Review: Spectre is an underwhelming step backwards for Daniel Craig’s Bond

Back in July, I wrote an article listing my predictions for Spectre, the newest instalment in the James Bond franchise. Fast forward several months to the film’s release today, and while it’s fair to say that I got as much right as I got wrong about Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Fleming’s iconic super spy – thems the breaks when you try you hand at fortune telling.

But one thing about Spectre I freely admit I didn’t see coming at all is just how much it diverges tonally Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes displays a less assured grasp on the delicate balance between escapist fun and gritty realism that made Spectre‘s billion-dollar predecessor work so well, and the end result is a film that represents an underwhelming step backwards for the franchise.

Spectre, kicks off with Bond hellbent on tracking down a vast criminal organisation that appears to have its tentacles everywhere. Meanwhile, Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling to keep the 00-section above water in the face of moves to replace his team of secret agents with mechanised drones and surveillance software.

Both of these threads soon weave together in surprising and suitably explosive fashion, when Bond – aided by the enigmatic Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) – finally tracks down the subject of his investigation, SPECTRE, and its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man with terrifying links to Bond’s own past.

It’s the premise for a solid action/espionage flick, but sadly, Spectre just isn’t as good as Skyfall. That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible movie per se; on the contrary, on balance, overall, this latest Bond adventure is quite entertaining in fits and spurts. For the most part, it plays like a throwback to the older entries in the series.

But if Skyfall represented a promise to restore to the franchise more of its familiar characters and tropes, then Spectre can be viewed as the fulfilment of that vow, for better or worse. So, you’ll either enjoy Spectre for its (mostly) indestructible hero, fun humour and occasional cheesiness or find yourself longing for the days of Casino Royale and its Bourne-lite approach.

Certainly, Mendes still brings a lot of what made Skyfall so successful to Spectre, particularly the hard-hitting action sequences, which handles with admirable aplomb.

Together with Chris Corbould and his team of practical effects magicians, Mendes delivers an incredible array of set pieces, including an attention-grabbing helicopter battle over Mexico City and a thrilling car chase through the streets of Rome. It all looks as convincing as could be, and you’ll definitely leave the cinema with the sense that you got your money’s worth in terms of spectacle.

Unfortunately, he’s let down by Spectre‘s screenplay, which never really clicks. Writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have crafted a story that lurches from a fairly languid first act into an exciting second act before powering through to a belated climax which falls flat on both a characterisation or thematic basis.

On the plus side, many of the scenes along the way are highly entertaining, thanks largely to the sharp dialogue by Logan, Purvis, and Wade (along with Jez Butterworth, on scripting duties only). But the whole thing feels like it could have been streamlined down, particularly once scenarios begin to repeat themselves (Bond’s been captured… again!) and not much actually seems to happen.

Spectre might not ever truly drag, but it still feels like editor Lee Smith could have been a bit more judicious with the scissors. Then again, you get the sense he did the best he could with the narrative available to him, and on close inspection, it’s a flimsy one at best.

Luckily, the cast are (almost) all in terrific form for 007’s 24th big screen mission, especially Craig, who continues to deliver the most rounded portrayal of James Bond ever committed to screen.

His Bond remains a (shaken, not stirred) cocktail of paradoxes, just as capable of cold ruthlessness and as he is droll humour, and possesses a fragile core mostly hidden by his fierce physical prowess. Indeed, if Skyfall showed us Bond at his physical nadir, Spectre showcases him at the peak of his powers. He’s almost too good, truth be told, with only the apparently superhuman henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) coming close to denting Bond’s aura of invulnerability.

As Bond’s primary romantic foil, Seydoux is appropriately beguiling, and it doesn’t hurt that she and Craig have strong chemistry, either. Sparks fly whenever the pair are on screen together, making Seydoux the best Bond Girl since Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. And then there’s Waltz as Oberhauser. Unlike Hinx, Oberhauser isn’t a brawler; instead, he’s the first true supervillain of the revamped James Bond franchise, and Waltz brings a fitting amount of cerebral menace to the role.

Ultimately, though, this is one of those instances where what seems like a casting no-brainer ends up producing less satisfying results than expected. It could be that Oberhauser doesn’t really come into focus as a character until far too late in the game, or perhaps it’s because the “eccentric-psycho” form of villainy (ironically, popularised by Waltz himself) has grown stale from overuse. Whatever the case, Waltz doesn’t quite stick the landing here.

Ben Whishaw, on the other hand, does. As nerdy gadget boffin Q, he ends up the surprise stand-out of the supporting players, and his scenes with Craig draw the loudest and most frequent laughs. Rounding out the core cast, Ralph Fiennes is dependably hard-nosed as M, Naomi Harris remains an inspired choice as Monnypenny, and Andrew Scott does the best he can with the one-note role of slimy bureaucrat Max Denbigh.

It’s also worth noting what a gorgeous film Spectre is. As with any James Bond flick, the beautiful actors and stunning locations help, but Hoyte van Hoytema’s skillful cinematography ensures everything looks as good as it possibly can.

His imagery might not have quite the same texture or depth as Roger Deakins brought to Skyfall, but van Hoytema – who did masterful work on Interstellar last year – does a great job of capturing a similar visual feel to what came before, even as he injects his own shadowy sensibility into the mix.

But then, that’s my major gripe with Spectre: everything good about it is purely superficial.

Admittedly, Mendes and his screenwriting team are clearly trying to give proceedings some emotional and thematic heft. Spectre opens with a concise, dramatic statement: “The dead are alive”. This is the main idea underpinning the entire story – that the ghosts of Bond’s past refuse to rest in their graves. And yes, we do feel glimmers of emotion when painful memories from 007’s past surface, however, this pales in comparison to the impact of similar scenes from earlier in the Craig-era.

There’s also a commendable effort made to work in topical, Snowden-inspired surveillance issues, but it all feels a bit clumsy, and the pay-off only serves to undermine Bond’s status as an ambiguous anti-hero.

In crafting a follow-up to a mega-hit like Skyfall, Sam Mendes and his team faced a challenge great enough to give even 007 pause, and ultimately, they weren’t completely successful. Nevertheless, despite a weak storyline and undercooked thematic and emotional undercurrents, Spectre‘s top-shelf action scenes and Daniel Craig’s committed lead performance make it a James Bond instalment most long-time fans should enjoy.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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