It seems Mendes and co. were handed a licence to kill the progress made with Skyfall.
No elaborate intro this week, I may as well get straight to the point: Spectre was a massive let down. Quite poor, actually. Sam Mendes’ second and final Bond flick promised so much during a strong promotional build up, but ultimately failed on pretty much every level when it came to engagement and entertainment. We were lulled into a false sense of security over the past year or so by numerous hints designed to cause blind salivation; the return of the Spectre organisation, the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Christoph Waltz playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, some interesting muscle casting in Dave Bautista, all culminating with the neat idea – as Daniel Craig’s Bond has been far more a personal character than each of his predecessors – that our anti-hero would finally have the chance to face and come to terms with the man who has caused him so much pain and suffering. What a standoff it would be, what potential the writers had to play with, what a chance this was for Mendes and (perhaps) Craig to go out with a bang.
Instead, they fucked it all up. Let’s break down how (I’ll point out anything good if I find it)…
*Note: Before someone tries to claim that “it’s Bond, of course there’s going to be over the top/cheesy/cringe-inducing moments”, I’m afraid the producers forfeited such an excuse when they chose to take Craig’s Bond down the “serious” path, starting with Casino Royale. Put simply, you can’t have it both ways. Setting the tone of a character and his universe one moment and then producing an overly formulaic mess deserves to be called out. So here it is:
The Day of the Dead celebration footage started spectacularly, with the monster cigar-chuffing skeletal float an image to remember. Beautiful framing, contrast, and tracking, coupled with the constant pounding drums brought Mexico City to life in a big way. The tracking shot, which was interesting for about thirty seconds, becomes little more than fanboy pandering after that however, doing little to serve the action. Everything else is ruined pretty much as soon as Bond removes his mask. Mind-numbing, suspense-shattering action takes over, complete with an embarrassingly over the top helicopter romp that easily could have seen Bond kill hundreds of innocent people (assuming he didn’t take out a bunch of families in the building he destroyed only moments earlier). Also, why those behind Craig’s films continue to persist with identical intros of Bond scouring the rooftops of hot, non-English speaking countries in which havoc can apparently be caused with zero consequences other than a ticking of, I’m not quite sure. It’s been done twice already and the third time wasn’t the charm.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #1: The first of about a BILLION of these is the Day of the Dead imagery and costumes, a throwback to 1973’s Live & Let Die.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Although I was excited to witness the return of Blofeld, I’m not one for outright rose tinted spectacles when it comes to his character. An ominous, intriguing shadow during the early Connery films, his one and only truly iconic appearance came in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, when he was portrayed by the marvellously menacing Donald Pleasance. People can produce all the daft revisionism they like regarding On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but both that and Diamonds Are Forever feature poor, inconsistent interpretations of Spectre’s kingpin.
So what about his portrayal in Spectre? After all, it is Christoph Waltz. Yes, that’s true, but while Waltz does his best he’s given little credible material to work it (although one thing that was welcome, if not all that necessary, was the revelation of how Blofeld acquired his trademark scar). The main clanger dropped is the bizarre introduction of Blofeld’s backstory as Bond’s adopted brother. Think about it for a moment – the head of the most well-oiled, brutal, psychotic global organisation in the history of mankind, and arguably the most powerful man in the world, was motivated to pursue such a life all because his dad took once took Bond fishing and had a few a kick-abouts with him down the park. So, childhood jealousy then. That is fucking stupid.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #2: Blofeld’s white Persian kitty from Connery’s chapter of the series. Difference made if it hadn’t been there? Zero. Gave of more of an unwanted Austin Powers vibe.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #3: Blofed’s lair is a housed within a crater formed by a meteorite. His lair in YOLT was carved within the crater of a volcano.
This annoyed me more than it should have. An excellent turn in Guardians of the Galaxy proved, shockingly, that Bautista can actually act – and pretty well at that. So what did the writers do? Make him a mute, dull as dishwater henchman, who exists solely to feature in long, drawn out action sequences. The film is two and a half hours long and, apparently, a character piece; take the opportunity to at least do something creative with an antagonist that, in terms of screen time, is around an awful lot throughout the picture. His only standout feature seems to be that he’s completely thick. Bond is heading to Blofeld’s base anyway, yet for some reason Bautista still sees the need to ambush him on the train. Why? Surely at that stage Blofeld didn’t want him dead, and there’s no need to capture him as he’s already heading to the correct location. Dumb.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #4: Someone high ranking being murdered at a Spectre meeting, shitting everyone else up in the process.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #5: Hans, Blofeld’s strapping blonde henchman from YOLT, was too a stony, imposing, all but completely silent figure. Like Bautista, he only uttered a sound upon his demise.
Style over substance with zero impact throughout. Some of the set pieces were technically impressive, sure, combining well enough with classy cinematography on show, but for the most part they were either too outlandish even for Bond (the opening helicopter and concluding helicopter/pistol sequences), too long (the car chase and car/plane chase), or essentially meaningless (Bautista on the train). The common theme shared by each of these scenarios is that they were just so damn boring, primarily due to the fact that the audience doesn’t particularly give much of a hoot as to the outcome. Engage us, dammit.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #5: The train fight. Yep, because we’ve never seen Bond fight on a train before.
Shoehorned 007 Reference #6: A timer, set for THREE minutes!? Was Alec Travelyn part of Spectre too?
Shoehorned 007 Reference #7: The boat from 1999’s The World is Not Enough. Why has a multi-million-pound piece of secret government equipment been abandoned in a derelict, easy to access building?
We all know Bond is a lumbering misogynist when it comes to equality, but the scene with Monica Bellucci pretty much borders on the rape of a vulnerable widow, whose husband Bond had murdered only days prior.
Having Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Swan admit to loving Bond within about four minutes of knowing him was equally as baffling, taking the last remaining audience members still invested in the movie firmly out of it. Did the writers not read this stuff out loud as they wrote it? I mean, maybe she said it to help Bond fight the brain needle thing or something, but, if anything, he was likely just as confused as we were.
What is this character? Regardless of how good a chum the home secretary may be, an oik in his mid-30s such as this would never in a thousand years be the sole charge of the largest intelligence network on the planet.
Clunky, out of place, inconsistent, and uninspired. Case in point, while Blofeld’s “cuckoo” line piqued interest when he looks up at Bond during his introduction – a cool reveal – it’s later made redundant by the pair’s completely flat encounter and rather odd discussion considering they once probably shared a bunk bed together.
As well as the aforementioned “I love you” moment, there’s a few other gems here and there. The M / C exchange re: their respective titles, for example. M mentioning “we now know what C stands for” was lightly amusing and well timed. You know, the audience got it, and appreciated it. A nice moment is then ruined with M’s ironically careless follow up.
And, of course, Bautista: “Shit”. Cue the entire theatre cringing as one.
Any positive points?
Not really. So much of it was forgettable that writing this review took longer than expected. Performance-wise, Craig was ok, but looked a little disinterested, likely due to the fact that he isn’t stupid and certainly knew that what he was reading was, for the most part, utter dirge. As mentioned above, Waltz had almost nothing of value to work with, but thankfully his presence his still appealing enough for him to pass as credible. Ralph Fiennes must have thrown up when he saw the script, a theory arguably reflected in his performance. Basically, no-one stood a chance.
From a technical point of view, the film was solid enough. Mendes direction is lost among the clusterfuck of the plot and therefore isn’t worth talking about to the extent it deserved following Skyfall. Taken frame to frame there’s some gorgeous shots and generally well executed cinematography, but a lot of the time what’s actually going on within the frame either takes the majority of the shine off or proves to be an outright distraction (see the symmetrical, perfectly timed desert base explosion, a shot for the sake of a shot). Ditto the soundtrack. It’s decent, but, as I’ve said in previous reviews, a soundtrack cannot prop up a picture for long, it just can’t, and Thomas Newman’s admirably effort is no exception.
One thing that will no doubt look healthy once the dust has settled is the box office, so in a few years we’ll be doing this all over again regardless of opinion on the continuation of the franchise as a whole. Hopefully the next director and their team will make what should be the relatively easy leap over a bar of expectation that – as it was following Quantum – has once again been significantly lowered. Welcome also would be fresh reinvention and imagination to the extent that high expectations are maintained going forward.