Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomi Harris, Andrew Scott, Dave Bautista, Jesper Christensen, Monica Bellucci, Rory Kinnear
SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, has an iconic place in the James Bond series, with the evil organisation having been 007’s nemesis in six of the first seven films. But in the 1960s, Kevin McClory, the co-author of Thunderball, launched legal action against Ian Fleming after Fleming failed to give him appropriate credit for the novel, and was awarded sole rights to the SPECTRE name. For this reason, despite its iconic status, SPECTRE has not been mentioned in a Bond film since Diamonds are Forever in 1971. In 2013, four decades and sixteen Bond films later, a deal was struck between the McClory estate and MGM to return the rights, and the studio wasted no time in reintroducing SPECTRE into the fold, placing it front and centre in Bond 24, called, unsurprisingly, Spectre.
After receiving a secret message from an old ally, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue on what starts out as an assassination mission in Mexico City and ends up in Rome with the discovery of a secret organisation that has been behind many of the villains he has faced in the recent past. The organisation is called SPECTRE, and the man behind it appears to be a long forgotten and supposedly deceased name from Bond’s past, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). There is also trouble on the home front. The government has ordered that MI6 be absorbed into the newly formed Centre for National Security, and the head of the CNS, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), is seeking to make M (Ralph Fiennes) and the 00 program obsolete with an international electronic surveillance network, arguing that secret agents with licenses to kill are no longer relevant. So Bond must act alone to try and take down this organisation. (Somewhat uncomfortably, this is almost exactly the same premise as the other major spy film of this year, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.)
The four Daniel Craig Bond films are unique within the franchise as they are also the only sequence of films which operate as a serial. As such Spectre is full of references to characters and narrative events from Casino Royale, Skyfall and, to a lesser extent, Quantum of Solace. But this has been taken to another level with the introduction of SPECTRE into story. Screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth have gone to great lengths to reverse engineer the four films into a single, somewhat ungainly narrative, retconning SPECTRE in as the puppet master, as “author to all [Bond’s] pain.” While elements of this work well, it is simply pushed too far, trying to be too all encompassing and neat and the result feels unnecessarily contrived. Does everything have to be personal? Does everything have to come back to Bond? This contrivance, which fully emerges in the third act, coupled with the fact that neither of the film’s two major reveals are the least bit surprising, unfortunately denies Spectre of the big finale it seems to be building to.
Spectre continues with the deeper psychological exploration of the character of James Bond that started with Casino Royale. This film really pushes the idea that James Bond is an assassin rather than a spy, and the impact that his profession has on him as a person and on how he connects with other people. It is no coincidence that the two Bond girls in the film, Monica Bellucci’s Lucia Sciarra and Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, are, respectively, the widow and the daughter of assassins. The film opens with four words, “The Dead Will Rise,” a reference to the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City that directly follows, but also an ominous warning of what is to come in the story and the many deaths that continue to haunt Bond.
While continuing this character study, Spectre is also the most traditional Bond film of Craig’s run. The most expensive (budget rumoured to be over $250 million) and longest (148 minutes) film in the franchise’s history, Spectre hits a lot of the expected beats. There are exotic locations, good (if slightly by the numbers) action sequences and Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is a return to the tradition of silent superhuman henchmen like Odd Job and Jaws. Ben Wishaw and Naomi Harris as Q and Moneypenny do an exceptional job of finding the right balance in bringing a slightly lighter touch to the film while staying true to the more serious and gritty world of this incarnation of 007. Returning director Sam Mendes also continues with the nostalgic homages to previous Bond films that he included in Skyfall. The conscientious Bond fan will spot allusions to From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, Goldfinger, Casino Royale and many more, with the film being particularly indebted to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, from which it borrows significant narrative elements.
One key Skyfall collaborator who did not return for this instalment was cinematographer Roger Deakins, replaced here by Hoyte van Hoyteman who shot Interstellar and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Spectre is very well shot, and van Hoyteman produces arguably the most impressive shot in the history of the series with the four-and-a-half minute tracking shot that opens the film, but after Deakins’ transcendent, Oscar nominated work on Skyfall it can’t help but feel like a slight step down.
Skyfall was an enormous success, a true crossover hit, which not only become the highest grossing film in the franchise, but was also recognised with awards at the BAFTAs and Oscars. Spectre does not quite reach those heights. It is comfortably the third best of Craig’s Bonds. Despite being contracted for one more film, there is increasing speculation, spurred by the actor himself, that Daniel Craig is done with Bond, and the conclusion of Spectre does have the feeling of a swansong to it. If that is the case Spectre is a solid if unspectacular way to conclude this most interesting period in 007’s history, one which has effectively revitalised the storied franchise.
Review by Duncan McLean
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