James Bond movies are generally ridiculous, although they run the gamut from Casino Royale to Moonraker. Spectre, the new one that’s out today, is definitely one of the more ridiculous of the bunch—but holds itself with a kind of overly grim dignity, like a teenage executioner. The good news? The action sequences are amazing, and the film looks utterly gorgeous.
In Spectre, Daniel Craig is back as James Bond, reunited with Skyfall director Sam Mendes. And he’s on the trail of a secret organization, whose name is the title of the movie so it’s hardly a spoiler. But soon Bond finds something he didn’t expect—a figure from his past named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). That’s about all I can say without getting into major spoiler territory.
You know that line that’s in all the trailers, where Oberhauser tells James Bond he’s “the author of all your pain”? At various parts of this movie, I kept finding myself wishing that James Bond’s pain had an editor, instead.
Basically, here’s Spectre in a nutshell—you know how Skyfall was gorgeous and had brilliant action, but nothing made sense and Javier Bardem’s villain was somehow both over-the-top and utterly forgettable? This is like that. Except, as I said in my review back then, the main saving grace of Skyfall was Dame Judi Dench, who’s gone this time. This movie has nobody who can stand up to Daniel Craig, or add much-needed gravitas, the way Dench could.
And as much as Skyfall was a mess, Spectre is much more of a mess, culminating in a final countdown where I honestly could not tell you what would happen if the countdown reaches zero.
I’m acutely conscious that I just wrote one of the few nice reviews of The Last Witch Hunter, so I have no leg to stand on when complaining that nothing in Spectre makes sense, or that Spectre is kind of a goddamn mess. The only thing I can say is that The Last Witch Hunter is a ridiculous movie that knows it’s ridiculous, whereas Spectre really wants to be seen as a serious, weighty psychological drama or something.
This affects the movie’s pacing—Spectre is slow and weighty—as well as the fashion in which the movie tries to impress on you just how dreadfully important James Bond’s pain really is.
James Bond and Batman are both sort of intrinsically weird characters, artifacts of mid-20th-century neurosis. One of them is a spy who goes around telling everybody his real name, even repeating his last name twice just in case you didn’t get it the first time, and who dresses in the most eye-catching manner possible. The other is a guy who dresses as a bat to fight a clown and insists on calling his car the “Batmobile.”
And yet, James Bond and Batman are also both intrinsically cool, for similar reasons. They’re total badasses, who win out against crazy odds in spite of not having superpowers, and they always manage to look awesome even when they’re being somewhat ridiculous. They’re archetypes, which is why they’ve survived some seriously misguided and campy episodes.
In the mid 2000s, both Batman and Bond saw serious, “grounded” versions, played by Christian Bale and Craig. And in both cases, audiences rejoiced at finally getting versions of these characters who were both psychologically believable and seemed like they could (sort of) exist in the real world. It couldn’t quite last: The Dark Knight Rises was, in retrospect, a silly movie, and we already talked about the zaniness of Skyfall and Spectre.
What’s interesting, though, is that since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy came to an end, there seems to have been a slow reappraisal of the Nolan Batman. Just anecdotally, I get the impression a lot of people have decided that maybe Chrisian Bale wasn’t the best Batman after all, and that maybe Michael Keaton’s version had his charms. There’s been a bit of Nolan Bat-fatigue, perhaps.
I mention this because after walking out of Spectre, I started wondering if the same thing might happen to Craig’s Bond at some point, especially if this is his final hurrah. I pretty much love Craig as Bond, with all his sourpuss grimaces leavened by an occasional smirk. I love the bored menace with which he surveils a room and the slightly mechanical way he responds to people—he’s a relatable sociopath.
But at the same time, I think one key difference between Batman and James Bond is that Batman is defined by loss (his parents) and Bond is just a really good professional killer and spy, who doesn’t really dwell on the past in most versions of the character.
With Craig’s Bond, there’s been a concerted effort to make James Bond much more of a regretful, mournful character, who’s concealing a deep lagoon of sadness over the death of Vesper in Casino Royale, but also stuff that happened to him as a child. I’m all for making heroes more three-dimensional, but only if it’s actually thought out, and I sort of feel, in retrospect, like this aspect of Craig’s Bond was handled thoughtlessly, and without enough actual emotional weight.
This is especially a problem with Spectre, which is a film that advertises itself as being about James Bond’s pain, but which cannot muster any real interest in that pain and mostly has a plot ripped from the late Roger Moore era.
All of which is to say, at some point we’re once again going to have a James Bond who visibly enjoys being James Bond, and who in turn allows us to revel in the fact that these movies are kind of bonkers. And at that point, there may be at least a temporary reappraisal of Daniel Craig’s Bond—although I think he’ll always be up there with Connery for most people.
The other thing about Spectre is, Sam Mendes is even better this time around than in Skyfall. He’s more experienced at shooting action, but also at building suspense. The film’s opening sequence in Mexico City is utterly brilliant because of the way that Mendes lays out the geography of the street and the rooftops before he unleashes total mayhem—the film basically goes down the street in one direction and then back the way it came, in a slow and gorgeous sequence that turns into a bloody footchase, that turns into a wonderful fight on board a helicopter.
The whole film is just gorgeous. There’s frame after frame that you’ll wanna use as your desktop wallpaper. Mendes got to film all over the world, and he shows off these cities and landscapes in brilliant long shots, giving a sense of James Bond’s insane journey around the world in pursuit of Spectre.
Mendes loves to film a single figure—usually Craig—in the middle of the frame, following as someone walks forward. There are lots of tracking shots in the film, whcih sometimes flip around to show someone’s point of view instead of the space they’ve been moving through. The tracking shots also include pure POV shots, usually of those landscapes—one of the most gorgeous is in the trailer, where Bond slowly moves across a lake towards a house. The overall sense is of Bond always moving forward, slowly, relentlessly, through forboding and terrifying worlds of unbearable beauty.
As a pure action movie, Spectre is just superb, even if the ending falls dreadfully flat. It’s only as a dense psychological drama—which this movie really wants to be—that it runs into trouble. Because there’s a weird mismatch between this film’s story, which is a G.I. Joe cartoon, and its ponderous attempts to give James Bond more psychological depth.
It’s like this film is being pulled in three different directions—straight-up action movie, wacky spy romp, and intense character-based thriller. One of those three movies is excellent. But the film is damn too slow and serious to let you enjoy the wacky spy romp, and the character-based stuff is horrendously underbaked. By the end, I did not care at all about anything that was happening on screen—but I was mesmerized by how brilliant it all looked.
Most of these Spectre screencaps come via Screenmusings.