November 6, 2015
When it comes to a James Bond movie, audience expectation is clear: we want action, girls, cars, and toys. The trick, now, is in creating something we haven’t seen before – a task becoming increasingly difficult after fifty-three years of Bond. We know Bond will survive by the skin of his teeth, all with a sly grin and a Wather PPK. For the twenty-fifth outing, Spectre, Sam Mendes returns to direct Daniel Craig in what may be the most personal Bond story yet. On the surface, Spectre sees Bond learning of the existence of the mysterious international crime syndicate known as SPECTRE and its plan for global control. Fairly standard spy-thriller fare. However, when you look beyond the surface, Spectre delves deep into the psyche of James Bond to examine who he is, what he wants, and what means the most to him. To do this, unlike the films of old, Spectre creates a connection that starts back to Craig’s first turn as Bond in Casino Royale (2006), continues into Quantum of Solace (2008), and finishes with Skyfall (2012). In doing so, it reaches straight into the heart of Bond, ripping open a wound he thought had healed. This aspect of the story thoroughly makes up for Spectre’s underused characters and predictable revelations.
Wasting no time, Spectre begins shortly after Skyfall ends and there are enemies on all fronts. Split into two intersecting stories, Story A finds Bond on a posthumous secret mission from the late M that begins in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival. He doesn’t know why he needs to be there, he only knows the target. He soon discovers a trail of clues that lead him to the mysterious organization known as SPECTRE, a cabal of international criminals led by a man he once believed, by Bond, to be dead – Franz Oberhauser, played by Christoph Waltz. In order to infiltrate and take down SPECTRE, Bond must align himself with the daughter of Mr. White, the man from Quantum who manipulated Vesper Lynd. Meanwhile, Story B sees the new head of M, played by Ralph Fiennes, struggling to keep MI6 operational as the Director-General of the newly formed Joint Security Service seeks to absorb MI6 and dismantle the Double-Oh program. As Bond fights his way through the men of SPECTRE, M struggles to keep the office functioning. A shadowed villainous organization and a fight for survival on multiple fronts sounds like an enticing time at the movies, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out as the lack of balance between Story A and B makes one wonder why it was a necessity to split the story at all. In this case, where the plot falters, the connections to the past cause this film to succeed. The past can never stay buried and, with this notion, the heart of the film is found. Old wounds rarely heal. Broken hearts rarely mend. Vengeance never relieves pain.
Spectre opens with the words “The Dead Are Alive,” an apropos statement as the presence of the dead have clearly never left Craig’s Bond. From adventure-to-adventure, it is rare for Bond to display much, if any, sentimentality -an attribute that would likely get him killed, sure, but it means that he remains in perpetual solitude. We learn in Spectre that he carries the memory of them both, and that these deaths are diabolically linked to Bond’s past. Despite all his efforts to move forward, the specter of his past both haunts and follows him to the only resolution that makes sense: find peace or die trying. In a cinematic universe known around the globe for megalomaniacal villains with absurd plans for domination, Spectre surprises by being more true to its title than any other Bond film before it. How can Bond fight that which haunts him?
In the past, Bond has been exceedingly cavalier, but also methodical. This Bond, Craig’s Bond, is not. Described in Casino Royale by Dench’s M as a blunt instrument who kills without remorse or thought, it’s not until Spectre that Fiennes’s M regards Bond as being capable of pulling the trigger while also knowing when not to. In Casino Royale, Bond was partnered with a feisty, capable, intelligent woman, Vesper Lynd, who engaged him as an equal and challenges him to rise above the position of a thug with a gun, a role he eagerly took on as he sought revenge for her murder in Quantum of Solace. Now, in Spectre, Bond finds himself once again trying to protect the same style of woman who sees him as an assassin but with a desire to break free. The connection to the past continues in the reflective relationship between Bond and Oberhauser, the leader of SPECTRE. In traditional Bond style, the two have a fairly respectful manner of communicating, while underneath lies a deadlier intention. Oberhauser’s intentions run deep into Bond’s personal history, and he becomes a mirror for Bond: where Oberhauser sees beauty and opportunity in chaos; Bond strives to prevent it.
From a technical standpoint, Spectre has everything you could want from a Bond film: exotic locales, jaw-dropping action sequences, and wonderful toys. My favorite moment, surprisingly, isn’t the train sequence in which Bond fights the SPECTRE assassin Hinx, played perfectly by Dave Bautista, nor the plane ride that only Bond could walk away from, but the car chase through the streets of Rome. In a style that felt inspired by the Roger Moore-era, racing through Rome, Hinx hard on his heels, Bond must figure out a way to lose his tail without hurting pedestrians. At first, it seems like the standard tactical drifting and high-speed pursuit techniques we’ve come to expect from any actioner, but only Bond could have a calm conversation with Moneypenny as if he was taking a Sunday drive that makes it feel somehow fresh and engaging. Moments like these, combined with other little touches from previous Bond-eras really helped to energize an otherwise standard Bond film. In fact, this film is in some ways a perfect anniversary piece as it includes references to Sean Connery’s Goldfinger with the Aston Martin DBS, Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die with the Day of the Dead festival, and of course – the most memorable of Bond villains – SPECTRE. What the story’s function lacks in imagination, it accomplishes through subtle, and some not-so subtle, nods to the prior three films. This part of Spectre sings.
In the end, when you go to a James Bond movie, you know exactly what to expect. While the plot follows predictably from those expectations, Spectre is the strongest Bond film to date in the way it seeks to humanize Bond. Previously, Bond was a one-note character, but through the course of the four films, we see a fully-realized character who ends Spectre having done what few Bonds have done before him: change. In 2006 the Bond theme tells us that we know his name and in 2015 the theme claims the writing’s on the wall. If Spectre is any indication, I think they are just getting started.
Screening in standard and IMAX theaters Friday, November 6th.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5