When it comes to the James Bond pictures that have hit theaters in my lifetime, none hold a more important place in my memory as Daniel Craig’s embodiments in Casino Royale and Skyfall. So when I saw Spectre, the fourth and final Daniel Craig-led installment in the iconic spy series, it was more than just a Bond movie. It was a conclusion to a span of my young life that stretches across more than nine years. The franchise reboot came at a time in my life when a love of movies was only beginning to mature. It’s been a long time. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a Facebook account in the Casino Royale days. A lot has changed since the first time we saw Craig take on Bond.
But has James Bond changed with times? Sure. But his challenges and villains haven’t. There’s honestly nothing exhilaratingly new brought to the series with Spectre — unless if you count Bond occasionally seeming superhuman in gunfights (I expect better than the “all the bad guys missed eight times” shtick when I watch Bond films). It’s mostly the usual routine just blown to larger proportions. The Bond girl has vital information and there’s another girl he seduces for some other important leads. The bad guy gets a scar on his face and the cars are fast and the explosions are bigger than ever before. It’s great fun, but it felt a little too self-aware for 007. Occasionally Spectre felt stuffy when it could have flourished. I prefer my spy thrillers lean and mean, especially when James Bond is putting it on the line, and that is not what we got here.
Despite the shortcomings, the opening sequence brings us a scrappy, resilient 007 that we’ve come to expect, know and love. He follows an enemy target through the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, up into a hotel and across a roof, all to the sound of the city and a pounding percussion score. Bond kneels and peers through a laser-sighted combat riflescope to take down some international terrorists. But when someone lights a cigar, the smoke exposes the rifle’s laser. It’s a mistake that, for the moment, costs him his opportunity to complete his mission. He goes on to inadvertently blow up a building, almost gets crushed by falling chunks of rubble, leaps to a safe platform, then falls conveniently onto a loveseat. He brushes himself off and chases his target through a grand showing of the Day of the Dead’s festivities, and at this point we realize how rhythmic the picture has been. Bond continues to chase the terrorist onto a helicopter, punching up the target and the pilot. The English spy nearly falls to his death before he takes care of his enemies, and after he comes inches away from flying the chopper into the holiday festival crowd, he flies triumphantly into the sunset, grinning to himself as he goes. Much of the sequence is shot in long tracking and crane shots.
Director Sam Mendes’ best moments of the film feel similar to the accomplishment of the first scene, with perilous encounters and gutsy execution from everyone’s favorite womanizer on government payroll. With the ultra sleek cinematography provided by Hoyte van Hoytema (The Fighter, Her), the tone of the picture — especially its action — seems all at once sophisticated and chaotic. Hoytema may well be a modern master at manipulating and capitalizing on a sort of spatial tension to coincide with what we witness. There are no problems with how the film is presented or how it looks. It’s the makeup of what the film presents.
A good example of what Spectre lacks may be Dave Bautista’s role as the mightily violent Mr. Hinx. Hinx is a massive, intimidating colossus who greets us by gouging a guy’s eyes out. He chases down our suave hero for a good portion of the picture, and he (almost) never says a word. He just fights, chases and ultimately meets his match in James Bond. It’s fine popcorn entertainment. But it doesn’t raise the stakes in the world of 007. It’s just more of the same. “I’m out of bullets,” he tells an enemy at a crucial moment. Maybe the writers were out of ideas.
The same sort of dissatisfaction can be said of Christoph Waltz’s role as the mastermind conspirator. He is trumpeted throughout Spectre as Bond’s greatest challenge yet. But the man known as Franz Oberhauser is not as effective as he is feared. He brings Bond into his lair to —guess what — be mean to him then kill him, instead of just kill him. You would think that people dealing with this particular spy would learn — you don’t capture him. Kill him immediately, or he will ruin everything. But even the most brilliant madman in all of Bond-world can’t figure that one out. It may be the most disappointed I’ve been with a Christoph Waltz performance.
I suppose it’s not cliché when a Bond villain gets duped twice in the same movie, though, and this one absolutely does. To his credit, Waltz’s villain does command a very narrow, automated drill through the spy’s head a couple of times, so he doesn’t go down without giving his enemy a good scare.
But I didn’t want a good scare with a couple of twists thrown in to catch me off guard. I wanted to seriously think there was no way Bond could make it out of the mess he found himself in. My generation’s 007 shouldn’t have gone out this way, but he did. He deserved better, if you ask me. He arrived nearly 10 years ago after a brief hiatus, ready to break our hearts and save the day. Now, as he goes, he leaves us empty-handed and wishing he had stayed for one last mission accomplished. But, just like the women he woos and loses and (almost) never fails to leave, we should only be glad we got a peek into the make-believe life of a daring, handsome, instinctive saboteur that is bigger than any single villainous counterpart, any single actor or any single movie. Period. 007 is a monument to Hollywood, to cinema, to blockbuster filmmaking that is engrained in the DNA of Western pop culture. And if we’ve learned anything about James Bond over the years, it’s that he will always be back. And when he does return, he’ll be looking a bit younger than when we last saw him, but we’ll recognize him. Whether its Jude Law or Tom Hardy or Chiwetel Ejiofor or someone I haven’t heard of, for around two hours we’ll only see James Bond. And he very well may learn a trick or two from those that have come before him. Let’s hope his opponent –— and everyone behind the cameras and at the writing tables, too — can keep up the pace. Grade: C –