Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015) is where the postmodern reinvention of James Bond intersects, and arguably collides, with the traditional formula of the franchise. It is an attempt to reboot history by making Daniel Craig’s melancholic, hard-edged interpretation of the character resonate with the artistic iterations that carried the series through the twentieth century. Spectre accordingly displays an opening title card stating ‘The dead are alive,’ a varied epitaph that foreshadows both the film’s actual narrative and meta-narrative. This is a sensible strategy from a franchise perspective as it follows through with the goal to breathe new life into the Bond series by providing more character depth, story, and motivation. At the same time, it is a stylistic balancing act which ultimately results in an ambitious, yet largely inconsistent film that looks back even as it moves forward. On paper, Spectre is the logical conclusion of the Craig era. On film, it plays less assured and convincing.
Spectre is the first Daniel Craig film to open with the traditional gun barrel sequence. The Craig films previously played with this iconic symbol to mirror the new journey the character is on. The return to formula makes explicit the renewed status of Bond as icon, not iconoclast. And, yet, Spectre is as much about the return of Bond, the symbol, as it is about the farewell to Bond, the revisionist. While the film may not be Craig’s final curtain call, it seems designed to bring his journey to a mature and moving end. The franchise implied a similar moment of bliss earlier in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), but Spectre turns Bond’s commitment to love into a moment of human triumph.
Conceptually, Spectre works, exceptionally so, but the film’s narrative, along with many of the action sequences, never reach the heights it sets out to reach. The pre-credit sequence, set in Mexico City, aims to set itself apart from known predecessors through an ostentatious long take. While technically complex, it feels ill-paced and at odds with the dramatic drive of the scene – not to mention, Bond’s appearance in the frame happens almost incidental. A car chase through Rome, while beautifully photographed, feels protracted and strangely event-less. A torture scene seems tailored to surpass a similar moment in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), only to become entangled in old-style villain monologuing. Finally, the iconic character of Blofeld, ‘author of [Bond’s] pain,’ feels tagged on and underdeveloped – even the majestic Christoph Waltz cannot overcome cliche.
The highlight of Spectre is its homage to From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963) in form of the train fight between Bond and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista as one of the greatest Bond henchman in history). The fight choreography is ferocious and fast-paced, but basic and familiar overall. However, Bautista’s physical presence as a force of unstoppable violence achieves the unthinkable – he makes the audience believe that Bond could lose. Bautista never flinches as he prowls his way through the train – Bond even sets him on fire which does not seem to slow him down. Hinx has ascended to the pantheon of Bond henchmen, along with Oddjob and Jaws.
Spectre’s mission to integrate classic Bond formula is a logical step in the reinvention of the franchise, but not all the parts go well together. It is an indication that Craig’s Bond films deliberately ascended time, to move on. In this sense, Spectre could be seen as a step back – and it certainly does not compare to Casino Royale or Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012). What it does, however, is enable the character of Bond to move on, at least in concept. The next film has a solid foundation to develop its own distinctive identity, modeled on what came before, yet firmly based in what lies ahead.
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