It's been a while since I wrote one of these but they have typically gone down well on these forums so I thought I'd share some of my recent thought on 'Spectre' in essay form.
Here's some of my past efforts if people want to check it out:
Is 'Spectre' Sam Mendes's Victory Lap?
In 2014 Sam Mendes gave an interview with Charlie Rose where he insisted his decision to return to Bond came after attending the premiere of 'Skyfall'. Upon hearing the buzz of nostalgia rush through the audience upon the Aston Martin's reveal, the director knew he would be back. Furthermore, in a interview discussing his involvement, writer John Logan mentioned that audiences "enjoyed when we had references to things they grew up with". It was clear early on that the follow-up to 'Skyfall' would be an unashamed celebration of all things James Bond. This is even evident in the title they chose for the 24th 007 film.
'Skyfall' wasn't afraid to celebrate the mythos of Bond, but in the most part it felt wholly distinct. Mendes clearly wanted to distinguish his entry from previous films in the series. Naturally, in the build-up to 'Skyfall''s release there had been trepidation about Mendes's involvement: Could he direct action? Would it be too arty? Etc. The simple answer was to both question is "yes". In 'Skyfall' we were presented with a film that not only adhered to the Bond formula but found a way to be inventive, melancholic and subversive.
After the billion dollar haul, universal critical approval and a bevy of awards, it's no wonder that Sam came back. However, after proving his credentials and silencing his doubters with the last one, Mendes could finally relax and have a little fun.
He's noticeably more confident at the helm of the Bond machine, with his less self-conscious approach evident in his decision to embrace the series' iconography and have a little fun. With 'Skyfall' you got the impression that Mendes was deliberately trying to be post-modern, earnest and iconoclastic; in comparison 'Spectre' is his victory lap, his encore. In place of the doom and gloom of 'Skyfall', we are met with a more mischievous and flamboyant film.
For better and worse, 'Spectre' is a proper Bond film (Arguably Craig's first) - following the well-known formula to the letter. Subsequently, any of the creative chutzpah and vision that made 'Skyfall' so intriguing is dulled down by convention. It may even be possible to say that Mendes played it a tad safe with his second entry, delivering a fairly routine and mundane film.
Whilst 'Skyfall' embraced certain elements from the Bond lexicon, it was also able to transpire and elevate them within an engaging narrative. 'Spectre' is never more than the sum of it's parts, and most of it we've seen done better in a myriad other films. There are beautiful women, psychotic villains, amazing locations, and some fun action sequences. However, they never quite come together in a perfectly satisfying package.
Mendes half-heartedly continues many of the same themes that were explored in his previous film. Is Bond relevant? Do we need MI6? What was Bond's origin? But these questions never seem to be fully on the director's mind. Instead it's the folly and escapism that is engaging him this time.
There is certainly more levity to be found in 'Spectre' (Mendes and Craig are both channelling their inner Roger Moore) but it's awkwardly packaged with the Nolan-esque portent that defined 'Skyfall'. Personally, I found the more grim and mournful moments to be memorable and engaging. In the most part 'Spectre' is not afraid to be ridiculous or silly. Despite my misgivings, there is something quite reassuring about the Bond team going back to this model. However I cannot be alone in feeling that the latest film seems something of a misstep after the hard and bruising action of 'Casino Royale' and the more artful 'Skyfall'.
In many senses you have to applaud Mendes's confidence for attempting to fluctuate in tone so readily - even if it can be jarring at times. In many ways the tone is influenced by the location - Mexico is fun and vibrant, Rome is basically a camp 70's Bond film, Austria is sombre, Morocco is mysterious and romantic and London is overcast and grim.
The real problem is that after seeing 'Skyfall' those anticipating something with more depth will be disappointed. There is nothing in the film that has the wit or brio of the William Tell scene, or anything approaching the poetic significance of the Tennyson inquiry. Instead 'Spectre' is messy and frothy in comparison. It's most definitely entertaining but it feels like Mendes and co have very consciously attempted to make a proper old-fashion 'Bond film', for better or worse.
The opening tracking shot is a confident show of swagger and bravado. It's masterfully done and a perfect example of not just Bond as a character but Mendes as a director. The Day of the Dead imagery is vibrant and intoxicating and plays nicely into the film's spooky haunting themes. Additionally, the explosion and subsequent chase through the parade is brilliantly engaging. The actual helicopter fight is symptomatic of much of the action in the film, as the choppy editing and dodgy CGI insert shots undermine the sequence considerably. The right decision was surely to just play the sequence in a long shot and allow the audience to marvel at the ariel acrobatics.
It's really an issue that underscores much of the action throughout the film. Unfortunately, a lot of it feels very mundane or too poorly plotted to truly invest in. For instance, the Rome chase should be the jewel in the film's crown (The DB10's aquiline features are a work of art). However, despite being beautifully photographed, the chase itself is somewhat tepid. The same can be said of the snow plane sequence, it's probably the most creative of the film - but it's nonsensical logic issues keep it from being fully involving.
The most successful action sequence is in fact the train fight. In no small part because Dave Bautista is terrific as the silent and suave Mr. Hinx (he arguably wears a suit better than Daniel Craig). The sequence works so well essentially as it is a character beat. Bond is fighting someone who he has no chance of winning and he's physically unable to keep up with Hinx. Therefore, he needs Madeleine and the sequence gives her agency and ties into an earlier moment where she discussed a traumatic childhood experience. This in turn brings her and 007 closer together. Sadly, the rest of the action in the film doesn't integrate character quite so well. Furthermore, the way Bond takes a punch is very reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the choreography is confident enough to be both cartoony and brutal.
Finally, despite it's low-key nature, I really enjoyed the London finale; here we see the MI6 team take on C’s New World Order, whilst Bond is taking a psychological ride through the empty carcass of the once proud MI6 building. There is a certain tinge of 'The Third Man' in those shadowy corridors, and even a slight whiff of the dank and dreary world of le Carré.
The cast are also terrific, in particular the new MI6 team who more than live up to the promise they displayed in 'Skyfall'. It's great to see the flirtatious relationship between Bond and Moneypenny grow as we witness 007 placing his trust in her early on.
Also Ralph Fiennes's M has something pleasantly old-school about him. I enjoyed the take on the character as an overworked and exasperated bureaucrat who is struggling to keep ahold of his department amidst the Whitehall shakeups. He's a man who wants people to listen but is being undermined by all those around him. It's nice at the end to see Mallory's resolve solidify as he confronts the police and arrests Blofeld.
However, it's Ben Whishaw who steals the show as Q. Whishaw is the new secret weapon of the Bond films, as it turns out the young performer has marvellous natural comic-timing. In particular, he has great chemistry with Craig and the pair's scenes are a real delight.
Monica Bellucci is terrifically utlised in her cameo role. She's everything you'd expect from the woman; sexy, mysterious and sultry. Despite her limited screentime, her surprisingly racy scene with Craig is one of the film's most memorable. The entire Rome portion of the film is the most fun we've seen Daniel Craig's Bond have on screen and Bellucci's appearance only makes those sequences that bit more entertaining.
A more thankless task goes to Andrew Scott as C (a character solely set-up for a punchline). He's left to play what feels like the same scene with Ralph Fiennes over and over again. He mostly does a good job with the material he's given, but the baggage Scott brings from 'Sherlock' clearly signposts his allegiance from the second he steps on the screen. What made 'Skyfall' great was it's ability to play with audience expectations.
When Mallory begins to cause trouble for Judi Dench's M, we immediately suspect him as the villain because he's played by Ralph Fiennes. However, the smart decision is made to reverse our expectations and reveal Mallory as an ally. 'Spectre' in contrast to 'Skyfall', is a much dumber film, so it's not surprising that a more obvious direction was taken.
Now on to the man himself: Daniel Craig gives his most holistic performance as Bond. He keeps the stony-faced thuggish quality that defined his earlier entries but there is clearly a more louche and confident edge to him. I think the experiments with comedy in his earlier films fell a little flat, but here they've given Bond a slightly more acerbic and sarcastic wit that suits Craig perfectly.
He is also at his most urbane and suave in 'Spectre'; both him and Mendes aren't afraid to indulge the character with a few self-aware touches (once again, a little Roger Moore). Nonetheless, during the action he is as wily and psychotic as ever; Craig's Bond is a wild animal locked in a Tom Ford suit. 'Spectre' is a much more efficient and proactive interpretation of the character with Bond actively seeking answers. The more romantic tinge given to 007 is also welcomed, as are the slightly angrier and more intimidating moments. Finally, I feel compelled to repeat: Daniel Craig is just plain cool.
Life of an Assassin
It's a relief to report that some of the class that defined 'Skyfall' is present in this outing. When Bond first goes to Austria to confront Mr. White we suddenly leave behind the camp exploits of Rome and have found ourselves in a fairly grim espionage story. Here we see Bond stalking the halls of a forgotten chalet in search of an old foe. The Mr. White scene is truly fascinating, mainly due to Jesper Christensen's brilliant turn. There is a tragic sense of melancholy in seeing the once powerful White now reduced to a husk of a man. White is a career assassin who has been left for dead and is now forced to die alone. In this sense, he is something of a cruel reflection of Bond's potential future.
This in turn leads to the introduction of the Madeleine Swann character. You can really feel the movie changing gear upon Madeleine's arrival; this is in no small part thanks to the sublime performance given by Lea Seydoux. Most Bond girls are characterised for their tough personas but Madeleine is far more complex. She's no less sassy or feisty as other female characters in these films, however, her vulnerability and fragility make her more compelling. Furthermore, her ugly past provides her with an arc even more interesting as we see her grieve for the loss of her father. She's an incredibly soulful character and her scenes with Bond in Morocco are insightful and illuminating. Their conversation in the hotel is a refreshing pause in such a bombastic and busy action film.
Madeleine is clearly evocative of Vesper Lynd (even her name is a Proustian reference to Bond's past life) and she allows Bond to confront the central thematic conundrum of the film: Should 007 continue being 007? Can he leave it all behind?
The third act sadly mishandles the Madeleine character by reducing her to a 'damsel in distress'. I feel it would have been far more fun and interesting if the Bond team did something more inventive. For instance, why couldn't Blofeld have been bluffing about her hiding in the MI6 building? Sadly, 'Spectre' is not that film. Instead Bond is left on Westminster Bridge for the most boneheaded finale where he has his MI6 life on one side and his potential new life with Madeleine on the other. Which will be choose? (Sigh) These sequences are salvaged by the photography and score.
There were undeniably more creative and inventive ways to get to the same conclusion. 'Spectre' takes the more gooey and emotionally accessible of them, but in the end it's effective. Furthermore, it's likely no mistake that Madeleine's rescue evokes Bond's failed attempt to save Vesper in Venice. Clearly this is 007 getting the chance to redeem himself and finally leave his old life behind.
Bond's existential crisis is also somewhat reflective of both Craig's (supposed) and Mendes's (firm) decision to walk away from the franchise. As we witness the character of Bond realising there is more to life than living in the shadows. Thus Mendes finds a way to let Bond leave within the body of the film. If Craig does decide 'Spectre' is his swansong than there is a clear meta-narrative occurring simultaneously within the confides of his final story. Bond does not need to be defined by his job - concurrently, nor does Daniel Craig.
Like many I've been excited for years at the prospect of Spectre returning. However, like many I can't help but feel that Mendes fudged the organisation's grand return, and it's chief figurehead's revival.
Let's start with Spectre itself: Beyond the great Rome meeting where they are indicated as being an Illuminati-type group who are manipulating world event's for their nefarious ends, little further reference is made about the organisation. Any sense of menace they possess is quickly diminished as a result. Additionally, there plan to gain access to the Nine Eyes programme is never explained. Does Blofeld wish to use it to gain access to information to blackmail governments? Does he merely want access as it will give him supremacy? What is the overarching plan here? Sadly, the hazy and ill-defined plot doesn't take any real time to explain this.
Now on to the man himself: I have no real problem with the half-brother angle, however, in the final film it feels like something of an afterthought. If the film wished to make Blofeld and Bond childhood enemies then 'Spectre' needed to be built around this conceit. However, the angle is totally lost in what is a massively busy blockbuster. 'Spectre' wants to be a love story, a meditation on the loss of civil liberties and the rise of a Big Brother state, it wants to be a big bawdy Bond film with all the frills, and finally, it wants to tie together all Craig's previous movies in a neat package. In the midst of all that, the relationship Bond has with the villain isn't even a tertiary concern for Mendes.
It also isn't helped that Waltz seems so subdued in the role, arguably sleepwalking his way through to collect his cheque at the end of the day. Personally, I quite liked Oberhauser/Blofeld's aloof nature, there is something oddly sociopathic and detached about this amateur philosopher/surgeon. It's also quite nice to see that the actor isn't in typical 'Christoph Waltz mode' (I wonder how many houses he's bought playing charming articulate villains).
A personal highlight for me is the scene where he explains Spectre's philosophical goals and simultaneously brings Bond and Madeleine together. It's a surprisingly effective moment that has deeper resonance on repeat viewings. Only on a few occasions does Waltz dig into his usual box of villainous tricks - even then they're not entirely unwelcome. Personally, I feel this film is something of an introduction to the character and possibly hints to a more developed turn in a future 007 movie. We are yet to have a definitive take on the Blofeld character.
Despite this, I must applaud Mendes for the way he slowly trickles out the character before finally revealing him. Despite his lofty status as Bond's archenemy, in the past films Blofeld was never anything more than a collection of gimmicks. Mendes has fun playing with the iconography of the character before providing the punch that Oberhuaser is indeed Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For instance, the first time we see Oberhauser is in a burnt-out photo, on the next occasion we witness him presiding over his organisation framed only in silhouette, next he's seen in his nehru jacket, then we catch a glimpse of his infamous persian cat, before finally he is bestowed with his magnificent scar. 'Spectre' in many is 'Blofeld Begins'.
The Rome meeting is also terrific. It's perfectly menacing and atmospheric but with a hint of camp in there as well. It's one of the best examples of Mendes balancing tone perfectly in a film that can feel wildly divergent at times.
The editing of the film also lets it down; scenes are allowed to play too long and it draws more attention to the ridiculous and thin nature of the plot. No real scenes need to be removed but there are certainly moments that could have used tightening. It isn't helped that the storytelling and plot are a little silly and cannot be held up to scrutiny. Especially the MI6 and London scenes; when you consider these sequences in isolation they don't really work and upset the rhythm of the film. 'Spectre' is not a film made for multiple viewings and whilst it's very watchable, it's 150 minute runtime isn't entirely justified.
Hoyte Van Hoytema masterfully picks up the formidable task of following Roger Deakin's efforts and does so spectacularly. His whiskey-hued photography is rich and romantic - the decision to go back to 35mm also gives the film a great grainy and rough texture. I loved the feel he brings to 'Spectre' that expertly combines the grimness of le Carré with the glamour of Fleming.
The title sequence is a career nadir for Danny Kleinman. I'm afraid to say that his efforts here feel a little passé and embarrassing. It isn't helped by Sam Smith's song, which is by no means as bad as the stick it got last year (the instrumental is used brilliantly in the train scene), but it does little to enrich Kleinman's weak visuals. Thomas Newman's score is strong but not a compelling as his work on 'Skyfall'. Themes that really stood out include the motif used for Madeleine and the music used throughout the finale.
Dennis Gassner's sets are typically beautiful and he is able to bring a different flavour to the film depending on the location he's working with. Meanwhile, the script is mostly a mess. It's overburdened with ideas and in desperate need of simplification. Finally, the dialogue can be woefully bad and cliched at times. I couldn't have been the only one to roll my eyes at "a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill" and Madeleine's awkward "two Jameses...lucky me". What happened to the elegant grace and nuance of the 'Skyfall' script?
'Spectre' is an undeniably entertaining film that channels the glory days of 007. However, through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia it looses the chance to be distinctive and unique in its own right. Surprisingly, despite inheriting many of the same ideas found in its predecessor, 'Spectre' is a very different beast. The 24th Bond film is big, loud and fun - which in some ways, is how they should be.