I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I’ll probably never love another Bond movie like I did Casino Royale. Other than the movie’s own merits, it had the never-can-be-repeated revelation of Daniel Craig’s gritty, physical Bond who still had the heart that could be broken. Even so, Quantum of Solace was a huge disappointment and while Skyfall took the franchise into the billion dollar club, earned critical raves and had terrific cinematography, for me it was let down by the contrived, weak writing. So at this point my expectations were set low and I just wanted some decent entertainment. And for the first hour or so, the movie really delivered.
It opens with a truly magnificent sequence set in Mexico City, with Bond chasing a bad guy through the Day of the Dead festivities, which ends in a spectacular fight involving a helicopter and some amazing stuntwork. As exciting as it all was, I almost wished the camera would stop and linger for a while so I could perve at the intricate costumes and the parade props, and while initially I questioned the choice of sepia-toned cinematography which muted down the colours of the festival, it gives the proceedings a somewhat otherworldly feel. Then it’s time for the usual, lavishly animated credit sequence, with a rather insipid ballad from Sam Smith… but hey at least it’s better than that Jack White/Alicia Keys trainwreck from Quantum of Solace and the octopus-themed imagery is rather creepy and cool.
Back in London, Bond gets cuffed around the ears for creating an international scandal by M, once again played by Ralph Fiennes. M has other worries on his mind, as there’s a new initiative in town spearheaded by a cocky young bastard Bond names C, who aims to supplant MI6’s old-fashioned spying with a global surveillance network. Because C is played by Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock series, you immediately know that he’s a villain. Bond also reveals the reason for his troublemaking in Mexico – a message from his dear departed M (Judi Dench) sent him on a trail that eventually leads him to a sinister organisation named Spectre. Other than plotting usual villainy, it seems that Bond has some kind of personal link to the man heading Spectre, Franz Oberhauser, which is telegraphed early on in the film in a not-too-subtle manner.
For a while, I was along for the ride. Bond has some amusing scenes with the young Q, whose role has been expanded here, and there’s a very well-shot secret meeting which ends with a cool car chase through the streets of Rome. Though one of the women who speaks at the meeting reminded me so much of Frau Farbissina from Austin Powers movies it added some unintended hilarity. But at some point, I began to feel that most of that initial adrenaline and energy has worn off, and lethargy started to set in. The movie was still watchable – it’s always beautifully shot and features stunning international locations, but the momentum and urgency drained away somehow.
I didn’t think much of Skyfall, but at least that movie had a clear-eyed view of its themes and tried to do something interesting. The main theme of Spectre seems to be, it’s all connected! Because serialisation and franchise building is all the rage now, someone had the bright idea of pretending that all the previous Craig films were in fact parts of a bigger story and that Bond had a character arc spanning four movies, instead of writers just throwing in whatever was convenient for the movie they were making at the time. And by god the movie hammers that connection in, by constantly shoving in the faces of Bond’s enemies and loved ones from the previous movies every chance it gets. It’s the kind of contrived storytelling in modern blockbusters I hate with passion. It also reheats some of the “is Bond relevant anymore” angst that Skyfall, in retrospect, did so much better, and there’s some stuff about how surveillance is bad m’kay, but it doesn’t amount to anything much.
Despite the pre-release hype about Bond getting it on with a woman closer to his own age, Monica Belucci’s role is virtually a cameo, and the main love interest is played by the much younger Lea Seydoux. She’s beautiful and feline, but unfortunately there’s not a whiff of chemistry between her and Craig, and the writers give them none of the verbal zing he shared with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Their romance is of the “characters kiss now because that’s the spot in the script where they’re supposed to kiss” variety. Plus she’s a prime example of a female character who we’re told is smart and capable, and who the film then proceeds to treat mostly as a damsel-in-distress.
Daniel Craig is still great to watch as Bond, even if he does look a tad weary in some of the scenes. By far the biggest disappointment was Christoph Waltz, who is terribly wasted as the chief villain. His personal connection to Bond is the kind of thing you’d expect in an episode of Bold and the Beautiful, and his character, who seems to aim for the same creepy effeminate type, just doesn’t have the colour and personality of Javier Bardem’s baddie in Skyfall (good god this movie makes me say nice things about Skyfall!) His character also serves to bring in the sillier elements of the earlier Bond films which don’t really gel with this real-life take on Bond. Actually, nothing in the movie was as silly as Oberhauser’s silly short pants late in the movie; I’m sorry but I can’t be scared by a bad guy whose ankles and calves are there on display. The movie is also short on memorable dialogue and one-liners; the joke involving C’s name was the only time I sorta chuckled, and even then it was because of what it implied rather than what’s said out loud. There no doubt will be more Bond movies after this, but it’s rather hard to see what else they can do at this point that feels fresh.