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Bond films are an odd sort, and to be sure, the very definition of repetitive. But what isn’t in entertainment? The persistence of Bond has nothing to do with who plays the part, certainly not the story, or even the parade of women showcased in each. It’s about the promise, an unachievable expectation we have for wonder, created by the originals and endlessly repeated since. Bond is like a fifth season that comes on a whim, carrying with it hope for a fresh beginning with every new arrival.
Spectre marks the twenty-fourth time James Bond has donned the proverbial tuxedo and makes a concentrated effort to try and recall each and every one of those previous additions. Throughout the film there are many obvious nods and several subtle winks to the ones that came before. The question though is why? The Daniel Craig years as the titular hero have seen the producers of the franchise go in polar opposite directions, at first with Casino Royale (2006), retooling the character and tone of the series, outright denying fans the expected tropes (at one point, when asked if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”). This departure was welcome (and fun) and with the casting of a blond haired blue-eyed Craig, Royale firmly put Bond on the right track for the new millennium for the rise of a more grounded, gritty Bond. It is the best Bond in the entire run and proved that the name and premise could be timeless.
Since then, the makers seem ever more worried that audiences won’t accept a more humanized version of the tried and true character and have increasingly gone back to the shallow well with Spectre practically coming off as a love letter to the old days, drawing Bond as a cape-less superhero. Unfortunately, as is a lesson that Hollywood has truly yet to learn, we can never go back. Modern audiences are a more cynical bunch, and an attempt to blend the cartoony escapades of past Bonds with the heavy-handed approach of a Christopher Nolan epic simply don’t work. At every turn, Spectre is a let down.
It begins with Bond in Mexico City, on the heels of a target we will later learn is a man the late “M” (Judi Dench) ordered him to kill at all costs. Bond is a rogue agent (again!) and as he takes to the rooftops of a city wholly engulfed in the annual Day of the Dead celebrations, he finds his mark in an adjacent building where he uses a sophisticated listening device to learn that he and the men he is meeting with plan to detonate a bomb at the city stadium. Bond stops them and gives chase to one who gets away, ending up in a helicopter doing corkscrews above the crowd. After defeating his man, Bond pulls a ring from the terrorist’s finger and once back in England, discovers that the double-O program is being shut down by the new head of the recently combined MI5 and MI6 agencies and that a new global surveillance initiative is to be implemented, thereby relieving the world of the need for outdated spies.
Naturally, Bond disobeys orders (again!) and heads off to investigate on his own. He encounters the wife of the man he killed in Mexico and she tells him of a secret criminal organization called Spectre. With the ring he procured from eariler, he gains access to a large meeting of other Spectre agents and sees its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who is keenly aware that Bond is in the room, kicking off an extended car chase scene between Bond and a new, burly enemy, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista).
A bit later, drawing together some clues, Bond ends up in Austria where he finds Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a once proud leader of Quantum, a nefarious branch of Spectre seen in the previous three films. He reveals the existence of a daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who after Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol , needs only a Bourne film to complete the spy trifecta) whom he is desperate to protect from Spectre, and tells Bond to find her. This leads to more chases and escapes and other assorted Bond-isms before once again, Bond is face-to-face with Oberhauser, who reveals himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a twist that everyone saw coming due to the highly effective marketing campaign that practically shouted it from the rooftops without actually saying it.
Directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and written by a credited eight writers, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with Spectre, a film that may entertain many looking for more of the same but fails to deliver on most everything it promises. It starts with Bond himself, who in Royale was fresh yet chilled, but remarkably sympathetic. He finds real love in an unexpected place and the fate of that love effectively armored him in future films. It was necessary and cruel in defining the character and felt right. Craig’s Bond now is a bulky, pouting almost wordless assassin that is so bereft of humor and empathy, it’s hard to identify with anything he does. Believing he has any emotional attachment to Swann is painfully impossible, and at its core feels contrived and forced. And Swann herself is an issue. Let’s first try to forget the filmmakers tragic decision to introduce (and promote) Bellucci as an age-appropriate Bond girl, with whom was the entire reason I was eager to see the film, and then give her two small moments before utterly shelving her for the younger Seydoux, though not before she inexplicably beds Bond after he murders her husband. Swann herself is a blank slate that does little more than give Bond a girl to rescue, sashaying about and coyly telling Bond he will not have his way with her only to let him have his way with her after a fight with Mr. Hinx (that, while well-choreographed, should have started and ended with one gunshot if the henchman had brought a gun with him) leaves them breathless. The shot of these two on a bridge holding hands is one of the corniest moments in the franchise, and that’s saying a lot.
Then there is Blofeld, a villain of immeasurable adoration, and one that has for decades been the gold standard for over-the-top egomaniacal buffoonery that kept the old Bond series firmly tongue-in-cheek while inspiring a host of wanna-be’s (and one delicious homage in Dr. Evil). Waltz is a fine actor who, unfortunately has made a second career out of playing the same man in every film he’s done since his award winning and astonishingly good performance in Quintan Tarintino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and does so again here. Admittedly, there is a brief moment at his introduction in the first meeting of the Spectre agents when there was a chance to make this villain great, but it is squandered quickly. There is a sequence much later when Bond is captured by Blofeld, who secures him to a hi-tech chair-like torture device while the villain pecks away at a keyboard that operates the machinery that is so unthreatening, so absurdly off-putting, it deflates everything about the character that should be instead generating much more. What I say next will sound comical, especially considering the film I’m reviewing, but truly, Blofeld’s voiced intent is to kill Bond, and yet with Bond bound to a chair, unable to move, the simplest thing to do in order to reach that goal is utterly disregarded and in 2015, no matter how hard the makers are trying to recall all previous Bond’s, it is hopelessly frustrating and entirely devoid of suspense. With two of film’s greatest characters in the same room, isn’t there something more clever they can do?
The film as a whole is surprisingly bland, despite the great cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). Action set-pieces roll off the assembly line with expected results, and characters dole out their dialog on point, but there is a pervasive dullness to the production that feels more than familiar. It feels oppressive. About halfway through this movie, I suddenly had a strange thought. It was like I was watching all the cutscenes of a James Bond video game with all the player content removed. That’s probably a reductive assessment, but it made the second half of the film a bit more enjoyable, as I imaged what the unplayed game would be like.
In considering why the film fails, it all comes done to tone. The movie is lacking any humor and has no charm, trying to sustain the cornball cheese of the classic Bond years with the dark overtures of modern superhero origin stories. While Craig remains a great Bond (arguably the best), he is being weighted down by a team of filmmakers who strive to burden him with the heft of yesteryear instead of letting him make a mark on the future.