Casino Royale (2006) ushered in the Daniel Craig era of James Bond films and made its mark by giving the superspy a darker, violent edge while downplaying the humor that was abundant in the Roger Moore era and, to a lesser degree, during Pierce Brosnan’s run. The next two films took Bond into uncharted territory as their plots were interconnected instead of the usual stand-alone adventures and also shed light on the character’s background – something that some Bond fans felt was a betrayal of the franchise. Personally, it was exciting to see Bond fall in love only to have her die tragically in Casino Royale. Then, he sought revenge for her death in Quantum of Solace (2008) and dealt with the fallout of his actions in Skyfall (2012). With Spectre (2015), it turns out that the adversaries he faced in the previous films were all part of a master plan orchestrated by the shadowy terrorist organization known as Spectre, a famous nemesis of Bond during the Sean Connery era.
Returning director Sam Mendes hits the ground running with a bravura long take tracking shot of James Bond (Craig) in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebration as he walks through the crowded streets with a lovely lady on his arm. Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Interstellar) fluid camerawork follows Bond into a busy hotel, up to a room and out a window as he travels across several rooftops until he reaches the target. After the elegance of this sequence, Mendes and Hoytema switch to kinetic hand-held camerawork as Bond chases his prey through the noisy, chaotic streets, culminating in a white-knuckle intense fight aboard a helicopter. And this is just the film’s prologue!
After the Mexico incident, Bond is suspended by his superior, M (Ralph Fiennes), for acting on his own and told that MI6 is merging with MI5, which will result in the 00 program being scrapped. It turns out that Bond was carrying out the previous M’s (Judie Dench) last request: find and kill a man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and attend his funeral in Rome. It is here that Bond uncovers a secret organization known as Spectre and discovers their connections to all the villains he’s faced in the three previous films.
Daniel Craig plays a much more competent Bond in Spectre than in Skyfall where several bad decisions that defied logic resulted in the deaths of key characters. In this film, he makes much better choices for the most part. Craig also does a fantastic job of continuing Bond’s personal journey to finish what he started in Casino Royale. The actor even gets to insert a little more humor, in particular, his interactions with Q (Ben Whishaw) and not play such an overtly grim Bond as in previous installments. That being said, Bond is still not someone to be messed with and Craig never lets us forget that his character is a ruthless assassin.
Spectre finally brings back the Bond villain henchman in the tradition of Oddjob and Jaws with the introduction of the burly Mr. Hinx played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) whose considerable physical presence makes him a formidable foe for Bond. The film’s mastermind villain is played by Christoph Waltz who brings his trademark cultured panache to the role. The award-winning actor uses his distinctive charisma to command a given scene. All of the bad guys in the previous Craig Bond films have been leading up to Waltz’s villain who is the most powerful and evil of them all, even more so because of his personal connection to Bond.
Much was made this time out about how Bond was going to finally encounter a Bond girl (*ahem* woman) his own age and while this is true with the casting of the lovely Italian actress Monica Bellucci it is such a shame that she’s hardly in the film as Bond quickly moves on to the requisite younger love interest/sidekick played by French actress Lea Seydoux with whom Craig has very little chemistry with. At least Bellucci isn’t resigned to the same fate that befalls a lot of the initially introduced Bond girls in the films. A far more radical move on the part of the filmmakers would have been to swap the roles for Bellucci and Seydoux so that the latter has the glorified cameo and the former is given the bigger chunk of screen-time with her leading man but sadly things are played safe and Spectre suffers a bit for it.
Spectre continues the recurring notion of Bond’s apparent obsolescence in this modern age and how the powers that be within the British government threaten to shut down the 00 program because it is considered an antiquated relic of a bygone era in this post-Edward Snowden age where surveillance is omnipresent. This comes to a head in the film when a smug, young politician (Andrew Scott) openly challenges M, looking to replace Bond and the other 00 agents with drones and hi-tech surveillance.
However, as Spectre amply demonstrates, there is something to be said for the human component and looking at someone face-to-face that no element of technology can replicate. “Info is all, is it not?” says Waltz’s bad guy late in the film and while all of this state-of-the-art technology is supposed to make us feel safe it is really taking away our personal freedoms and making us paranoid and scared. During this film, Bond is often at the mercy of intense scrutiny by both the British government and by Spectre, prompting him to go to some very exotic and remote locations to uncover the truth.
While Bond uses technology in his missions in the form of fancy cars, etc., he still believes in getting his hands dirty via car chases, gun battles and hand-to-hand combat to the get job done. There’s a certain intimacy in going up against someone one-and-one and testing your skill against theirs. The big reveal in Spectre is that Bond finds out he was never in control of his own fate – it was all an illusion. He is a killer unbound by conventional relationships, like marriage, which makes the film’s climax a bit illogical and a betrayal of his personal ethos, especially considering what has happened to him over the course of these four films. I guess this was done to show some personal growth but it feels more like Mendes and co. leaving the door open for a sequel that we all know is coming eventually. That being said, with the exception of a weak third act, Spectre is a strong film and a fitting conclusion to a four-film story arc. It should be interesting to see where the producers take the Bond franchise from here.