The James Bond franchise is composed of entries whose tones swing back and forth between gritty darkness and campy cartoonishness. When the series goes too far in one direction, it quickly swings back the other way, often finding proper levity in a film or two before going too far in its new direction. In Spectre, director Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the beloved Skyfall, the franchise swings wildly toward silliness in an uneven and misguided attempt to tie the Daniel Craig 007 films together with a newfound dose of hefty continuity.
Perhaps it’s due to the high bar that has been set since Casino Royale in 2005, or Spectre’s cloying desire to be Skyfall on steroids in everything from theme song to aesthetics, but this is a Bond film that constantly invites comparisons to its own detriment.
In the 24th official entry into the James Bond franchise, our dashing hero, played by Craig for the fourth time, is set on a collision course with a shadowy organization known as Spectre and the mysterious man who runs it, played by Cristoph Waltz. Meanwhile, MI6 faces obsolescence due to a merging with MI5, leading to new threats that must be averted by M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond’s fellow agents. Together, these developments lead to revelations about Bond’s past and threats to his future.
While these elements may entice viewers to hope for a deep and thrilling journey into Bond’s world, Spectre is not only consistently shallow but often falls flat. As the film insists on being the culmination of everything that has come before, it’s difficult to not compare it to both the highs and lows of Craig’s run and the franchise as a whole. Combined with a dedication to throwing in more jokes, creating bigger action spectacles, and homaging as many previous entries as possible, Spectre finds itself as a Bond film that is both everything and nothing at the same time.
The plots of most Bond films begin to fall apart once you pick at them, their narratives held together by only the most tenuous of strings. But Spectre forces the audience to examine it due to its insistence on being connected to the rest of Craig’s films. However, its storyline is so poorly fabricated that it can’t help but unravel before the film has even reached its midway point. Moments that should be emotional highs or thrilling twists come off more as rote plot points that feel far too fabricated and disingenuous. Waltz’s big bad may insist to Bond that he has been “the author of all your pain,” but a flat out refusal to explain how makes the pronouncement feel all the cheaper and more forced.
It also doesn’t help that Waltz’s villain suffers from a stunning combination of both minimal screentime and junky character development. Not only are his motives shoddy at best, but the multiple reveals concerning his character are the literal opposite of surprise. Without spoiling a twist that has already been outed online in multiple phases, the truth about Waltz’s villain should only shock if you are either a Bond neophyte or have been asleep through most of the movie.
Not all of Spectre’s characters find themselves receiving the shortest end of the stick like Waltz. Rather, most every character here both new and returning is cast incredibly well. Fiennes’ M benefits from added screentime even if his story is one of the most sluggish pieces of the film (the less said about Andrew Scott’s eye roll-inducing “C” the better), while Ben Whishaw’s Q and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny provide ample support and often some of the best moments throughout Spectre. Lea Seydoux makes her entrance into the franchise as Madeleine Swann – subject of Bond’s protection and eventual affection. While Seydoux does fine work even when saddled with a typical damsel in distress role (though slightly more proactive than the legacy of Bond girls), her chemistry and narrative with Craig is sorely lacking, although she’s never overshadowed by the star. The audience is forced to buy into the idea that these two are made for each other and that their relationship may be powerful enough to supersede Bond’s solitary and violent lifestyle. However, there is so little put into its development that when confessions of love occur and life-altering choices must be made, they come off as trite and thoroughly forced despite their impact on the larger narrative.
Craig still charms as Bond, but there is far less pathos for him to sink his teeth into this time around, which is what originally distinguished his take on the spy from those that came before. Fast with a gun and nearly invulnerable until the script calls for him to be conveniently knocked unconscious, it seems that Craig is almost sleepwalking through parts. But when an entire squad of enemies can be killed when casually strolling out of a villain’s layer, the hero doesn’t really need to break a sweat. By the end, both Bond and the script seem to have run out of steam, resulting in a climax that seems so small that it feels like an afterthought.
Dave Bautista’s Hinx is a definite highlight of the film, with his role being a nigh-invulnerable hitman with just enough flair to recall the memorable antagonists of Bond films past without being too heightened. Beyond Spectre’s opening, 007’s brutal fistfight with Hinx that thoroughly destroys several train compartments is the best action set piece of the movie. In general, the action continues to thrill and engage on a consistent basis, even when certain sequences feel more at home in Pierce Brosnan or even Roger Moore films, especially when moments of tension are broken with a comedic sting or two.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s lens adds a fluid grace and rich palette that keeps the film visually interesting even when the story runs out of steam. Of note, the opening shot of Spectre is gorgeous and filled with an energy that is sorely lacking from much of the picture’s runtime. Opening with a several-minutes-long single tracking shot that follows Bond through a Dia de los Muertos festival in Mexico City, the sequence twists and turns in ways that perfectly balance both prestigious filmmaking and heightened thrills. It’s truly a joy to behold thanks to Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Craig’s charm, but the film as a whole crumbles under the pressure to continue this balance over the span of two and a half hours. Martinis, gadgets, and torture sequences are all here to give a longtime 007 fan what he or she may want from the franchise, but it all seems more perfunctory than inspired, like a checklist was placed alongside the script during the writing phase in order to ensure that as many callbacks were included as possible.
And it’s often between these spurts of action that the story truly runs out of steam. With much of its second act devoted to the unraveling of a mystery that is not all that mysterious to begin with, there isn’t much fun to be had in the journey. These many elements add up to a Bond film that is very much in the middle of the pack when placed in the franchise’s complete canon, yet its seeming insistence that it is so much more than the average leads to a frequently negative connotation.
But how hard can you really come down on a film that centers on the umpteenth adventure of an alcoholic spy that beds women, spouts cheesy quips, and foils outrageous villain plots, all while wearing the best suits in the world? Spectre’s true shortcomings are its own doing, as the Bond franchise has worked to establish itself as prestigious appointment viewing for fans of the spy genre. Ever since the Craig era began, Bond’s producers have worked to turn each new entry into a film that courts serious critical evaluation, instead of the casual appraisal most of its earlier films received. By continuing this air of prestige but injecting it with layers of camp and silliness, Spectre can’t help but fall into a limbo where it is neither a satisfying continuation of the modern Bond aesthetic nor a welcome return to classic Bond formula. Rather, we are left with an entry into the franchise canon that can never truly satisfy, even though it still entertains.
Of course, James Bond will return, with a hefty degree of course correction set to happen for the third time in a decade.