WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Tipped off beyond the grave by M, Bond embarks on a solo mission to track down the common thread behind all of his recent troubles, leading him into a worldwide search for a man who’s strangely familiar to Bond, via a beautiful psychologist with a murky family past.
If you’re after a relaxing holiday companion, Commander James Bond (Daniel Craig) is probably not your man. After all, he can’t enjoy a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City without pursuing a vendetta against – well, he’s not entirely sure what, or who, he’s pursuing, but – as his last ‘M’ has told him in a posthumous message – it involves offing one Marco Sciarra, seducing his widow (Monica Bellucci), finding someone called the ‘Pale King’, then his daughter, psychologist Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and finally tracking down the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a ghost from Bond’s past.
Back home, Bond’s rogue investigations infuriate his new ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes), not least because there’s a brash young ‘C’ in town by the name of Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), threatening to close down the ‘00’ programme entirely, relying on omnipresent surveillance techniques to collect global data. Bond, with reluctant help from ‘Q’ (Ben Whishaw), needs to act fast to piece together the puzzle of Oberhauser, leading him to encounters with the sharp-nailed Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) and, naturally, getting to know Dr Swann rather more intimately.
It was for Octopussy that I remarked on Bond being a de facto immortal, giving the producers the problem that if he’s never going to die, how entertainingly can he live? Spectre appears to ask a different question: given that this particular 007 is manifestly not up for entertaining the masses in traditional ways, how little can we actually do and still call this a Bond film?
For it must be said that Spectre is in many ways a profoundly lazy film, manifested most in the impassive, set gaze of Daniel Craig. We know that his Bond is a man of few words, but here he’s a man of relatively few actions either, barely breaking into either a sweat or a run in any of the film’s otherwise impressive action scenes. While Craig’s detachment was a welcome novelty in Casino Royale, it served him poorly in Quantum of Solace and makes the viewer feel peculiarly uninvolved here.
Craig, though, is only partially to blame. The script is the real villain, lazily stitching elements from other Bond films together – a train scene that’s a little From Russia with Love mixed with Odd Job from Goldfinger, an Alpine health resort that’s very On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – with just enough of the stock phrases and standard tropes (first woman is seduced for information, the second for something approaching love) to make the whole thing feel kosher.
Yet so much of the film takes the viewer’s goodwill for granted. Early on, Bond drops from a perilous height onto a comfy settee; yes, it’s a jokey nod to his imperishable nature, but it seems a rather sarcastic touch. Elsewhere, scenes with potential for espionage-based excitement are left out to cut to the chase – for example, being chauffeur-driven to the ‘lair’ rather than secretly infiltrating it (I’d also love to have seen 007 breaking into Q’s lab to get the DB10). This would be fine if the contents of the film were equally exciting, but a lot of it is flabbily-written fluff; a little further dig into Bond’s psychology, for example, or Moneypenny’s dreadful ‘You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone’ (as if the word ‘secret’ was itself an unknown mystery).
The two overarching stories are equally uninspiring. The surveillance theme can claim relevance and sets up a credible villain in the oily C, but the entire storyline about the true, or new, or whatever identify of Oberhauser is a complete non-starter: the film’s called Spectre, and most non-Bond fans could tell you who the head of SPECTRE is – there’s not even a hint of double-bluff to throw us off the scent. And the way the two stories are resolved is a real botch job*, with two ticking clocks: the first is resolved without any drama whatsoever, the second spoilt by Oberhauser’s impractical taunting of how SPECTRE has ruined Bond’s life – Craig’s stony-faced spy is not going to fall for that sort of thing. Neither does Waltz seem a particularly threatening villain, considering the tools at his disposal; though I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of him.
Fortunately, none of this makes Spectre a horrible failure. The action scenes in Mexico City and Rome are a treat, and despite an irritating fondness for focus pulls the film looks terrific. Moreover, the film lives in its secondary characters: the rotting Mr White, the lurking Hinx, the long-suffering M and peevish Q. Seydoux’s Swann is a woman with real attitude and a credible history, and does more than the traditional Bond girl is asked to do in terms of acting. Together, these characters help to round out Spectre into a functional movie, yet even here the writers fall down on the job. James and Madeleine arrive in London, acutely aware that danger lurks around every corner; and she’s allowed to wander off on her own? Swann is surely too clever for such things; Christmas Jones, or Mary Goodnight, now that’s another matter…
I was never bored by Spectre, and while I didn’t love Craig’s taciturn hero, he’s still preferable (in my mind) to any of Roger Moore’s tepid turns as 007. Like him or not, this current Bond has style; regrettably, on this occasion he has very little of substance to work with, making Spectre a distinctly sub-standard effort in the series. It’s a Bond film – just about – but not much of one.
NOTE: Not that I’m one to condone leaks or hacks, but Sony emails about the deficiencies of the third act of Spectre make for an intriguing read. Safe to say that not all of the execs’ concerns were addressed in full.