involving Bond and the villain might frustrate some, but I thought it was actually quite interesting to learn more about their shared history.

I highly recommend Spectre to anyone who’s enjoyed Craig’s tenure as Bond. It brings the character full circle from Casino Royale but still leaves room open for a very promising next chapter.

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