Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by a new James Bond movie in this era, or any era for that matter, is the push and pull by the film to offer a sense of timeliness while maintaining an air of timelessness. Over the now 24 official films in the franchise, one can observe a progression of themes coinciding with real-world happenings—from Cold War anxieties to economic and energy fears to the costs of waging a modern war on terrorism. The films have managed to include this subtext while also serving up enough spectacle and seduction to leave us somewhat stirred, if not entirely shaken. This constant balancing act from film-to-film has certainly impacted the last four Bond entries with Daniel Craig at the helm, and years from now we may regard them as part of one of the more fascinating eras in the franchise. This consideration is important because Spectre is a deliberate continuation (if not also a finale) to the groundwork laid in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. This may appeal to the most ardent of Bond-lovers, but ultimately it causes the film’s undoing.
Spectre opens in the streets of Mexico City as we follow 007 during the city’s Day of the Dead celebration. The opening shot is a captivating, four-minute unbroken take as he follows his mark through scores of costumed revelers who all share a taste for the macabre. Between Bond’s own skeletal outfit and the film’s opening epigraph: “The dead are alive,” director Sam Mendes and the litany of writers with screenplay credit on the film seem adamant on shrouding the film with a morbid chill. In fact, in the 50+ year history of the franchise, the four Bond films starring Daniel Craig have produced the most death-haunted version of the character. By caring less about the gadgets, cars, and impeccably pressed suits and more about the flesh and blood beneath it all, these films have aimed to find what makes Bond human. Furthermore, by questioning the relevance of the idea of James Bond, the series and the character manage to soldier on as a reinvention of the times. As Agent Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, returning) says in Skyfall, “Old dog, new tricks.”
When it comes to Spectre, once again the necessity and significance of the MI-6 program is brought into question. Ralph Fiennes’ M returns to defend Her Majesty’s Secret Service from a senior intelligence official (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott), who wants to scrap the program and replace it with a global surveillance initiative uniting the world’s superpowers. It’s the kind of scheme that would make Edward Snowden and Julian Assange lose their lunch, and even M describes it as, “George Orwell’s worst nightmare.” Those who have grown weary of the omniscient intelligence subplot (see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) should not be entirely dismayed. Our debonair double-0 is off the reservation and disobeying orders (for the umpteenth time) to investigate a lead into a mysterious criminal organization that may force him to dig up ghosts from his own past. This time (and not unlike every other Craig Bond film) it’s personal.
In one of the more blatantly ham-fisted uses of retconning since X-Men: Days of Future Past, we learn that the eponymous boys club of geopolitical wrongdoing—complete with board meetings and presentations of last quarter’s results in human trafficking—is behind all the nefarious plots of the last three movies and is led by a man named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Walz, in a delivery not far from his turn in The Green Hornet), a figure from Bond’s own shadowy youth. Of course the more troubling aspect is the awful truth that even our most long-lasting and beloved action franchises are not immune to the need to establish a broad continuity and expanded universe made ubiquitous by the various comic-book adaptations of the last 10+ years, especially in the Marvel Studios world of Easter Eggheaded-ness. Spectre ventures so far down the rabbit hole—or perhaps up its own—that an excessive portion of the story hinges on a plot twist that only pays off for the subsection of the audience that is thoroughly educated on the decades-long history of James Bond movies. The producers, screenwriters, and director should not be faulted for asserting that the 007 lexicon is among the most sacred pop-cultural texts, but the series’ over-reliance on nostalgia (there are cars, outfits, locations, and fight scenes in Spectre that nod to past installments) has unwittingly crept past the subtext and made its way into the forefront of the narrative, much to the film’s detriment.
The film doubles down on this gambit by pairing it with the most interesting aspect of the Daniel Craig era: the duality of James Bond. Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) presents a number of mirror images of 007, often at a plot point when the duties of an agent with a license to kill clash with the emotions of a man whose history is marked by loss and suffering. It only makes sense that Spectre tries to deconstruct the character to its most basic parts: the man and the myth. If the figurative examination of his psyche wasn’t enough, at one point Bond literally has holes drilled into his brain during a torture scene. The point becomes belabored when Oberhauser traps James in a life-or-death scenario intended to force him to choose between his two halves in an overstretched coda (in an already overstuffed movie at 2 hours 28 minutes) that resembles the finale of Batman Forever in the worst ways. Whenever the film takes a step forward in the examination of its hero’s iconography it takes two steps back by the countless boxes it feels compelled to check.
The way Spectre concludes does pose questions about Daniel Craig’s involvement in future episodes, and his performance is one of the more divisive elements of the movie. Craig has been the man for the job of being put through the emotional ringer, and he sure knows how to wear a form-fitting Tom Ford suit. His performance is far from his youthful turn in Casino Royale almost ten years ago, but something different is being asked of him this time around. Craig manages to match his typical brooding with a weary, aged resolve, even when reacting to the occasional attempts of light humor built into the script. Although audiences were likely spoiled with the compelling romance between him and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, Craig does his best to rekindle that fire with Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. Seydoux seems born to be a signature Bond girl, with the kind of beauty and acting chops that hearken back to the classic Sean Connery era of Bond films. What Seydoux and Craig cannot overcome is what little they are given to work with in a relatively condensed amount of screen-time together, and it certainly could be considered—among so many other shortcomings in Spectre—a missed opportunity. But more important in our age of blockbuster cinema is the next opportunity, so as long as 007 can maintain its hold on our moviegoing sweet-tooth (in spite of itself), we will meet the end-credits message, “James Bond will return,” with anticipation.