SPECTRE is the 24th James Bond movie, with Daniel Craig back as Bond and Sam Mendes, (in)famous for 2012’s Skyfall, back to direct what is ultimately the best possible result for a follow up film to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond. The trailers were wrong. This movie is so much fun.
Over the previous ten weeks, I did a countdown of the ten best James Bond movies, leaving Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond, Casino Royale, as number one. Second on the list was the emotional On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and seventh was Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond with GoldenEye.
To my eyes, SPECTRE is the magical hybrid of those three movies; Daniel Craig IS James Bond - finally - with a convincing (for a Bond flick) love story, all culminating in what is, simply put, just a damn good time.
Not on my top ten list was Craig and Mendes’ previous team-up Bond movie, Skyfall. Everyone seems to overrate that film - even when they admit it was fundamentally flawed - reasoned with something along the lines of it “just being a Bond movie,” as if that gives it an excuse.
That’s not an excuse! The best Bond movies - Casino Royale, From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, (and I would argue, now, SPECTRE) - are not fundamentally flawed! In Skyfall, we spend an hour with Bond tracking down Silva, an over-baked and over-acted caricature of a Bond villain, which is a huge waste of time. Skyfall is two-thirds filler for a final sequence that I will admit - while still slightly flawed - is extremely refreshing and interesting for a Bond film. But two-thirds filler!
I’ll answer “why?” really quickly: Silva’s plot is to kill Judi Dench’s M. How? By stealing a hard drive with the names of embedded agents around the world and leading someone, which ends up being Bond, to come and find him so he can be captured and brought back to MI6, only to somehow escape from MI6 (still part of his plan) to go shoot M. in a legal hearing. A legal hearing that would have happened nonetheless if he was captured or not! Why not just buy a flight to London? Those hearings are probably publicly listed! Just steal the hard drive, forcing the hearing, and show up and shoot her! The first two-thirds of the movie is just filler to cause Bond and M. to go off to Scotland and face Silva one on one. That’s terrible story telling.
Luckily, in SPECTRE, there is no bullshit filler. Just a damn good story. Not a strong, complex, or overly emotional or dramatic story, but an enjoyable one. It doesn’t feel like it’s working around something, but towards something. A very big something if you’re a fan of the franchise.
This is the point in which there are spoilers, though I would argue that this is a film which really isn’t holding too much back. I went in knowing every major event of the film and a basic outline, and it still blew me away with its execution. Read on comfortably.
I saw SPECTRE twice, back to back last night, first in IMAX and then again in a smaller theater. Go see this movie in IMAX. The sound effects, the action, and the visuals are all worth the IMAX experience (as is seeing the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer on that scale), and I was surprised at how different sitting in the smaller theater felt.
SPECTRE opens traditionally with the famous gun-barrel sequence. To most that means nothing, but to a fan it is one of those comforts that doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear the blaring blast of the Bond theme right up front. It’s the James Bond foreplay - it puts you in the mood for the film in a way nothing else can. It’s followed by a title card reading “The dead are alive,” which is a reoccurring theme throughout the rest of the film.
The opening sequence with Bond in Mexico is through a five-ish minute “uncut” sequence that flows through a fictionalized Day Of The Dead festival. What is immediately noticeable here through the flowing camera shot, the punchy soundtrack, and the first glimpse at Craig’s Bond is a certain swagger and confidence that’s been missing in the previous three films - both in the characterization of Bond and in the film-making. Craig’s confidence in this film blew me away - his wounds have healed, his scars have faded, and now he truly and honestly IS James Bond. The franchise is moving on.
There’s a mind-blowing helicopter fight sequence which transitions nicely, with the help of a surprisingly good soundtrack, into the not-so-typical introductory title-sequence, aptly described to me before seeing the film as “Daniel Craig tentacle porn in hell.” The sequence also features some initially surprising callbacks to the Craig era Bond films with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, Javier Bardem’s Silva, Judi Dench’s M., and Mads Mikkelsen’s LeChiffre all popping up in the stylized sequence, hinting that this movie will be deeply connected to what has come before in story, and not just style.
It’s at this point that I encourage you to rid yourself of any and all expectations for this movie. SPECTRE ties together the various loose-ends from Craig’s previous three films - Vesper Lynd’s death in Casino Royale, the Quantum organization and Mr. White from Quantum of Solace, and the attack on MI6 and M.’s death in Skyfall - but not in a manner that is as depressing and dramatic as those films.
I really want to drive home the point that this is not Skyfall 2. And that is a very very good thing! Finally, after three brooding films and nine years of depressing Bond stories we get something that manages to complement the series perfectly - it’s almost unbelievable how successfully rounded this film is in terms of it’s callbacks to both Craig’s era and before - in a fun and entertaining manner without diving too far into pastiche or ridiculousness.
SPECTRE is a movie about threading the Bond series. Many other reviewers are writing about how it feels like it’s come full circle, back to the camp-ness of the series before Craig’s era, and how it feels like a step backwards. To me, it’s exactly what it needs to be. It’s a very fun movie. Yes, it throws in some emotional moments, but doesn’t dwell on them. As I said, it’s made very clear early in the film that both Bond and main-Bond-girl Madeleine Swann’s character wounds have healed, and they’ve moved on. The balance between Sam Mendes drama and rompy Bond flick is level.
The emotion and drama isn’t under-baked in this film, we’re just finally moving on and seeing the characters do the same. We’ve lingered on the hardships of Bond for three films, and now we’re finally comfortable enough and grounded enough to do something new. I think it’s actually a very powerful element to the film, and it adds to Bond and Swann’s relationship by having them move on together, even as the villain, played by Christoph Waltz, actively tries to harm them emotionally by exposing them to their pasts.
Speaking of Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser - he’s not who you think he is. But come on, we all already saw this coming. Finally - finally - Ernst Stavro Blofeld is back. And surprising to even myself, I think they handled it perfectly. The new scar is pretty gruesome, too. I thought it was all great.
The reveal is made during my favorite scene in the film - Bond is pinned into a metal chair with a drill idling at the side of his face, with Waltz’s character in control and Madeleine Swann watching on in horror. It’s actually a scene pulled from the first continuation novel (so, not written by Bond creator Ian Fleming), Colonel Sun. Bond calls Oberhauser by his name, just as a white cat hops into his lap, and Waltz adopts a hauntingly upset expression proclaiming he is “Ernst Stavro Blofeld.” Those words in Waltz’s mouth feel so right, and the execution of the scene - as with every other twist and development in this film - are handled, to my eyes, with perfection.
That scene brings us back to my initial complaint about Skyfall - plot conveniences. Even Casino Royale, number one on my list, has quite a few plot conveniences. And even as I actively critiqued the film on my second viewing, I struggled to fault the basic current of SPECTRE. Bond gets a message from the deceased Judi Dench’s M., and from there it is all through the (fictionally licensed, but accepted) skill of Bond that he works his way through every situation.
There is one moment where Bond is in dire danger of being thrown from a train - this is after the best fistfight I’ve ever seen in the Bond franchise with actor Dave Bautista - and Madeleine Swann comes in to save the day. It’s not so much a convenience as it is a character-building moment for Swann, as up to that point her skills as the daughter of assassin Mr. White were only hinted at. With this scene, we see a little bit of Bond in her, and it makes their budding relationship only stronger and their connection easier to understand.
Many of you are likely curious about the action, which I have been light on discussing simply because it’s a little more lighthearted in the film. The car chase with the Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75 is entertaining, but it is no way a visceral and heart-pounding experience. In fact it’s actually used in a slightly humorous manner, which I unexpectedly enjoyed. The sequence in the Alps with Bond in the plane trying to save Madeleine from the baddies in the Land Rovers is less Bourne and more classic Bond, with jokes that actually feel naturally humorous and not forced(!) sprinkled within the amazing stunt work and set pieces.
With that, I struggle to explain this movie in basic terms. It’s not the gritty reboot we’ve had with Craig’s first two films, and it’s not the depressing drama (that didn’t make any sense) that was Skyfall. It also isn’t anywhere close to the distasteful fun of the Roger Moore movies.
SPECTRE is quirky, which I did not expect. The trailers sell this film as more of the same - Bond’s past coming back to haunt him - when that is actually not the case. I’m going to stress again - this is Bond moving on. Not a step back, not more of the same dramatic and often forced emotional bullshit, but a natural progression, and in many ways a natural conclusion to the Daniel Craig era so far. It came completely unexpected to me, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
Just beyond the half-way point of the film it switches over into something that just feels classic; it feels so much like the perfect culmination of everything that has come before it. It hits its mark at every beat, and I couldn’t believe how enjoyable it was.
I think the issue most of the reviews I read are facing is that they’ve seen the previous three Craig films, they see that Sam Mendes is directing this, they see the marketing of the film selling it as some sort of character drama, and then the movie delivers something that takes its time (no pacing issues, as far as I’m concerned), has a laugh, and doesn’t complicate the plot. It has the looks of an Oscar winner with the material of the best-of-the-best James Bond stories. You haven’t even seen the second half of the film in the trailers!
Is SPECTRE the best James Bond movie ever made? Perhaps not - but above anything else for me, SPECTRE is the best James Bond experience. In some ways, Bond and Madeleine riding off to the roar of an Aston Martin DB5 is a fitting conclusion to Craig’s era.
But, Craig’s performance is the ultimate characterization of the book and movie character, Waltz’s Blofeld is intriguingly open-ended, Madeleine Swann makes for a believable love interest, and the MI6 team of M., Q., Monepenny, and Tanner are all so good I find myself begging for at least one more. We’ll just have to wait and see.