Much has been made, since he took up the mantle, of how Daniel Craig has rejuvenated Bond, bringing Ian Fleming’s super spy kicking and scowling into the 21st century. And, yes, the series has felt fresher. It was there in the hot-blooded callousness of (the underrated) Quantum Of Solace, and in the more engrossing, personal approach of Skyfall. Yet, at the same time, more than before, Bond seems under threat of being marked obsolete.
It’s a concern at the forefront of Spectre, the series’ 24th official entry, which picks up very shortly after Skyfall. Following a fantastic pre-credits sequence in Mexico (which flaunts a Touch Of Evil style continuous take at the get-go), we return to MI6 in a state of flux. Bond has been removed from active duty (again) and a smarmy new kid on the block, Denbigh (Andrew Scott), is threatening to replace the 00 program with, essentially, some robots and a shiny building.
Bond, however, is rather more concerned with a cryptic video message from his dear former M (Judi Dench), which sets him wandering blindly into a secret mission, uncovering, by accident, a secret, shady criminal enterprise with a penchant for Eyes Wide Shut style theatrical meetings (except, you know, less horny). From there the story wanders evermore laboriously, forcing a somewhat unconvincing new romantic connection into his life in the form of Léa Seydoux’s under-served Dr Swann, before eventually – some 100 minutes into the picture – arriving at something approaching a point.
It is at this late stage that Christoph Waltz’ bad guy Franz Oberhauser is given some precious time to shine, gleefully explaining his super-emo plot at the first conceivable opportunity and lo, Spectre truly overplays it’s hand as the most throwback outing for Craig. For all the series’ attempts to modernise, this latest instalment is surprisingly retrograde.
So aside from the bought and paid for latent misogyny, we have a fistful of Moore-era comedic asides, a fanciful return for the ejector car seat, a beefy henchman in the form of Dave Bautista’s razor thumbnailed Mr. Hinx (complete with deja vu inducing train fight – he’s no Jaws), preposterously elaborate torture devices, and, to cap it all, the most gloriously ridiculous evil base in quite some time (albeit one that’s really, really, really in need of better safety precautions).
Suddenly Bond DOES feel obsolete. Where Skyfall nodded craftily to past glories as part of the series’ 50th anniversary victory lap, Spectre uses the old routines as a crutch. The film has the veneer of the new by fortune of being filmed in the most contemporary ways possible, but there’s nothing especially surprising or modern about Bond in the 21st century and the 148 minute running time here is totally egregious.
Craig does his usual sneering throughout the piece, and while it’s clear he rather enjoys the additional comic asides, the rest of the time this feels like a man servicing a contract. Evidently conscious that this is likely to be Craig’s swansong for the franchise, the quartet (warning!) of credited writers have attempted to tie together all four of his appearances into a cohesive whole here. While this could’ve paid dividends, the chosen method feels too thin, absurd even. As Waltz reveals himself as, ugh, the “author” of all Bond’s pain, and as his Daft Punk reject backing dancers twist inexplicably like showroom dummies in a wind tunnel, it all feels like an eleventh hour addition. It doesn’t convince.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that after so much ambling around, Spectre can’t deliver a payoff. The finale employs the hoariest old Bond cliché of all; the big ticking bomb clock. This is the second big spy franchise this year to tailor it’s ending around antics in London after Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and the second to fumble the routine.
If this all sounds rather downcast then rest assured it all depends on your perspective. Bond is a gargantuan brand, so of course at this stage it’s going to trade on its successes. If you want the same old shit, rest assured; you’re gonna get it. Repetitive as the series is, it has proven able to exist in different shades. Gritty and thuggish, emotionally engaging or camp and knowing. Spectre doesn’t know which it is, and so tilts at all windmills. It is, rather, like a kite in a hurricane. I thoroughly enjoyed Skyfall, but Spectre – actually only 5 minutes longer – feels interminable at times, purely through it’s meandering listlessness.
It’s a mixed report as far as the supporting players are concerned. Ralph Fiennes shows some clout stepping into the M role, while Ben Wishaw is settling into Q very comfortably. Monica Bellucci’s mysterious widow Lucia Sciarra, however, is grievously underused, cast aside from the narrative after just a couple of scenes. In fact, the women all round get short shrift this time. But then, this is a story about boys and their fathers. And if Sam Smith’s theme can be called a supporting player, here’s hoping he never gets a call back.
Spectre is not a disaster. Not by a long shot. But it is Craig’s weakest entry, purely because of its bloat and penchant for riding on the series’ finer coattails. Channeling further demons from Bond’s past after Skyfall‘s roaring critical and commercial success doing the same has proven too tempting to resist, understandably, but something just isn’t firing right this time. But despite my complaints and criticisms, as a piece of grandstanding escapism this is still, well, fun. Sporadically. Hell, it’s worth seeing for that pre-credits bit alone. But as a whole, with its Swiss cheese plotting, it’s hard to imagine revisiting this one when there are enough better, shorter Bonds to turn back to.