SPECTRE PG-13 2 h 28 min | EON Productions, dir: Sam Mandes staring Daniel Craig, Christopher Waltz, Léa Sydeoux, & Ralph Fines| B- & A-, respectively
On Friday November 6th, 2015 the 24th entry into cinemas longest running series was released in the United States. It was the fourth outing for Daniel Craig as Ian Fleming’s British super spy James Bond 007. After breathing new life into the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, critically stumbling with 2008’s Quantum of Solace, and breaking records with 2012’s Skyfall, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson had their hands full with the expectations for SPECTRE. While the film shattered expectations in Britain [becoming the largest opening in British cinematic history], in the ever important American market the film was below the Skyfall mark and therefore branded with a negative stain. The film was almost doomed from the start due to the weighed expectations to be too many things for too many people, yet it graciously succeeded where it needed to – bringing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond full circle. The series finds itself on the doorstep of the James Bond of the Connery era and of the Fleming imagination that fans fondly [often times through rose colored glasses] clamor for.
There’s a unique trend in Bond films, hit a fourth entry and the following combination happens – the actor will present a strong, confident, almost too natural performance of Bond & the film will strain to stand up from the bloated expectations. Three men, prior to Mr. Craig’s entry in SPECTRE, have filmed a fourth turn as James Bond; Sean Connery [Thunderball], Roger Moore [Moonraker], and Pierce Brosnan [Die Another Day]. As history has shown time & time again, fail to understand it and it shall repeat itself. All four films, Thunderball, Moonraker, Die Another Day, and SPECTRE share similar criticism; bloated over-done action sequences, sensational yet underdeveloped villains, and doomed to fail to meet the heights achieved in films prior. For Connery the film failed to live up to From Russia with Love or Goldfinger, for Moore it was a departure from The Spy Who Loved Me, and for Brosnan the franchise had failed him by wandering so far from GoldenEye. Naturally then, it is easy to look at any review of SPECTRE and see complaints that it is by far overshadowed by the weathering heights of Skyfall. While that statement is true, it is by no means a fair assessment of the singular worth of SPECTRE nor a valid measurement.
SPECTRE begins as any James Bond film should, with a powerful and gripping cold open. For the first time in the Daniel Craig era we open the film with the traditional gun barrel sequence. What follows is a cold open to rival that of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Casino Royale. The suspense and action of the Mexico City cold open is unfortunately not continued, the sense of two plus hours of rising tension as seen in The Dark Knight would have served SPECTRE well. Instead we are privy to a Bond we hardly see, a detective, quite possibly last seen in the series when Timothy Dalton held the Bond mantle in the late 1980s.
Having reobtained the rights to use “S.P.E.C.T.R.E” along with the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld after a costly and lengthy legal battle, EON productions wastes no time dropping the false pretenses of the Quantum organization and instead charged forward with a plot to link all of Daniel Craig’s enemies under the umbrella of one organization, Spectre. Originally planned to be filmed as a double feature, those plans fell through causing a frantic re-write of SPECTRE, with a leaked script appearing in late 2014 that would be vastly different than the shooting script used less than a month later. This genesis of the SPECTRE film would be evident in the movie. James’ detective work takes him to the secret base of the mysterious character at the center of the SPECTRE film at which point the tone and tempo of the film notably shifted gears. For fans of Casino Royale that jarring shift should be recalled as the same cinematic device used after the effects of the poker game which lead to the tragic downfall of Vesper.
SPECTRE is a beautiful love letter to Bond fans and the long cinematic history of the franchise. As such the film should be appreciated and not judged for wanting to nod to, and acknowledge, the traditions that bond generations of James Bond fans [an article pointing out all the 007 references in SPECTRE will be released after our SPECTRE review podcast – approx. release date of February 25, 2016].
However, the biggest failing of the film is to utilize the two plots that SPECTRE attempts to tackle: 1) who is the organization that has been antagonizing MI6 and James Bond, and 2) who exactly is the head of this organization. Further, a more fitting entry into the Daniel Craig Bond arch would have been the classic S.P.E.C.T.R.E. response of sending someone to seek revenge on Bond for foiling their last plans, ala, From Russia With Love and Thunderball.
In nodding to the rich history of the franchise SPECTRE is wise to make strong references to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a film that, although it stars the least popular Bond, has the longest running effect on James Bond the character as it is the only time James is willing to walk away from MI6 and marry one of the notorious “Bond Girls.” It is the film that also finished freezing over 007’s heart as Tracy is gunned down by Blofeld and Irma Bunt.
As any fan of the series would know, the ending of SPECTRE is not an ending but rather the suggestion of a dark beginning. The unfortunate off screen dramatics then cause SPECTRE to further linger in the air. Is Daniel Craig done as James Bond, so disenfranchised with the character that he would, literally, cut his wrist before playing Bond again or is he merely in the same space that Sir Sean Connery was in after the media hysterics after You Only Live Twice. The only actor to be able to walk away from Bond without flinching nor longing to return to the character was Timothy Dalton, so in a sense it would be fitting that the darkest Bond since Dalton might too be willing to walk away with such ease. If the producers, and fans, would understand history we would be wise to give Mr. Craig distance and time. For it done right, the film after SPECTRE will not doubt build upon what is a strong foundation. SPECTRE needs a sequal to be truly appreciated. It needs a second half to elevate and justify it’s length and complex duality. Simply stated SPECTRE needs to be finished.
The sharp contrast between the first 2/3rds and the final act hold the film back from reaching a potential that it is clearly striving for. SPECTRE is set up to be the Bond film fans have longed for, it’s failing in being that stings deeper than my critics or fan reviews will allow. The series is littered with soaring expectations and heartbreaking failings followed by surprising hits [ex: 1) Thunderball/You Only Live Twice – OHMSS – Diamonds, 2) Spy Who Loved Me – Moonraker – For Your Eyes Only, 3) The Living Daylights – License to Kill – GoldenEye, 4) Tomorrow Never Dies – The World is Not Enough – Die Another Day, and 5) Casino Royale – Quantum of Solace – Skyfall]. The mindful fan would notice a pattern. The last time the series produced consecutive critically praised, financially successful, and fan respected films was during the From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball era. While many three films stretches have been financially successful no stretch has contained three films in a row [one can even argue back-to-back] that both fans and critics widely loved. And so the pain of SPECTRE is that in this Daniel Craig lead reboot era, his portrayal of James Bond was finally catching up with where Sean Connery’s portrayal began in Dr. No; the hardened, sarcastically witty, masculine, and over confident super spy was being born before our eyes. The events in Skyfall even wink at a world that provides the setting needed so that Craig’s Bond and Connery’s Bond will blend together. The classic Aston Martin DB5, the male presence of M that hinted at the Bernard Lee/Sean Connery dynamic, the flirtation with Moneypenny, the banter with Q – it was all there. And that hype was all the more heightened with the previews for SPECTRE revealing a world that looked, sounded, and felt like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The dagger to the heart that left many James Bond fans bewildered after SPECTRE was a deeply rooted and often ignored wound. It’s a wound that I have expressed in our podcast and one that I think of often when reflecting in the series. What if Sean Connery had come back for OHMSS? Would the argument of best Bond film be a moot point? Would Connery have cemented himself as Bond, James Bond for his career and set a bar so high for any actor following him that that the series would have struggled under those expectations? Would the arch starting with Dr. No’s reveal of S.P.E.C.T.R.E and ending with Connery’s revenge mission for Blofeld in Diamonds be a character arch masterpiece in cinematic history rivaling Anakin Skywalker, any number of Lord of the Rings characters, Harry Potter, Michael Corleone, and Indiana Jones?
More than 50 years later, fans felt tingles of excitement that SPECTRE may close the wound and set up Daniel Craig’s arch to be what Sir Sean’s may have been. Yet with any series that stretches across generations, many did not fully recognize nor articulate the sense of want they had for SPECTRE. This film was going to provide the hole that Connery’s absence in OHMSS left. SPECTRE was going to be THE James Bond film.
It was not.
But as a student of history I know that after the giant hit, and the wayward attempt that follows is a sleeper that awaits. I know that SPECTRE is a pretty typical James Bond film – mostly there, some parts missing, a bit long in parts, an uneven third, but most importantly a film with, about, and starting Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.
Don’t judge SPECTRE on what it could have been but rather for what it is; a pretty good James Bond film. History, time, and Bond 25 will determine SPECTRE’s legacy, it is our job at this time to simply take in Bond 24 and enjoy it. And then do what any Bond fan does best – speculate on the next film. Bond with Scott and myself in that classic James Bond fan tradition as we explore the series and widely speculate on what Bond 25 could be. Bond(ing) Over Bond is the official unofficial home for James Bond as we march toward the next film.
Until next time – shake it…don’t stir it.