The latest instalment of this seemingly endless movie franchise, in which Daniel Craig makes his fourth appearance as super spy James Bond, is one that seems to very much reflect the sensibilities of director Sam Mendes. Far less action oriented than previous films – although there are still some ludicrously over-the-top sequences – Spectre is the talkiest Bond film I can recall. Whether it is the fact that the previous 26 movies in the Bond franchise have drained the well of ideas, or simply because Mendes wanted to make something a little more esoteric, it’s hard to know. However, the finished product is something that can be a slog at times with long periods in which nothing much happens. Extended sequences of dialogue-driven scenes are fine as long as the script provides the various characters with material that is engaging and insightful. I mean, Mendes’ best films (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) have been rich in fantastic dialogue and verbal stoushes between characters for which they have been rightly recognised and remain highly regarded. Despite the best of intentions – seemingly to elevate the Bond movie from campy to credible – the film fails to fire.
Whilst, traditionally, Bond films have really been a series of loosely connected set-pieces in which the debonair hero jumps, fights, flies, drives, shoots or roots his way out of trouble, plonking the action clichés of the day into beautiful locations filled with beautiful people, interspersed with corny jokes, double entendres and a bombastic musical score, the Craig-era films have seen the emergence of a mythology surrounding the super spy that seems to be in keeping with a formula used with great success by Marvel in their myriad comic book adaptations. There is a certain logic to such an approach given that James Bond is, ostensibly, a superhero whose costume just happens to be a designer-label suit rather than a garish spandex ensemble. It also works to an extent because Craig is by far the most serious of the Bond incarnations, a far cry from the likes of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan in his earnest pursuit of evildoers. However, when the action lulls, the film becomes somewhat stagnant as it delves into Bond’s past, revisiting characters and events from previous films and his life pre-007. To make matters worse, this is the longest Bond film ever and that becomes patently obvious as it becomes bogged down in back story that, to be honest, isn’t that interesting. Perhaps, more to the point, it just isn’t delivered in an interesting way.
Opening amid the Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico, the traditional pre-credits sequence is every bit as spectacular as we have come to expect. On this occasion, Bond manages to destroy an entire building before punching-on inside a helicopter that is spiralling out of control above a square crowded with revellers; all before Sam Smith’s theme sing kicks into gear. When Bond infiltrates a secret meeting and uncovers the existence of an organisation known as Spectre, he seeks the help of a not-long-for-this-world old nemesis in Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and ultimately his daughter Madeline Swann (Leah Seydoux) in a bid to crush Spectre. Of course, through it all, Bond defies any orders issued by M (Ralph Fiennes) and relies upon the good graces of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to provide him the administrative and technical support that he needs. There are a couple of other moments of mayhem, including a fight sequence on a train in which Bond takes on the physically imposing Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista), but this is an otherwise subdued entry into the Bond catalogue. Even the sex (which has never really been that salacious to begin with) has been toned down here; neither his brief dalliance with the widow of his Mexico City adversary (Monica Bellucci) nor his inevitable bedding of Madeline are remotely titillating, which is fine except for the fact that the Bond persona is built, in large part, around his lusty liaisons.
Bellucci is grossly under-used as Lucia, while Seydoux does the best she can with the material at her disposal. Christoph Waltz is suitably sinister as the nefarious Blofeld (the eighth screen incarnation of the character), whose beef with Bond is drawn from a family circumstance as much as the latter’s efforts to thwart Blofeld’s attempt to seize control the world’s surveillance technologies. There are many recognisable elements here that mark this very much as a James Bond adventure, but the attempts to humanise our hero only serve to strangle the life out the film. Not the worst Bond by any stretch, but it is certainly a few rungs below the benchmark of recent times that was 2006’s Casino Royale.