SPECTRE: Style and Swagger Don’t Mask an Old-School James Bond Throwback

There’s an old British adage, “mutton dressed as lamb.” Simply put, it’s a phrase to describe a woman dressing or pretending they’re younger than they actually are. It has derogatory connotations, but for a superficial observation it can at times be apt. Adopting a guise to suggest something young and fresh while unable to conceal the truth that there is something entirely contradictory there, unable or unwilling to shirk off the truth of what lies beneath. Therein lies the crux of the issues with Spectre. On the surface a slick, polished spectacle, underneath it embraces the past of the Bond series like no other entry to the Craig era, the history of the franchise permeating every creative choice. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely down to you.

The latest installment of the Bond franchise is set in motion after 007 receives a message from the grave, a video left by M to be watched in the advent of her death, which sets him on a path to uncover the existence of SPECTRE, a nefarious organization exerting control over terrorism and governments. With the aid of Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of one of their top agents, he begins to understand the extent of their influence, the threat they pose, as well as a personal connection with their leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). His rogue mission is set against the backdrop of the activation of the new “Nine Eyes” Initiative by the British government, a surveillance and intelligence sharing program designed to render the 00-programme obsolete.

The dead are alive…four words on screen open the film. It’s an on the nose remark concerning a narrative twist, but also a commentary on how the past of this franchise is brought back to life in this the 24th entry to the Bond series. The stripped down, raw reboot started in Casino Royale built up to dip back into history in the last entry, Skyfall, an emotionally resonant entry that toyed just enough with nostalgia to bring a wry smile to the face but still kept a freshness about it. Spectre dispenses with the nostalgic foreplay and instead is a full blown love affair with Bond’s past. A fight on a train seemingly lifted from From Russia With Love, a stunning Alpine clinic a la OHMSS, an ostentatious location for a villain’s base (a meteor crater here rather then a volcano in You Only Live Twice), a monosyllabic henchman, not to mention a return of SPECTRE, the evil organization responsible for much of the Connery era evils and unusable due to copyright restrictions since 1971. This is Bond’s Greatest Hits album and a return to pushing the realms of possibility. The Craig era was seen as a renovation project for the series; Spectre shows they didn’t do any work on the foundations.

The real issue with Spectre is that these ‘Bond’ moments are linked together by extremely tenuous material. The plot feels thin, linked fortuitous connections throwing Bond into SPECTRE’s midst. Much is made of Oberhauser’s orchestrations, notably in Bond’s personal life, but little of this is really evident (likely not possible with the aforementioned legal wranglings). The film simply fails to really convey what the motives are of this organization, beyond infiltrating a spy network and being some outlet for Oberhauser’s childhood neglect issues. As to the ‘reveal’ over his true identity and connection to Bond, well, I’m sure they wanted it to have some kind of emotional impact but it fell completely flat. Despite the lengthy runtime, they fail to expand upon details or afford depth to plots and characters. Spectre knowingly takes on the weight of four films worth of plotlines and simply fails to craft the amount of intrigue and menace for the organization that was promised.

Where Skyfall was an emotionally brooding piece, Spectre is more of a jet-setting adventure, taking in the Austrian alps, Morocco, Rome, and London. It also embraces many of the cheesy elements that Casino Royal stripped out of the franchise. Some are throwbacks to enjoy; others are more egregious such as the treatment of the female members of the cast. The idea of a Bond film allowing a relationship to develop between the lead and a woman was revelatory for Casino Royale; now we should expect it. Madeline Swann is no Vesper Lynd; Lea Seydoux deserved far better material than this and her character’s sudden infatuation with Bond both jarring and antiquated. It’s a hard balance, appealing to the base and still being relevant and fresh but recent outings have proved it is possible. I enjoy the Bourne and Mission Impossible films (although Rogue Nation was VASTLY overrated IMO), but it’s the swagger, the panache that makes Bond so distinct and why certain elements should be maintained and expected. But it’s a difficult line to tread, to shake things up and preserve elements at the same time. Casino Royale and Skyfall showed it is possible; hopefully Spectre is just a minor relapse.

One thing synonymous with the Craig era is a long runtime. This entry is no different, lasting 150 minutes. A tighter cut would no doubt imbue the film with some energy, but in fairness director Sam Mendes fills every second of it with action, snappy dialogue, or gorgeous visuals. The opening sequence, a spectacular long tracking shot through Mexico City followed by the destruction of some architectural treasures (classic Bond) and a helicopter based fight, shows the confidence of Mendes and is a highlight of the film. The action from here on out never hits the same heights, no pun intended.

The stark beauty Roger Deakins brought to Skyfall left with him, replaced by Hoyte van Hoytema, who brings a more textured and sumptuous look, aided by the switch to 35mm over digital. The film cost A LOT of money to make. You can see much of it on screen. Thomas Newman brings a great score to the film, although its hard not to when delving into the rousing series of notes required for any Bond soundtrack. Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” goes down as probably the worst Bond song since that ruddy awful Madonna effort. Seriously, get Adele back, pay her whatever it takes. She’s the heir to Shirley Bassey’s multi-picture throne. Compounding the issues is it’s marriage to a Hentai-tentacle porn-inspired opening sequence.

After four movies Daniel Craig has certainty put to an end to the automatic assertion that Sean Connery is the best Bond. Craig plays it acerbic, brutally charming, but weary, burdened by his past and yet unrelenting. But please, for the love of God let him wear suits that are a little less tight; it may look good propping up a bar, but when scaling buildings or in a fist fight a little give is necessary. The Bond girls can sadly be summed up as underused (Bellucci) and underwritten (Seydoux). What is refreshing is that there is now an established support network around Bond in the forms of Ben Whishaw as Q, Ralph Fiennes as M, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Each are smart and capable agents themselves and ground the film in reality as well as inject some of the lighter moments with that wry British wit. Waltz is as good as you’d expect, hamming it up well, and Dave Bautista follows the old-school Bond villain rules as Mr Hinx, a menacing presence that again should have been used more.

So, where to go from here? Spectre feels like a natural conclusion to the Craig era, a journey into the sunset after completing the assembly of the fully realized Bond we first glimpsed back in 1962. Craig is reportedly contracted for a fifth film. Ignoring the recent singular interview in which he cast doubt on his return, from a narrative point of view it would be interesting to see how they pickup from this ‘happy ending’ to return him to the fold. Were they to bring in a new actor, a soft reboot would untangle themselves from such things. An ongoing theme of the more recent Bond films have been the justification of the 00-programme and his existence. There is an overarching need to justify the existence of Bond in this modern technological era. It continues unabated in Spectre even after the way it was eloquently answered with Judi Dench’s address to the parliamentary committee in Skyfall. Its been a while since Bond has had the full backing and faith of the British government. Nobody does it better, so get behind him and let the series build now rather than trying to continually establish his worth – he does that repeatedly so no discussion is needed. It’s time to just let Bond be Bond.

Spectre is old school Bond no matter how well dressed up it may seem. A jet-setting adventure that rolls out every trick in the Bond playbook, wrapped up in sumptuous cinematography and set design. An enjoyable romp but a flawed one. It does not match the emotional depth of previous entries, and a meandering and underwritten plot means the Bond-moments are more of a cliché than a nod to history. It’s unabashedly entertaining, Bond fans especially will watch through a rose tinted martini glass and enjoy the hell out of it, but in pure cinematic terms, Spectre is something of a misfire.

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the author

Originally harkening from the British Isles, Jon was exiled to Texas back in 2007 to help conceal his identity as a love child of the Queen. Jon has both embraced and been embraced by the wonderful city of Austin, a place which has only further enhanced his interest in film. A regular at SXSW and Fantastic Fest, Jon is also a member of the Austin Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society. By day he is a researcher at UT Austin but he also has an involvement with (and deep appreciation for) the local brewing industry. In short, his passions are cinema, science, craft beer and writing about himself in the third person. Twitter: @Texas_Jon