This year alone, we’ve seen five films that tackled the spy genre rather uniquely and efficiently; KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE was a bombastic blast. SPY rose far above spoof-grade quality. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E took an old property and infused new, highly stylized life into it. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION balanced smart thrills with the spectacle of stunt-work. BRIDGE OF SPIES, while more adult drama than traditional spy fare, approached the genre in a totally different manner. All of this has been leading up to somewhat of a grand finale in director Sam Mendes’ return to the James Bond franchise, SPECTRE. This is your father’s, maybe even your grandfather’s, Bond. No really – it is. While there’s a heavy dose of fan service injected into the new film, the refreshing originality and artistry that was shown in SKYFALL is eschewed for the same tired formula of Bond films’ past. It’s as dry and stiff as the martinis the titular protagonist is famous for ordering.
“The dead are alive,” touts the text during the cold open set in Mexico, warning looming presences like death and ghosts will be a tremendous guiding life-force of this picture. But as we’re about to discover, we never feel the heft and power of these concepts. In this iteration, Bond (Daniel Craig) has been tasked by “M” (Judi Dench) from beyond her grave to look into a highly secretive and sinister organization called ‘Spectre,” whose nefarious head may or may not be long-rumored-dead Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). As Bond digs into the mystery and hooks up with the daughter of an ex-Spectre member, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), Bond’s new “M” (Ralph Fiennes) is fighting a fight of his own. He’s combating a merger with the Center for National Security, headed up by “C” (Andrew Scott), who intends to install a highly invasive security system and finally do away with the archaic 007 program. Hang on a second; 2001 is calling and it wants its surveillance paranoia back.
In terms of aesthetics, unlike Mendes’ prior Bond outing, there’s nothing that stands out about SPECTRE. Well, maybe Craig’s tailored Tom Ford wardrobe. I’ll remember those suits and sunglasses. Missing are action sequences with distinct thrills and flavor – which isn’t for lack of trying. Outside of the Day of the Dead opener where Bond fights in a chopper, dangling above a huge crowd, none of the other sequences hold much audience impact. The car chase through Rome’s streets doesn’t hold a candle to anything we’ve seen before – in RENDEZVOUS or even a FAST AND FURIOUS film. The black jeeps and plane set against the white Austrian snow is tres chic (and a nod to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE), but goes nowhere. There’s more solid homage work in the train sequence (inspired by FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) with the knock-down fight between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista), but it’s all too brief. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema utilize scale and scope adequately; however, it doesn’t have much staying power.
Narratively, this is just as flat. The formula the Broccolis use is more than just tired. It’s a predictable drag. There’s nothing wrong with SPECTRE being a loving tribute to the EON Production years (and beyond). Franchise fans will genuinely get a nostalgic kick out of all the references. Nevertheless, the connective tissue to make it all work is severely lacking. In a slight way it feels as if we’ve come full circle with Bond now that he’s cribbing from himself. We jump from one exotic locale, to the next, to the next without much intrigue or passion encouraging us to want to move forward. We know Bond is going rogue – with or without his knowledge. We inherently know when certain tags will come into play – like when he’ll get his gadgets from Q (Ben Wishaw), when the villainous speech will happen (if you look closely, you’ll spot clues early on as to the heavy’s true identity), when Bond will sleep with a disposable female character (here, that’s played by the age-appropriate Monica Bellucci) and when he’ll hook up with the more permanent one (Seydoux, who is as great here as she is in every other film). For a two and a half hour film, it feels like one of those segments could have been cut, relieving audiences from the exhaustion of unnecessary hoop jumping. Bellucci’s character seems like an obvious move to placate the more feminist-leaning audience. She’s gone within minutes, but the hole her absence leaves is telling. Plus, there’s a brief repeat of the “woman in a refrigerator” syndrome from CASINO ROYALE with Madeleine.
Listen, it’s silly of me to expect progressive things from a regressive franchise. Shame on me. Even though Bond’s hero journey proves he isn’t a stale relic from another era, the irony is that this by-the-numbers film is.
2.5 out of 5
SPECTRE opens on November 6.