I was really looking forward to seeing this film ever since three years ago when the seminal Skyfall became the greatest James Bond film of all time. Then a little under a year ago when it was announced that the film would be called SPECTRE, I was almost beside myself with anticipation, as long time Bond fans know that SPECTRE was the international criminal organization that was Bond’s primary adversary in the early years of the franchise. With the momentum built from two of the past three films being great, and this new incarnation of the franchise paying homage to its origins while simultaneously using modern filmmaking techniques to bring the franchise into the 21st Century, I was hopeful that SPECTRE would be another top-10 Bond film that would propel Daniel Craig ahead of Sean Connery as the greatest Bond of all time.
SPECTRE starts out incredibly promising with perhaps the greatest opening shot in the series. I was caught up in it, so I didn’t time it, but I’m guessing the shot lasts roughly four minutes and it follows a masked Bond through the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Like many of the best Bond films, SPECTRE uses the prologue to set up the rest of the film when Bond’s target Marco Sciarra talks to some associates about blowing up a stadium and then dealing with “The Pale King”. After blowing up a building and nearly crashing a helicopter into the parade, Bond kills Sciarra after taking his ring. He notices a cryptic symbol on the ring that looks like an Octopus. That sets in motion an action-filled plot in which Bond needs to uncover who this group is and what their intentions are while M (Ralph Feinnes) needs to figure out a way to prevent C (Andrew Scott) from destroying Mi6 from the inside, and what his nefarious purposes are for doing so.
Meanwhile, Bond is challenged throughout the story to confront his past. Not only his immediate past in which he has suffered the losses of every important woman in his life, but also his distant past and the mysterious deaths of the foster father and brother who cared for him after his real parents died. That is where SPECTRE did something that hadn’t really been done before in the history of the franchise. When I wrote about The Quantum of Solace, I mentioned how it was the first film in the Bond franchise that could actually be referred to as a sequel since its plot was driven by many things that were continuations from its predecessor, Casino Royale, and that was something that hadn’t happened before in the history of the series. Some of the films made references to other things that happened in previous films but none of them continued a previous story. SPECTRE took it a little further and referenced specific events that had happened in all three of the previous Daniel Craig film, thus tying all of them together into one consistent narrative.
I feel like this is where SPECTRE really missed its opportunity. As a Bond film, and in fact as a modern-day action film, SPECTRE has everything that you’d want from an action perspective. It has over-the-top spectacle and edge-of-your-seat excitement in all of the sequences. It also does a nice job in injecting just enough campiness that originally gave the franchise its unique quality that separated it from other action films. The nice thing about the few campy scenes in this film was that they were unrealistic without crossing over into the absurd, which plagued so many of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan films. However what the previous Daniel Craig films had, especially Casino Royale and Skyfall, was a wounded and faulted Bond. Daniel Craig’s is the most brooding Bond, other than perhaps Timothy Dalton, his wounds and faults were not only major drivers of the stories of the previous films, but they also humanized Bond in a way that had never really been done in the history of the series, other than perhaps Dalton’s first film The Living Daylights.
What made Casino Royale and Skyfall so effective in my opinion was that they gave the audience an emotional connection to Bond. For as much as it tried, SPECTRE couldn’t tap that same connection. Perhaps it was that the action sequences were too long. Perhaps there was too much exposition through dialogue. Speaking of which, there is one great scene in which Bond is trying to get information from Lucia (Monica Belucci), the widow of Sciarra. He gets this information while seducing her, and we’re getting exposition fed to us through dialogue, but it’s being spoken in a sexually aroused voice. That was a great choice by Director Sam Mendes, and was a great way to deliver exposition in a unique and interesting way. One other scene where they do something similar is when Bond calls Moneypenny from his car while he’s being chased. She tells him more information while the chase scene is going on, and that also makes that exposition much more riveting. Unfortunately there are many other scenes filled with exposition and talking where that’s all that’s happening. It would have been nice if there was more visual language going on.
One of the ways they tried to get an emotional connection was with Blofeld (Christophe Waltz), who carries the torch for this iconic character very admirably, even if he was severely underutilized. Their pasts are much more inextricably linked than we anticipate, and Waltz brings his trademark sweetly sinister style to the character that makes me wish we had seen more of him in the film. This is an evil man with nothing less than world domination motivating him, but he holds an ancient grudge against Bond and will put that aside in order to get revenge. This is another missed opportunity. There wasn’t nearly enough interaction between Bond and Blofeld, especially when it’s clear that their past together goes much deeper than we previously knew. I believe that if they had pushed that angle of the story a little more then they would have more effectively built the emotional crux on which to engage the audience that would have rivaled the previous Daniel Craig Bond films. That also would have made it a much more dramatic film, and that would have made it more enjoyable as well.
Unfortunately the filmmakers tried to create that emotional bond through Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), this installment’s Bond Girl. Swann is about as average a Bond Girl as there is. There is little to distinguish her, either for good or for bad, and there wasn’t very much chemistry between Seydoux and Craig. I am always an advocate for giving the hero a love interest even in non-love stories because it gives the hero more to lose. I never got the feeling, however, that Bond cared about Swann any more than he did for any other girl in the series, like Vesper Lynd or Tracy diVicenzo or Kara Milovy or Melina Havelock. There isn’t anything wrong with Madeleine Swann. She has a deep personality and ghosts in her past that hide abilities that could potentially serve her well. At one point it looks like her strength will save Bond, but he ends up saving her later in the scene and ends up as more of a damsel in distress than most other Bond Girls. One thing she seems to do is motivate Bond to be a better person, but we don’t see that until the last scene of the film. It would have been a lot more effective had that been a motif earlier in their relationship.
Overall I think that SPECTRE is very good and almost great. I wouldn’t put it in the top 10 of Bond films, but probably just outside. More emotional engagement and more Blofeld and more drama would have made it better.