If there’s anything I don’t enjoy doing, it’s saying the exact same thing repeatedly. And yet, with certain movies, I’m left with no choice. Such is my problem with Spectre, the newest James Bond film; with the exception of the plot description, my thoughts, feelings, and criticisms will be a near-total reflection of those I had for the previous Bond film, 2012’s Skyfall – although three years has given me enough time to hone my writing abilities, which is to say this new review might be better worded than the last one. Spectre is an entertaining and technically competent action film, and definitely worth recommending. Having said that, it shows signs of slipping back to the campier, sillier Bond films of decades past, when there was more emphasis on visuals and stunts than on plot and character development.
The main reason 2006’s Casino Royale worked so well was that it started from scratch, not just narratively but characteristically and atmospherically as well. Even with the conventions spy movie are known for, and despite the obvious need for suspension of disbelief, it was clear that more of an effort was being made. It was a harder, grittier Bond film. I was especially taken with the reworked James Bond character, for whom Daniel Craig took the reins. Here was a man that was no longer a superspy typecast. He was a bit rough around the edges – emotionally flawed, capable of making mistakes, not impervious to physical assaults, and unencumbered by implausible bits of gadgetry. It was the closest the character ever came to seeming like an authentic human being.
But with Skyfall, and now with Spectre, Craig’s character is slipping back into old, antiquated patterns. He once again relies on technically impossible spy gadgets. His suave, philandering swagger has risen from its dormancy. Most concerning of all, his physical vulnerability has almost completely disappeared. I’ve repeatedly expressed my dislike of the indestructible hero. They’re just so boring and predictable. In this film, Bond escapes several physically trying events, including a building that collapses during a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade, with barely a scratch on him. If we’re being conditioned to expect him to walk away from such disasters unharmed, how on earth can we be expected to find him engaging, to relate to him on a more human level? If any of us even attempted to pull off the stunts he repeatedly pulls off with minimal effort, we’d either be critically injured or dead.
I don’t know whether to complain about or offer praise for Christoph Waltz’s casting as the villain, the elusive and initially unseen mastermind of the evil Spectre terrorist cell. On the one hand, the idea of Waltz playing a villain, any villain, is now so expected and obvious that it indicates not a niche but lazy typecasting. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw an actor so perfectly suited for such a specific type of role? He plays evil so well. There’s simply no denying it. Watching Spectre, we can’t help but once again marvel at his ability to draw you in and keep you hooked with displays of sheer nastiness. He even gets to try his hand at torturing Bond with an elaborate drill bit contraption. Each bit is tiny, about the width of a pencil tip, and aimed squarely at Bond’s skull. A surprising step down, given Bond’s previous encounter with a laser ray.
The plot is surprisingly hard to follow. I can’t tell if it’s because of director Sam Mendes’ over-reliance on spy spectacle or because it’s a continuation of a storyline that began with Casino Royale; that was released nine years ago, and after that length of time, I can’t be expected to remember the basic plot, let alone the details. Apart from Bond trying to track down the Waltz character, he also has to track down and protect the psychologist daughter (Léa Seydoux) of a dying former Quantum operative. A subplot involves a massive political shakeup within MI6, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) butting heads with the head of a privately-backed intelligence service, whose codename is C (Andrew Scott); not only is he pushing for the U.K. to ally with a worldwide intelligence network, he’s also actively trying to end the double-o program, which he considers to be obsolete.
Some amusing scenes are reserved for MI6’s gadget guru, Q (Ben Whishaw), who for the purposes of this film isn’t entirely confined within the walls of his laboratory. And, of course, we get the obligatory flirtatious innuendo between Bond and M’s assistant, Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). We, of course, fully expect these characters to be included. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that, in Spectre, they’re less three-dimensional than they could have been, and it’s obviously because the film as a whole suffers from the same deficiency. It’s not a bad movie by any means. As spy action thrillers go, it’s actually quite entertaining. But when you compare it to Casino Royale, which set a new and more compelling precedent for the James Bond film series, there’s a clear disconnect.