It’s hard to say what exactly happened here. When the Bond reboot of the Daniel Craig era began with Casino Royale there was a sense that while all the trappings of the cinema icon were present, much of the camp and cliché that plagued the series were being left behind and a new, re-energized franchise was beginning. This was the Bond of the new era, with a Cold War-less, post-9/11 approach that was going to take the campy tongue out of the franchise cheek.
There was even a hint, when Quantum of Solace was released, of a continuing story line that might span multiple films, as the plot of that film rode directly from the preceding Casino Royale. But critics were mixed on Quantum of Solace, and then with Skyfall the franchise’s existential crisis became quite clear. A more stand-alone story, Skyfall was disconnected from the first two, with call backs to the old era of Bond. Now that crisis has come to a head with Spectre.
The opening sequence is perhaps the new film’s crowning achievement. Finding himself in Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, Bond tracks the enigmatic Marco Sciarra in a winding single continuous take through the streets of the city in a smooth send up to Touch of Evil. When the 00 agent’s not so subtle tactics culminate in a massive explosion, the film eventually launches into one of the most gripping action scenes since Casino Royale’s foot chase, a fight inside a helicopter as it hovers over parade crowds. Tense, suspenseful, and frenetic, the scene has everything that is compelling about the physicality of Craig’s Bond. Then there is a fade into the rather flat opening credit sequence, a sign of what is to follow.
On a cryptic final mission left by the previous M (Judi Dench), we learn Bond is on the trail of a sinister, masterminding organization Sciarra was involved with. With the 00 program and MI6 facing dissolution at the hands of England’s glossy new digitized, drone-based cyber counter-terror outfit, Bond, per usual, has the new M (Ralph Fiennes) breathing down his neck and must make his business unofficial. His path eventually crosses with that of Mr. White, his old adversary in previous films, as well as White’s estranged daughter, Madeleine Swan, and the shadowy Franz Oberhauser, later revealed to be this series’ reprisal of the iconic Ernst Blofeld.
It’s not that Spectre is an awful Bond film, or even an awful film in general, but you get the sense that the threads of several films have been woven into one, with the bigger picture just becoming more and more jumbled. One expects a fair amount of globetrotting in any Bond film, but location jumping here seems justified not by the necessities of the story but by the greater self-awareness that this is a Bond film, so we have to go all over the place. This self-awareness is perhaps intentional, as the plot of this film involves the very villain that one associates with Bond at his most clichéd. This, in short, is the existential crisis of the Craig era on perfect display.
The film wants to call back to Casino Royale and Solace, by connecting all the threads begun in the previous three films, giving the appearance of an over-arching story. But it just seems forced now. Spectre also wants to have all the nostalgic cliché of what came before, continuing Skyfall’s theme of “the old” still being relevant. But the story elements that might make this interesting are only teased at and so this aspect primarily manifests in the form of references to the old clichéd spy. The mixture of the tongue-in-cheekness and the more serious tone is shaky and not very stirring.
It’s a shame. Sifting through the pieces, you can see some interesting things going on: giving Bond the emotional arc he has with respect to Vesper Lynd; presenting him with the dilemma of sticking to his cold, amoral, womanizing, license-to-kill ways; or settling down and pursuing an actual relationship. But it seems too late now to treat these matters seriously. So many story elements are just breezed past. The film is too front loaded with unclear stakes and back loaded in a climax that has every clichéd stake imaginable—the damsel might as well be strapped to the railroad.
By the end of Spectre our attitude is as whimsical as Bond’s as he tosses aside his gun—his old life, presumably—and struts towards the girl. Craig seems sick of Bond. If 007’s heart isn’t in it, how can ours be?
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