A film review by Craig J. Koban November 13, 2015


2015, PG-13, 150 mins.


Daniel Craig as James Bond  /  Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser  /  Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann  /  Monica Bellucci as Lucia Sciarra  /  Andrew Scott as Denbigh  /  Dave Bautista as Mr Hinx  /  Ralph Fiennes as M  /  Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny  /  Ben Whishaw as Q  /  Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner  /  Jesper Christensen as Mr. White  /  Stephanie Sigman as Estrella  /  Alessandro Cremona as Marco Sciarra  /  

Directed by Sam Mendes  /  Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth

It’s become abundantly clear after watching the three previous James Bond films that Daniel Craig has wholeheartedly carved out a niche for himself as one of the greatest cinematic embodiments of Ian Fleming’s literary character yet.  

He has become so fully and uniquely formed as the iconic British spy with his bruised knuckled intensity and formidably stunning physical presence that any vestiges of past mediocre 007 film incarnations have largely been swept under the carpet.  Right from the get-go with 2006’s CASINO ROYALE – and after much controversy waged against Craig’s initial casting – James Bond became a refreshingly stripped down and retooled series right from the ground up while re-introducing key universe elements that many die hard fans crave. 

Yet, something is amiss with SPECTRE, the fourth – and possibly last – Craig Bond outing and the 24th in the franchise’s famed and storied history.  Whereas CASINO ROYALE and its successors radically departed from tired and stale series conventions and audaciously took the character into new dramatic territory, SPECTRE seems more regressive in the sense that it falls back on those very genre staples.  There’s something to be said about director Sam Mendes (returning from his stint on the critically acclaimed SKYFALL) wanting to inject more humor and action spectacle this go around that harkens back to the deliriously over-the-top eccentricities of Bond films of yesteryear.  The biggest sin of SPECTRE is not that it’s the lightest Craig entry.  No, it’s main issue is that it’s so reliant on old school 007 formulas that it seems to forget what the makers of this rebooted series of films were trying to do in the first place.  Without question, this film dutifully feels like a narrative culmination of what CASINO ROYALE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, and SKYFALL were building up to, but in terms of overall payoff SPECTRE feels oddly overstuffed, yet underdeveloped.  



On one level, though, if Mendes and company were attempting to make the biggest and grandest Bond entry yet, then SPECTRE most assuredly succeeds, which is more than evident in its positively breathtaking pre-opening title cards action sequence.  Set in Mexico during their Day of the Dead festivals and employing what seems like thousands of extras, remarkably long single take camera shots, and a foot chase between Bond and his prey that culminates inside a spinning, out of control helicopter, Mendes has essentially announced his willingness to visually up the ante for this series in ways never fully seen before.  As to why 007 is there?  He’s tracking an assassin that may or may not be working for a new global terrorist organization known as, yup, S.P.E.C.T.R.E..  After receiving some vital intel from his former and now deceased boss (Judi Dench), Bond is set and determined to right past wrongs and do what he can to infiltrate Spectre. 

Unfortunately for Bond, he’s essentially forced to do this mostly alone.  His new boss in M (Ralph Fiennes) has previously ordered him to lay low and stand down, which Bond predictably refuses.  The entire 007 program has come under the crosshairs of political scrutiny as being obsolete, leading to a conveying bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott) assuming control and tightening M’s reign on his own clandestine force.  Concurrent to this is Bond traveling in secret through much of Europe in search for clues as to Spectre’s whereabouts, which leads him to Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), a clinical psychologist that has unwanted family ties to Spectre.  With her in tow, Bond narrowly escapes death multiple times and finally comes face-to-face with Spectre leader Franz Openhauser (Christoph Waltz), whom reveals a very personal tie to Bond and, like every megalomaniacal Bond villain before him, a mad plan for world domination. 

SPECTRE, to its credit, delivers on its status quo of giving audience members what they always seem to crave in these films: a consummately photographed and proficiently action-packed globe-trotting internationally espionage thriller.  Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography evokes a sumptuous beauty in the film’s many locales and Mendes himself acclimatizes himself to many of the film’s staggeringly impressive action beats with the headstrong swagger of a real industry pro and veteran.  Aside from the aforementioned opening sequence, Mendes has ample fun in a later scene that takes place on a speeding train and features Bond taking on the menacingly mute, incalculably large and lethal Spectre hired goon Hinx (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Dave Batista) that has many echoes of a similar sequence featuring Sean Connery’s agent battling Robert Shaw’s baddie in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  Derivative? Yes. Exhilaratingly staged and choreographed?  Unquestionably. 

And, yes, Craig once again carries this film and the franchise on his already broad and chiseled shoulders.  One thing that makes his iteration of the character stand well apart from the pack (and even from the ridiculously large shadow that Connery’s Bond casts over every other actor that has portrayed him) is that his Bond mixes blunt force violence and a steely-eyed determination with low-key wit perhaps better than anyone that’s come before him.  Craig’s brooding and somewhat haunted 007 feels more palpably world-weary and battle damaged, which has always made even the weakest entries in the current crop (I’m looking at you QUANTUM OF SOLACE) imminently watchable.  Considering where the character was in his pre-CASINO ROYALE days, it’s evident now that Craig has thoroughly and successful rescued Bond from borderline self-parody in his own films.  

Even the overwhelming amount of raw presence that Craig brings to SPECTRE - and his last three films - can’t really save it from its multiple faults.  At a two and a half hour running time, SPECTRE definitely shows its running time when the screenplay (credited to four writers) desperately seems to be searching for a purpose and focus. Beyond flat-footed pacing, SPECTRE struggles to find a viable and worthwhile love interest for Bond this time.  After the palpable chemistry between Craig and Eva Green in CASINO ROYALE, it’s pretty hard to care about the manufactured heat that Craig and Leydoux try to drum up here (they seem to fall for one another mostly out of scripting convenience and not out of genuine mutual longing).  Even though there are multiple times when Swann elevates herself well beyond the obligatory Bond Girl vortex of being an easy-on-the-eyes damsel in distress, she nevertheless feels like a plot device more than a person worthy of Bond’s affections. 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in SPECTRE is…well…Spectre itself.  Considering how much and how long this series has been methodically developing towards an ultimate climax between Bond and this ultra murky and shadowy organization, Spectre never fully materializes as a truly enthralling and villainous presence here.  Even though the screenplay establishes some potentially juicy ties between Openhauser and Bond, Mendes and his writers can’t seem to find a manner of compellingly entrenching the antagonist in this new Bond canon.  When it really boils down to it, Openhauser is revealed as yet another in a long line of creepily deranged Bond series villains with massive lairs, peculiar fetishes, and a penchant for not killing the hero when given the easy opportunity to do just that.  The Oscar winning Waltz is a superb actor that can mesmerize viewers with even a subtle stare, but even his proven thespian pedigree can’t seem to make Openhauser a worthwhile and memorable antagonist.  Spectre, rather disappointingly, feels too haphazardly patched together as an entity to make what should have been a lasting impact here. 

Craig is contractually obligated to do another Bond film, but his recent – and very public – comments regarding his dissatisfaction and fatigue with doing the series has left question marks as to his continued participation.  SPECTRE seems to slyly hint that this may indeed be the actor’s last foray as the character, and it culminates with an open ended sensation that could indeed invite a new actor into the fold.  This would frankly disappoint me.  Considering the revitalizing freshness of approach that Craig and company brought to CASINO ROYALE and the dramatic crescendos that were delivered in SKYFALL, it would be a minor shame to end the actor’s reign with the somewhat decent, but somewhat unspectacular SPECTRE.  Craig deserves – as James Bond himself would agree – to exit this series in style. 


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