Bond is back once again for his 24th film, with the unenviable task of following the most successful entry in the 50 year old film series. Skyfall was a hit in every measurable way, and it helped in many ways to finish Daniel Craig’s three film James Bond origin story that began with 2006’s Casino Royale. It introduced Moneypenny, Q, and gave us a new M, all while answering the question of whether the world still needs James Bond at all. The latest film, Spectre, piggybacks off this partial reboot, giving us the first Bond film of the Daniel Craig era that actually feels like a “James Bond movie,” while still bringing some new twists to the tale. Spectre is a film filled with ties to the past, whether Bond’s personal history, the storylines that began with Casino Royale, or the legacy of the franchise itself, but it also has an eye to the future of both the character and the series.
Spectre kicks off in Mexico City at the Dia de Muertos parade, with Bond on the tail of an assassin with plans to blow up a stadium. After a thrilling chase across crumbling rooftops, through colorful parade skeletons, and eventually on a looping helicopter above a packed square, Bond returns to England to find that things have changed. MI6 and MI5 are merging, which puts the new M in a tight spot, forcing him to suspend Bond for his unauthorized actions in Mexico City. Bond, however, was acting on the previous M’s posthumous orders, sending him to kill the assassin and make sure to attend his funeral. The trail eventually leads him to the heart of Spectre, a mysterious organization with which Bond shares a personal history.
Spectre is headed by Franz Oberhauser, a man whom Bond has known most of his life and who has played a role in many of the events that have shaped Bond’s career, like a puppet master pulling the strings. To stop Oberhauser and uncover the secrets of Spectre, Bond will have to find the daughter of an old enemy while dodging a vicious and relentless killer. The chase and investigation will lead him from Rome to Austria to Morocco and finally home to London, where M, Q, and Moneypenny struggle to deal with new oversight from an organization more interested in surveillance and data collection than old fashioned spy work. And through it all hangs the question of whether there’s more to Bond than just the world’s best secret agent.
The first half of Spectre feels more like classic James Bond than any film we’ve yet seen in the Daniel Craig era. It’s packed with all of the eye-popping action, over-the-top stunts, and gorgeous settings we would expect from the previous three outings, but it brings back classic tropes like gadgets, tricked-out cars, secret lairs, and menacing henchmen we haven’t seen since the Pierce Brosnan days. It’s all built on the foundation Skyfall reestablished with the introduction of the new M, Q, and Moneypenny as that film capped the three movie reboot started with Casino Royale. This return to basics allows Spectre to push the action away from the grittier, more “realistic” style synonymous with this reboot and return to honest-to-goodness car chases, aerial stunt sequences, fistfights, and shootouts that would have felt out of place without the familiar Bond trappings. Others might find this to be a step backwards, but I feel like this is the culmination of what this reboot has been building towards, and it is after all a signature part of the series. The result is a film that’s funnier, faster, and slicker than we’re used to seeing but which feels right.
But the second half of the film feels like it belongs exclusively to the Craig era, where Bond is more than just a vehicle for action, martinis, quips, and sex. The reboot has treated Bond like a man, with not only more faults than we’d grown accustomed to seeing over 50 years of Bond, but also with depths worth exploring. If the previous three films have been about how Bond came to be the character with which we’re so familiar, than Spectre takes that theme one step further. In many ways, Skyfall ended with Bond finally fully formed, having passed all of the tests and arrived at the point where we might have seen him in any of the Connery, Moore, or Brosnan films. Spectre therefore tackles a subject only visited once in the series, way back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: what sort of life can a man like Bond have outside of the service to which he’s dedicated his life? What sort of sacrifices must he make, what sort of choices does he face, and is there any way to find a balance? Spectre doesn’t offer concrete answers to these questions, but they hang heavy over the film and particularly its final act.
While Skyfall took me a few viewings to warm up to, Spectre won me over quickly, though part of that is simply being a lifelong James Bond fan and enjoying its return to classic tropes. But director Sam Mendes, returning from Skyfall, has crafted a Bond film that feels far more fun than anything we’ve seen from this reboot. Daniel Craig seems to be enjoying himself more, and the film strikes a good balance in tone. It helps that there’s such a solid supporting cast around Craig, many of whom return from Skyfall and are given more to do. Ralph Fiennes is the perfect choice for the new M, only this time around he’s in the opposite position as last time as the one forced to defend the old way of doing things. Naomie Harris has a great chemistry with Craig as Moneypenny, although Spectre struggles to find ways to work her into the story, while Ben Whishaw’s Q is given an expanded role and gets some of the film’s best laughs. One of Spectre’s great joys is watching Bond’s supporting cast work together as a team with their own mission. Christoph Waltz headlines the newcomers as the villainous Oberhauser, and Waltz seems to really enjoy playing the criminal mastermind. It feel like Waltz has been auditioning for the role of a Bond villain since his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds, and he proves to be a good fit with the series. Lea Seydoux gives Madeleine Swann more layers than I expected for a “Bond girl”, making her someone worth fighting for, while Monica Bellucci feels wasted in a tiny role. And it seems a shame that Dave Bautista is almost completely silent as Spectre henchman Hinx, given his surprisingly hilarious outing in Guardians of the Galaxy.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Spectre, it’s not without its flaws. At 2 hours and 28 minutes, it’s the longest Bond film ever, and it definitely feels like it. There’s a lot going on, and I never thought the film dragged in any particular spot, but it does seem at times like it’s never going to end. And seemingly for the sake of serving the emotional development of the story, elements of the film’s second half occasionally come off as random or unexplained. Certain sequences later in the film just don’t work as they’re intended, lacking either in the drama or the tension for which they were intended. The film’s big surprise has already been spoiled to where it feels kind of silly, though as a twist it is probably inconsequential to any but the most die-hard Bond fans. Oberhauser’s ultimate motivations come off as somewhat petty and ridiculous, and some sequences feel a bit rushed and sudden despite the film’s length.
Still, Spectre proves there’s life for Bond after Skyfall, both within the film and out in the real world. And while I’ll need to see it a few more times to sort out its ranking in the series as a whole, it’s probably safely in the top half of all Bond films (and miles ahead of the god-awful Quantum of Solace). Perhaps the best compliment I can give Spectre is that it once again left me wanting more. I’m curious to see where the producers take the series, regardless of whether Craig returns or not (though I suspect he will for at least one more). We’re now four movies into this rebooted Bond universe, and Spectre in many ways feels like it’s finally cashing in on the full potential of its cast and its vision. In honoring the past and making a true “Bond film” while still trying to keep things new, Spectre has struck a good balance. Hopefully the next movie in the series will continue to build on its momentum, refine the few weak points, and keep giving us hits as long as Craig is willing. And once he’s not, my vote for the next Bond is Chiwetel Ejiofor, in case you’re wondering.
(As a side note, I give the new Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith a B- for being rather dull, but I give the visuals that accompany it in the film a full-on F for being the most uninteresting and uninspired opening credits sequence I can remember from a Bond film.)