Directed by: Sam Mendes
Premise: Following the events of Skyfall, James Bond (Daniel Craig) investigates a shadowy organization and its mysterious leader while M (Ralph Fiennes) deals with an attempted bureaucratic takeover of MI6.
What Works: James Bond fans ought to enjoy Spectre. The movie works its way through all the signature elements of the series including global travel, martinis, gadgets, femme fatales, and of course the action set pieces. Longtime 007 fans who are familiar with the twenty-four (or twenty-six, depending on how you’re counting) previous movies will note the many nods to earlier installments but viewers who aren’t so versed in the series will not miss anything in the story. One admirable aspect of Spectre and of the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond series has been the attempt to narratively connect these films together. For the most part, the other James Bond films were standalone adventures and the character didn’t really develop over the course of the series. Starting with 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond films have built upon one another and Spectre is a lynchpin story that ties the previous three films together. Because of that connection, the Daniel Craig incarnation of James Bond continues to be one of the most interesting versions of the character. Spectre also manages to be topical. James Bond was a product of the Cold War and since the end of that era filmmakers have struggled to keep the character relevant. The current series of Bond films have managed to do that by deliberately playing into post-9/11 anxieties and assumptions. Spectre does that very directly, invoking electronic surveillance and drone warfare and that gives the movie some relevance.
What Doesn’t: The trouble is that the politics of Spectre are only half-considered. The film sets up a very compelling duality: Bond and his adversary Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) are quite similar in their attitudes and methods and MI6 and SPECTRE actually have many of the same qualities with the intelligence agency at risk of becoming indistinguishable from a rogue terrorist organization. In that respect, Spectre tells nearly the same story as Captain America: The Winter Soldier but does it less well. In terms of its themes and ideas, Spectre acknowledges Bond is an anachronism in the era of drones as well as the moral slippery slope of assassinations. But the moviemakers don’t resolve that tension or bring it to the next level. Hanging over Spectre is the fact that much of these same ideas were explored in the superior Skyfall in which they were dramatized much more effectively. Unlike Casino Royale or Skyfall, this new film does very little with James Bond as a character. He isn’t as vulnerable as he was in those films and the movie doesn’t come up with ways to move him to a new phase or to a new understanding about himself. This is both a thematic problem but also a dramatic problem for Spectre. The movie lacks narrative momentum and despite introducing Blofeld, one of the classic Bond villains, the filmmakers don’t come up with anything interesting for him to do. The investigation into the SPECTRE organization is not that interesting and the revelation isn’t especially shattering. Perhaps the biggest storytelling mistake of Spectre is the lack of concrete stakes. Blofeld lacks the essential ingredient of any Bond villain: he has no diabolical plot that 007 has to stop. Instead the movie is a series of chases in which nothing is at stake. Spectre also has the curious quality of feeling like it is working through a pattern; the movie has all of the requisite James Bond elements but the movie sluggishly plods through them and certain moments, namely the sex scenes, come across as shoehorned into the story.
Bottom Line: Spectre is an average James Bond adventure. It certainly isn’t the worst of the series or even the worst of the Daniel Craig era but what should be a major payoff comes across as a run through of the 007 checklist.
Episode: #569 (November 15, 2015)