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Review: For Better or Worse, Spectre Is Quintessential Bond

2 1/2 out of 5 Stars

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2015 seems to be turning into the movie year of spy movies. Since the start of the year, we’ve had Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, Man from Uncle, and now Bridge of Spies. And now, we have a movie starring that definitive movie spy, James Bond. The problem with all these other movies coming out before Spectre, the 24th Bond movie, is I’m already starting to get spy fatigue…and a lot of those movies did the genre better, and are taking an approach that at least makes the film stand out from the pack. Spectre is a solid and often enjoyable movie, but it doesn’t distinguish itself from other Bond films or any of this year’s other spy offerings.

This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Bond, and the franchise’s new, modern approach is to do like Marvel and string these into one, linked story over multiple movies. That is a fine idea, but it starts putting a lot of pressure on audiences to remember characters and details that audiences haven’t been trained to look for so carefully in Bond films. I really like Casino Royale, I liked Skyfall but found it overrated, and thought Quantum of Solace was underrated. And Spectre is probably going to fall right in the middle of Craig Bond films. Not great, not bad, often enjoyable, too long, and generally uneven. If you love Bond movies, you’ll probably enjoy Spectre. But if you are indifferent or lack true affection for the franchise as a whole, this probably isn’t the movie which will convince you otherwise. Not just because it returns to a lot of the Bond elements the other three films got away from when trying to bring it into the 21st century, but apparently directly references other Bond films (I was told this fact by a bigger Bond fan). And there is a pretty clear mix of the many different Bond personas Craig superseded.

The first part of the movie has Craig being a bit more Roger Moore than a Sean Connery type. He’s still often the brutal guy he was in the other films, but visually asked to be a bit more comic and detached. He isn’t as corny as Moore could be (I say this as an unapologetic Moore fan), but there is more humor at the start of this film than I expected…this isn’t a comedy, but it has some well-earned laughs. Up to a point. About an hour into the movie, the energy and wit we saw gets lost, and the movie becomes unpleasantly serious. There are still some strong action sequences, but they start to feel a bit less original (with the exception of a really good bit on a train), and consistently too long that make it difficult to keep track of characters and geography of a set. The movie suffers from having its most visually interesting sequences at the top of the film.

The opening, pre-credit section in Mexico, during The Day of the Dead ceremony, is one of the best in Bond history. It is visually and thematically interesting, has a sense of humor, and builds a real danger at points. There is also a driving scene which is as thrilling as anything we’ve seen this year. But by the third driving sequence with a plane, it starts to feel like they are unnecessarily padding the length of this movie. Bizarre considering the movie is two and half hours long…and feels every minute. Getting out of the screening, the first thing a friend and I commented on was how unbearably long it felt during the second half. The movie always looks gorgeous (minus unnecessary shaky cam), but the fast pace is gone by the time Lea Seydoux is introduced as Madeleine Swann.

So let’s get into the new “Bond Girls” in this film, a term I think we are all tired of, especially considering what a big deal they made over having Monica Bellucci in the movie at the age of 51. Unfortunately, she is in the movie for only 7 minutes, and is only on screen to be saved, give some expository information, and have sex with Bond (we can assume). I’m surprised they decided to even announce her in the cast, rather than simply allow it to be an unexpected cameo. But, while she is basically underused in the movie, she has real chemistry with Craig-although I hate when Bond pushes women up against walls by their shoulders to kiss them.

Lea Seydoux on the other hand has no chemistry whatsoever with Craig, despite the franchise making an effort to treat the relationship as something real and romantic. Compared to the chemistry and passion Craig’s Bond had with Ava Green’s Vesper in Casino Royale, it is hard to imagine Bond willing getting into a relationship with her. Lea Seydoux is a fine actress, but she isn’t a consistent one, and she quickly seems bored by the action she’s required to sell. This is only made worse by the still vivid memory of Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, who is one of the breakout stars of the year. Far from the damsel in distress Bond Girl Lea Seydoux willingly allows herself to become, Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust was one of the best examples of where the Bond movies needed to go to become more interesting to modern audiences without completely dismissing the formula. Madeleine Swann is a massive setback for this series.

Craig is still a very good Bond, and seems even more confident than when he first took the role, willing to be a bit more of the charmer at points than just the brute he was marketed when first taking the part. He embraces the suits and flashy gadgets a bit more, and seems at least initially, to be enjoying Bond’s playboy persona. He still excels at the action, but adds that suave quality to make it a little more fun and dimensional. Naomie Harris is still a welcome addition as Eve Moneypenny, even if the obligation to put her behind the desk after introducing her as an agent in Skyfall is another step back…they spent a lot of money training an agent considering how they’re using her. And she and Bond are once again flirtatious, only in this film the affection seems mutual (and she gets to have her own sex life).

Ben Whishaw is the highlight among Bond’s agency comrades, as the chemistry between he and Craig is stronger than all the other relationships Bond has in the movie, especially now that Judi Dench has left the franchise. Ralph Fiennes just proved himself a fine comic actor in Grand Budapest Hotel, but his M is bland and boring. Christoph Waltz is generally fine, but doesn’t have the glee we know he could if the movie didn’t become so serious and humorless towards the end. Waltz is that rare actor who can go big without losing the character; why use an actor who has already played Bond-esque villains, only to hold him back in an actual Bond movie? Likewise, Andrew Scott is fine, but the character feels as if he’s been added to this specific Bond series too late. Dave Bautista is a classic Bond henchman, and he’s really, really good at being a silent brute.

Another thing worth mentioning is the film’s credit sequence. I have to admit, I was laughing pretty hard in my seat (as were two friends) at how absurd some of the visuals are. It may be the silliest in the franchise’s history. Seeing serious Daniel Craig standing without a shirt, surrounded by naked women having their bodies wrapped around tentacles (yep, there is an octopus reference in this movie), and then images of characters dying from the other movies is best described as “undignified.” And that is probably the reason this often decent movie is so problematic. I’m all for having a lighter Bond who can enjoy being a spy. It’s the problem with Sam Mendes clearly wanting to take an approach which becomes pretentious, especially when it lacks the character development and relationships to justify that ultra-serious approach it eventually falls into. Mendes has turned this into a soapy Bond movie, rather than clever Bond. And that makes for bad Bond. By the way, I’m not a fan of the song “Writing’s on the Wall”…sorry Sam Smith.

Now, my feelings do not reflect those of everyone I saw this with. I saw this movie with three other people. I feel confident saying that three of us were unsatisfied and underwhelmed…and one of us really liked the movie. Now, I should also add, the individual who liked the most, loves Bond movies. So, there could be a significant divide for this movie. Spectre returns to the clichés and conventions of classic Bond from yesterday. And while that isn’t satisfying for a moviegoer indifferent to Bond movies, I can completely understand the comfort food qualities of seeing a more traditional Bond movie.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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