Movie Review: ‘SPECTRE’

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Plot:  Picking up shortly after the events of SkyfallSPECTRE finds the indomitable MI-6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a mission to kill a man at the request of the recently deceased M (Judi Dench).  However, the mission leads Bond down an unexpected path that holds the key to his past.  All roads point to a nefarious group known only as SPECTRE.

Review:  The curious thing about being a film critic is that sometimes you find yourself looking at a movie differently in hindsight.  For whatever reason, sometimes it takes awhile for an opinion to ferment in your mind.  In retrospect I occasionally find myself rethinking a film either positively or negatively after the passage of a few days.

Unfortunately for SPECTRE it’s the latter.

While I originally walked out of the theater feeling the film was a strong 8/10, upon further reflection I’ve come to believe that there are some glaring flaws to SPECTRE that made me change my rating.

SPECTRE kind of falls into that The Dark Knight Rises or Back to the Future category, in that the previous film Skyfall was such a critical and commercial success, that there was bound to be a letdown.  I just didn’t think it would be this much.  In a similar fashion SPECTRE suffers because it’s a direct sequel to Skyfall, just as Quantum of Solace was a direct sequel to Casino Royale.  The results are similar in that SPECTRE falls flat.

The problem begins first and foremost with the script.  Reports had the budget of SPECTRE in the $250 to $300 million range, making it one of the most expensive action films of all time and certainly the most expensive Bond film.  Perhaps some of that money would have been better spent towards the screenplay.  One of the things that’s made the Daniel Craig era so successful (and something I love) is the darker, edgier tone.  That motif was present even in Quantum of Solace.  SPECTRE COMPLETELY betrays that established precedent and harkens back to the corny Pierce Brosnan days.  There’s corny jokes (a button on an Aston Martin that says “atmosphere” plays jazz music), there’s the tired trope of the ejector seat, a convenient fall where Bond literally drops four stories onto a cushy chair, and not one but TWO countdown clocks in the third act.

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Additionally, the dialogue is often times stilted and awkward.  I mean who says, “I’m the author of all your pain”?  Ugghh.  And the character development is extremely lacking.  Monica Belluci’s character Lucia Sciarra (the widow of the man M asked Bond to kill) lasts about as long as a cup of coffee.  Belluci gets just enough screen time for Bond to bang her against the wall.  Also not for nothing, I know Bond is a misogynist but did we really need a film where he takes advantage of two vulnerable women after they lose loved ones?  Craig has done an admirable job over the previous three films creating depth to the character.  I’m shocked at how much these two separate sexual incidents regress Bond.

Another problematic aspect of SPECTRE  is…well…the plot.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cohesiveness.  The actual organization, SPECTRE, seems to function solely as a plot device to tie all of Craig’s previous Bond villains together.  Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christof  Waltz) serves as the titular villain bent on revenge because of…well a pretty lame reason that I won’t spoil.  Let’s  just say the two knew each other in a past life and Franz has Daddy issues.  To his credit Waltz does a commendable job as Blofeld, although admittedly his character is pretty one-dimensional.  There’s a torture scene where I half expected Waltz to grow a mustache and twirl it.

Concurrently, there’s a subplot where MI-6 is merging with MI-5.  Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) serves as a cypher for every bureaucratic stuffed shirt portrayed on-screen.  He’s also the head of the Joint Intelligence Service, a group that seeks to band nine countries’ intelligence services across the world under one banner.  The key to the future is in monitoring.  SPECTRE even features something called Smart Blood, little nanobots that can transmit where you are anywhere in the world.  If this sounds like a thinly veiled poke at the NSA that’s because it is.  The sub-plot reeks of opportunism.

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Although I typically consider Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) one of our great modern directors and since Skyfall was such a well done film, I figured he would again hit another home run.  SPECTRE unfortunately is a double at best.  Reports indicate that Mendes was somewhat forced into this movie and it shows.  Editing is sub par and the film itself while it starts out strong and finishes strong, drags severely in the  middle.  I will admit that the cinematography is stunning.  Hoyte van Hoytema captures the action sequences perfectly whether it’s in Mexico city or the snowy slopes of Austria. Regardless, I wish Mendes would have opted out of this film entirely because as awesome as Skyfall was, SPECTRE kind of taints my memory now.

Another egregious mistake was casting Lea Seydoux as a Bond girl.  Her portrayal of psychologist Dr. Madeleine Swann is atrocious.  Swann vacillates between hating Bond, to saying she loves him, to saying she can’t stay with him because of his spy life, to then changing her mind again and deciding she really wants to be with him.  Swann represents the stereotype of the hysterical woman who can’t make up her mind and the damsel in distress who needs rescue. It’s even more disingenuous when you consider Swann is one of the best in her field.  Swann comes across as merely surface eye candy.  What an enormously far cry from Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

Then of course there is Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  By all accounts SPECTRE was a grueling shoot, with Craig going so far as to say he’d rather slit his wrists than play James Bond again.  Despite the ending (you’ll understand when you see the film) Craig is contracted for one final film and I do believe he’ll come back.  For what it’s worth I hope he does. Despite how much I love Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond, I couldn’t help but feel that he wasn’t as engaged as previous films, even Quantum of Solace. It’s possible he’s getting bored with the character but even so fans, myself included, have come to expect a certain level of quality to Craig’s performances and the spark just wasn’t there this time.

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I realize I’m painting kind of dismal picture of SPECTRE and while yes there are quite a bit of flaws, it’s still a relatively entertaining movie.  In fact I almost want to give it two separate ratings, one as an action movie and one as a James Bond movie.  The action set pieces are fantastic and some of the best ever in the history of the James Bond franchise.  Dave Bautista shines as Blofeld henchman Mr. Hinx and Ben Whishaw’s Q is as slick as ever.

Unfortunately great action sequences and strong performances from a few minor characters does not a good James Bond film make.  The caretakers of the franchise need to do some serious course correcting in the next film, with or without Daniel Craig.  They also need to pick a director who’s emotionally invested in the franchise as well.  Otherwise we’ll end up with another tepid Bond film that ends up being a cheap caricature of its own franchise.

Bond fans everywhere deserve better than SPECTRE.

My rating:  6/10

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