A pattern is beginning to emerge with regards to the Daniel Craig-led James Bond films. And it’s an unfortunate one. For every new high in the broader series (Casino Royale, Skyfall), there must be a lesser follow-up (Quantum of Solace, and now SPECTRE). While Quantum of Solace was an attempt to try something radically different for a Bond film, though, SPECTRE‘s failures are of a different sort. SPECTRE wants to be too many different kinds of Bond films, and in the process it never fully succeeds at any of them, with some potentially inflecting damage onto the rest of Craig’s run as Bond.
It’s important to remember that, prior to 2006’s Casino Royale, there wasn’t a lot of continuity to the series. There were certainly characters and tropes that recurred, and a few incidents might be referenced in future films, but the films largely work as stand-alone features. Casino Royale was a hard reboot for the series, though. It placed James Bond at the beginning of his career as 007, and told a story about Bond becoming Bond, basically. Rather than telling a different story, though, follow-up Quantum of Solace picked up in the aftermath of Casino Royale‘s final scene, and showcased Bond working out his anger over Casino Royale‘s ending. Skyfall pushed in different directions, reflecting on the idea of Bond in the 21st century and looking back to his childhood. The common thread with all three films, though, is that these are the stories that shape James Bond, the man, into James Bond, the legend. With Skyfall‘s reintroduction of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), plus a new M (Ralph Fiennes), the ending hinted that the series was finally ready to show the legend.
And SPECTRE does. Kind of. While he still knows how to throw a punch, the Bond of SPECTRE is a bit smoother than in the previous films. He’s seducing women and fighting bad guys in any number of foreign places. Much of the film’s first two-thirds pay homage to classic Bond scenes, such as the train fight in From Russia with Love or the mountain lodge that evokes the one from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s not exactly a return to the days of Sean Connery, let alone Roger Moore, but it seems like an appropriate version of a lighter Bond that still suits Daniel Craig’s take on the character. The film also brings M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner (Rory Kinnear) in with a bit more frequency than normal, giving Bond familiar support throughout the film.
The reintroduction of SPECTRE into the Bond universe also suggests a return to those days. SPECTRE’s presence in the early James Bond films can’t be understated – of the first seven Bond films, six include SPECTRE. For legal reasons, SPECTRE hasn’t been used in a proper Bond film since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, with leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s appearance in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only being hinted at without actually using the name. The films have made due with other adversaries since then, but none have had anywhere near the impact of SPECTRE. With the modern state of illegal activities and terrorism taking hold in organizations that aren’t confined to national borders, the idea of having an international criminal organization to pit Bond against on a regular basis is loaded with potential.
Unfortunately, the way SPECTRE is placed into the modern Bond world forces SPECTRE to become yet another continuation of the James Bond origin story, now spanning four films. The film takes key moments from the three previous films (namely, the deaths of Vesper Lynd and M) and, through SPECTRE leader Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), states that all of the villains in play (Le Chiffre, Mr. White, Quantum, Silva) were working under SPECTRE the whole time. More specifically, Oberhauser claims to be the “author” of Bond’s pain. There’s no explanation for how SPECTRE is involved. It’s just stated. Repeatedly.
Oberhauser does offer a why, though, and it’s possibly the most mind-numbingly stupid reason imaginable. What’s worse, it’s set in a sequence that is utterly ridiculous even by the standards of the overall Bond series. Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the main Bond girl for the film, easily find SPECTRE’s base in the middle of nowhere. They arrive at a train station, and Oberhauser sends a car to pick them up. There’s little in the way of tension – the characters all just seem to accept whatever happens next at this point. It leads to two connected revelations, both of which I’ll discuss separately. Needless to say, spoiler alert.
SPECTRE also decides to rehash a part of Skyfall in the process. Namely, is there a place for James Bond in the 21st century? This time, the question’s modified to bring in drone warfare and modern intelligence gathering. The subplot feels largely unnecessary for most of the film, and the question isn’t answered; it’s just fed into the main storyline to help create an end for the film.
As far as performances go, Craig is still in solid command of his role here. There’s less for him to work with this time around, but he takes to some of the new (for him) aspects of the character convincingly. It helps that Fiennes, Whishaw, Harris and Kinnear all return from Skyfall, and over these two films, they’ve built a working relationship that’s stronger than we’ve seen in past iterations of these characters.
The new actors are a bit more mixed. Seydoux is solid as Madeleine, but she’s not served well by the story. SPECTRE seems to want to make Madeleine more important than the average Bond girl, in the way Vesper was, but the relationship is more forced here. Waltz, meanwhile, seems like a natural choice for a Bond villain. Oberhauser is largely relegated to the last third of the film, though, and even when he does come on screen, there’s little to distinguish the character from any other non-Tarantino Waltz performance in recent memory. When Waltz isn’t around, the main villainous presence is Mr. Hinx, played with barely an uttered word by Dave Bautista. He’s physically imposing, recalling classic Bond characters like Jaws, but his exit is all too sudden.
It’s easy to see what SPECTRE was intended to be: a nod to the legacy of the early Bond films that drew the story of the previous three films to a close. By the way the film mangles a key part of the legacy, though, SPECTRE instead drags down the rest of the Daniel Craig run of this series. If the team behind the film had chosen to either focus on creating a modern take on classic Bond or continuing the origin story – maybe even splitting the two ideas into two separate films – some of what’s here could have worked. Possibly. But they didn’t, and the result is a film that has plenty of fun moments, but ultimately feels like a letdown from this run of the series.