Review: Spectre

This article was originally published to The National Student on 29th October 2015

It may not seem like it, but in the three years since Skyfall graciously fell upon audiences, there’s been something of a sea change in the spy movie genre.

Where Casino Royale saw Bond catching up to Jason Bourne and the hardened, realistic aesthetic of those films, Skyfall was an introduction of classic Bond tropes to the Daniel Craig-era of modernity and roughness. Craig has proven that he can act his way around the nasty elements of a character several decades past his time.

It’s his charisma and the relative complexity that he brings to Bond which allows Spectre to be as brilliantly engaging as it is. However, just like the nature of the lead 00-agent – that he makes international murder personal in the age of drone warfare – something about Spectre just doesn’t sit right today.

After an incident in Mexico City in which Bond chasing and killing an assassin brings outrage to MI6, Bond is suspended from his position. However, whilst M (Ralph Fiennes) struggles against modern pressures from Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the Chief of the Intelligence Services, to scrap the 00-Program, Bond ventures to Italy alone to trace the assassin’s organisation. Meeting old enemies and making new acquaintances in Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), Bond comes face to face with a organisation called SPECTRE, and the familiar face at the top of the chain, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).

Sam Mendes returns to the director’s chair after the phenomenally successful Skyfall, making this one of the hardest jobs he’s likely ever taken. Most people look at Skyfall as being the peak of Craig’s Bond era already, because it perfectly bridged the gap between the old and the new. What Mendes is trying to do in Spectre is very similar, but on a whole other level – Bond is truly Bondian again, facing off against an international megalomaniac with a huge amount of resources, a physically menacing henchman (played by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista), over the top torture, even a desert-based super-lair.

Yet the plan of Oberhauser and the titular organisation is rooted in very modern ideas about surveillance and big information. This is really good stuff, and makes for an interesting discussion about the place of Bond, as both a character and a method, in the modern-day. However, it’s been done already in the last two years, and better.

Just look to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which engages in as much serious storytelling with equally fantastical situations and comic-book characters. Even earlier this year, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation saw an anti-IMF being fought, by classic spies with classic practical stuntwork, and a good deal more ostentatious fun.

And forget about comparing it to Kingsman – as much as Spectre indulges in witty one-liners and gags (often brilliantly so) and the aforementioned Bond tropes, Mendes is too stylish and too respectful a director to either follow-through or successfully subvert these moments. The biggest explosion ever recorded on screen is in this film. Yet it’s played out with a cool, near sub-zero detachment. It also feels a tad too slow – where Skyfall rocketed you along so you couldn’t pay attention to the bonkers plotting, Spectre comfortably flows through its two and half hour runtime. It’s rarely boring, yet outside of its action sequences there isn’t much urgency.

Yet they are some of the best action sequences we’ve seen all year, with the confident opening in the Day of the Dead parade sitting easily next to Skyfall’s. A car chase through Rome combines gags with thrills in brilliant fashion. The finale brings the film home to London with less originality than Rogue Nation did but equal panache, and a mid-way train fight with Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is an all-timer.

All the while, Craig holds his own as Bond, as the supporting cast vary in ability – Christoph Waltz starts strong and very literally shadowy, yet becomes generic towards the end. As much as Lea Seydoux’s Swann is a capable and tenacious figure, with believable chemistry with Bond, the script completely undersells their relationship. However Ben Whishaw’s Q displays a flair for natty jumpers and a well-timed barb, Scott makes for a complex and composed secondary antagonist, and Fiennes lends every scene gravitas and wit.

There’s a wealth of confidence in the technical aspects of Spectre, and no shortage of high-minded goals. Yet after a year of truly fun as well as thoughtful, espionage-related adventures, this marginally more serious treatment of Bond doesn’t land as well as you’d want.

Spectre (2015), directed by Sam Mendes, is released in the UK by Sony Pictures. Certificate 12A. 

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