By James Hancock November 5th, 2015
There are two things I have to say right from the outset of this review. The first is that I am a fanatic for the Bond franchise so anyone looking for objective film criticism should look elsewhere. The second is that after the first paragraph I will be going heavily into spoiler territory, so once again, if this is a problem look somewhere else for your review. Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, I can dive into the latest entry in the James Bond series, a legendary movie franchise that began with Dr. No in 1962 based on a character that goes all the way back to 1953 with Ian Fleming’s debut novel Casino Royale. Earlier this week I had the chance to record a podcast about the history of the James Bond franchise so I will not be retreading that familiar ground but rather focusing primarily on the latest film. The first question that every fan should ask is, ‘How does it compare to the rest of the Bond films?’ I tend to break the Bond films down into different eras depending upon who is playing the part, in this case the Daniel Craig era. For my money, I’d rank Spectre behind Skyfall (2012), in front of Quantum of Solace (2008) and just about neck and neck with Casino Royale (2006). I hate to say it, but for the first half of Spectre I found myself struggling to stay alert at times and worried that Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes had lost their way on the project. Luckily, the film turns a corner roughly halfway through the film and for the latter half I found myself completely glued to the screen. Every decade needs one sensational Bond film to sustain our interest in the character and I’d argue that so far for this decade Skyfall is absolutely that movie. That said, Spectre offers some extraordinary scenes and shocking twists that will have me returning for seconds at the earliest possible convenience.
The strength of any Bond movie is not in whether or not it is a good movie, although that helps, but rather in the number of distinctive scenes that will endure the test of time such as the ski stunt which opens The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). What I love most about Spectre is how the film repeatedly pays homage to what I love about the Bond films of the past while at the same time pushing the character and story forward in a direction that is very new for the series overall. Tonally this is a far darker Bond than we’ve ever seen. Stylistically Spectre has more in common with Ian Fleming’s early take on the character as opposed to the light-hearted romps of the 1970s and 1980s. As far as nods to the past are concerned, fans of the fight scene in the train car in From Russia With Love (1963) will be grinning from ear to ear watching Daniel Craig and Dave Bautista practically beat one another to death in a confined train as it hurtles through an African desert. Anyone fond of the classic elaborate traps/interrogation sequences from the 1960s will writhe in agony as Christoph Waltz administers one of the most depraved forms of punishment on Bond that we’ve seen in a Bond movie to date. Léa Seydoux more than holds her own as the latest Bond girl. While not the type of torture in the scene I just described, watching her in any movie for me is a delicious form of torture that I’m always happy to endure. She is just too hot for words. The real unexpected pleasure of this film was seeing M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) play a far more active role in the plot. As much as I love the classic incarnations played by Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn & Lois Maxwell, in the context of this particular story where the fate of MI6 very much hangs in the balance, it was great to see Bond’s teammates step outside of the office and get their hands dirty.
In an unusual move for the series, Spectre takes full advantage of story continuity and reveals how a variety of easter eggs in the last 3 films were all clues in a long journey that brings us full circle to the present plot. Most Bond films tend to be standalone stories very rarely making references to Bond films of the past. One of the only exceptions I can think of is early on in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) when Bond (played by George Lazenby) cleans out his desk only to discover relics from the first five movies all while we hear the appropriate theme songs. This is my last major ***spoiler warning*** but we learn in Spectre that Christoph Waltz’s character is indeed the classic recurring villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Best of all is that we get to see in real time how Blofeld earns the nasty scar that Donald Pleasence made famous in You Only Live Twice (1967). Assuming that Daniel Craig is not completely fed up with the role, the stage has been set for an epic confrontation between Bond and Blofeld in the next installment. Part of me worries a little that using continuity in the Bond films will eventually lead to an inevitable reboot whenever the next Bond is cast. Part of the charm for decades was that no matter who wore the tux (Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan) the story just kept going. I accepted the soft reboot with Casino Royale mostly because of my immense enjoyment of the movie but I don’t want to see producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson fall into the habit of pressing the reset button every few years like we’ve seen with Spider-Man. For now at least, it seems as if the story of James Bond is in a very healthy place. The movie is already breaking records in some international territories and I see no reason why this film should not perform well here in the United States. I doubt it will match the epic worldwide box office of Skyfall (which exceeded $1 billion) but overall Spectre is a very solid movie, at times bordering on excellent. I hope they continue to make these movies for at least another 50 years so that there will never be a time where I’m alive on this earth and unable to look forward to more stories starring one of the most enduring fictional characters in pop culture history.
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