Movie Review: Spectre by Sam Mendes

Ruud Rating

Two Susanns/Half Tenneyson

In an interview after completing the shooting of his latest James Bond film, Spectre, Daniel Craig was quoted as saying that he would rather “slash his wrists” than play Bond again. Such comments bring to mind Sean Connery’s famous “never again!” after 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever—words he was forced to recant twelve years later in the aptly named Never Say Never Again. So we shouldn’t necessarily assume that Craig’s run as Bond is over, particularly since his four films in the role have rejuvenated the franchise and given it a more realistic, grittier, contemporary aura.

But this latest installment—the 24th Bond film in a series that stretches over some 53 years—gives every indication of being a capstone to the Craig years. It references the past three movies and tries to pull them together into a kind of denouement that in a not completely believable way blames everything bad that’s happened to Bond over his entire life on a single malevolent enemy, who happens to command a mysterious international force of evil called Spectre: yes, that’s right, the same force Sean Connery fought in so many films fifty years ago. So the new film not only tries to tie all of Craig’s films together, but seems to want to create a unity within the entire long Bond series.

At times this takes the unwelcome form of reverting to some of the clichés of the old Bond films that many saw the Craig era as transcending. Q gives Bond some gadgets that help get him out of a few jams—a car that shoots fire from the exhaust, an exploding watch. The villain, played with delicious malice by Christoph Waltz (the man you love to hate), imprisons Bond in his secret lair, hidden in a crater in the desert, and then proceeds to set up an elaborate way to kill him slowly (the preposterous cliché thankfully abandoned in Craig’s Casino Royale—it’s back!). And finally, the misogynistic womanizing Bond, whom Craig sought to put to rest forever, is suddenly back, as he sleeps with the Italian widow (Monica Bellucci) of a Spectre agent he killed, and does so completely gratuitously, then leaves her, never to be thought of again. What’s going on here? It all seems to be part of this unifying impulse that, frankly, is unnecessary and doesn’t make this film any better.

Still, there are some brilliant moments in this film. The opening sequence is stunning: the words “The dead are alive” appear, puzzlingly, on the screen, until we open in Mexico City and on a huge throng of thousands of celebrants wearing skeleton masks on the Day of the Dead. A long-tracking shot a la Gravity or Birdman moves from a wide aerial shot of the whole scene, in to focus on a skeleton in a white suit hurrying through the crowd, who passes a couple, also masked, who follow him. The camera follows the couple into a hotel room, reveals Bond under the mask, who then crawls out the window and makes his way along the rooftops to assassinate the man in white. Instead his fire detonates a bomb that brings own an entire building, Bond chases the white-clad villain onto a helicopter, which swings dangerously low over the crowd while Bond and the man in white, along with the two helicopter pilots, engage in a life-and-death struggle above the unwitting thousands. Trust me when I say the opening sequence is worth the admission price.

The message that the dead are alive applies to more than the Mexico City scene, as it turns out. Basically, there are two parallel plots in the film: the primary plot features Bond (gone rogue from M6, but more on that later) rushes from London to Rome to Austria to Morocco and the Sahara, and back again to London, seeking the truth about an evil world-wide crime syndicate directed by Franz Oberhauser (Waltz), a diabolical genius who turns out to be a ghost, a specter, from Bond’s past. In the meantime, Bond is developing a romantic attachment to Dr. Madeleine Swann (played somewhat woodenly by Lea Seydoux, of Grand Budapest Hotel and Inglorious Basterds)—a woman he had sworn to protect.

The secondary plot involves the efforts of M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to ward off what seems the inevitable elimination of the “00” agents by the condescendingly creepy little bureaucrat C now running British intelligence, played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty from TV’s Sherlock series). This is why Bond has to work off the grid. C wants the intelligence networks of all the world’s greatest powers to be linked in a single system, asserting that technology and data are what are now needed to run the world, not these individual dinosaurs with the “license to kill.” M insists that human judgment must be the chief element of the equation—a license to kill, he insists, is also “a license not to kill.” This, a distillation of what is loosely defined as “democracy” in the film, is the chief thematic question of the movie, and ultimately leads the two plots to merge with one another.

The merging of the plots leads to a finale that rivals the first sequence of the film in its intensity, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into any detail. Suffice to say that “the dead are alive” also applies in a clichéd Hollywood way to the ending, but if you can overlook that you can enjoy the climax on its own terms. But it is refreshing to see those office folks involved in the action to some extent. Fiennes, as might be expected, makes the most of his opportunity, and Whishaw is appealing as the harassed Q. Harris as Moneypenny gives that character more life and personality than she’d been allowed to have in previous films. But this secondary plot seems a contrast rather than a complement to the man plot, and for some viewers might seem like it belongs in a different movie. Add that to the fact that the film is two and a half hours long, and some viewers will feel that the film drags in these office scenes.

The movie does not really come up to the standard of Mendes’s previous turn in the Bond universe, Skyfall. But it does have Craig going for it as the only significant Bond since Connery. It has Waltz in his sinister groove, making viewers wish his part were larger. And it has one of the Bond series’ memorable criminal henchmen, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Hinx, whom Bond battles on board a train in a sequence deliberately recalling Connery’s famous fight with Robert Shaw on the train in From Russia with Love, in one of those many allusions to previous Bond films that run through this installment.

So here’s a Bond movie starring Daniel Craig with a great beginning and a stirring ending that brings home a valuable theme. It’s got a couple of impressive villains and some insight into M, Q, and Moneypenny. But it also has an overwrought plot that makes it overlong, it contains a love affair that really doesn’t have much chemistry, it brings back some Bond traditions better left behind, and it has a pretty unremarkable title song to boot. So I guess the takeaway is that if you like Bond you’ll like this film. If you’re not a big Bond fan, this isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.