Review: Spectre – Ambitious, bombastic return for Bond

HERE we are. Three years after the triumphant success of Skyfall, Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes return to the lacquered halls of MI6 for another stab at the modern James Bond. It’s not as if we ran a four-month long feature on this series or anything, but it can’t be denied that anticipation for this one has reached a higher fever pitch than perhaps even its lofty predecessor, especially when tempted by the promise of the titular organisation, previously tied up in legal disputes since the 70s.

Since the revitalisation of the franchise with Casino Royale, 007 has struggled somewhat to maintain his own identity within this rebooted universe. Each Craig film, for all their merits, has found it difficult to reconcile the gritty, murky espionage of modernity with its own, campy heritage. A world of labyrinthine networks, systems and inscrutable secret agents has to co-habitate with the adolescent playground of laser watches and sexy ladies.

Spectre is no different, right down to that title. The phantoms of the past are forever at the film’s throat and yet, most of the time, it manages to instil a modern sense of urgency and – shockingly – relevance beneath an inherently silly premise. Spectre owes much of its preoccupations with global surveillance and anxiety over privacy to real-life cases like Ed Snowden; though hardly a cipher for the average man, Bond is tracked and trailed by his superiors in eerily similar ways to the NSA snoopers that Snowden blew the lid off.

In seeking contemporary resonance, however, Mendes simultaneously strives to play to series tropes. This is where the paradox of old and new is felt most deeply and, at times, sloppily. A sojourn to Rome sees Bond meet Lucia Sciarra (Monica Belluci), a strange character whose importance has been rather overstated in the pre-release build-up.

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Aside from being entirely superfluous to the plot, Sciarra exists solely to look a bit upset, have creepy sex with Bond and pose in a basque on a bed. Belluci is a beautiful woman but she also happens to be a talented actress, and yet she is treated with even less fanfare than Séverine from Skyfall and is discarded with greater haste.

Elsewhere, initially thrilling action sequences lose their impact after going on for too long, adding more minutes to the already exorbitant 150 minute running time. The snowbound scene where Bond pilots a wingless plane in pursuit of Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux) has some nice moments but, on the whole, it drags. The same applies to a car chase where Bond and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) hurtle through the cramped streets of Rome, one that outstays its welcome with a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roger Moore venture.

Conversely, the opening sequence in Mexico City is superbly constructed, a Touch of Evil-esque tracking shot looping through crowds of people in skeletal costumes until the reveal of Bond, suited and booted, ready for action. It’s a jaw-dropping moment of technical bravado that easily rivals Roger Deakins’ work on Skyfall, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is equally superb throughout.  It’s unfortunately curtailed by Sam Smith’s narcoleptic theme song but, snark aside, the film is pristine and beautifully captured with clarity and poise.

Links with the previous Craig films are frequent and welcome, tying them all together into a neat, self-contained bow. Even Quantum of Solace gets a look-in, adding resolution and completion to a film that lacked either. However, Spectre’s own plot relies almost exclusively on its predecessors to build its own narrative, and as a result can be quite daunting for a first-time viewer (Craig or otherwise).

Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd remains one of the best examples of a woman in Bond, and Seydoux’s Madeline Swann pales in comparison. Initially presented as an independent, fierce-willed woman in her own right, Swann’s increasing reliance on Bond’s guardianship is part of a disappointingly underdeveloped relationship, hindered further by how little chemistry the two actors share. Even disregarding Green’s example, there’s no real spark between Seydoux and Craig, an unfortunate slight given how talented they are.

Craig himself is as commanding as ever in the main role, his shark-eyed sneer betraying innate vulnerability; no Bond since George Lazenby has allowed himself to be this vulnerable, but Craig masks it like a wounded predator. Christoph Waltz’s diminutive Oberhauser is a classic Bond villain in every sense of the word, right down to his capacity for monologuing while manning an elaborate torture device. Waltz doesn’t play Oberhauser very far from Hans Landa – effete, controlled, malicious – but he is a lovingly realised villain, even if his motivation is sketchy at best.

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Bond’s support team receives more screentime and plot significance than usual, with Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw’s scene-stealing Q and Ralph Fiennes’ lock-jawed M all providing ample intrigue and comic relief. Bautista’s hulking Mr. Hinx is a Bond henchman in the traditional sense, providing the physical match to Bond that Waltz cannot. Their confrontations are brutal and striking, with Thomas Newman’s sweeping score giving way to the sound of flailing fists and grunting.

Mendes’ direction is suitably muscular, lending epic gravitas to increasingly silly proceedings, keeping a steady hand even as scenes labour. The script from the team of John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth (weirdly) is sharp, punchy and humorous, with plenty of comic beats mixed in with the harder, dramatic touches. Despite the length, the writing is probably a lot tighter than both of Spectre’s immediate predecessors, but it’s sometimes hard to tell amidst the explosions.

Spectre is undeniably an entertaining romp, a globe-trotting adventure that, in some of its locations and aesthetics, recalls the Sean Connery era (right down to a From Russia with Love-esque fistfight in a train). That said, its reliance on familiar tropes can be taxing at times – seeming more at odds than ever with Craig’s grimmer take on the role – and it could easily be cut down by a handy 20 minutes.

But it’s also damn enjoyable for large chunks of runtime, relying on light-hearted quips just as much as the darker, emotional segments. It’s ultimately a more carefree entry in one of cinema’s most enduring series, and gives Craig his (potentially final) chance to demonstrate his versatility in the part. I can’t imagine it cracking into anyone’s Top Five Bonds anytime soon, but it’s hard to argue against a recommendation.

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