Well, here we are. The most recently released Bond film, and the end of the canonical EON Bond films. Now, this Bondathon isn’t quite finished, I have some ancillary stuff to discuss over the next couple of days, but this is the last real Bond film that I’ll be discussing. And, unfortunately, it’s not quite the a high note to end things on. Obviously this franchise will continue for the foreseeable future, and there will surely be better films in the series, but for now this is all we’ve got, and it’s not one I’m a huge fan of. I discussed this in the Live and Let Die article, but before embarking on this Bondathon I had only written about two Bond flicks. A silly and poorly written article about Live and Let Die, and a rambling reaction to Spectre when it came out. And I wasn’t a huge fan. Now, after finally revisiting Spectre for the first time I’ll say right up top that I still feel that the film is very middle of the road. It’s not a bad film, or even a bad Bond film. It’s just very, very mediocre. Which is a shame, because this was an extremely highly anticipated film. After Skyfall everyone was infatuated with the Bond series again, and it seemed like the stage was set for something really special. Skyfall ends with MI6 back up and running, Q and Moneypenny reestablished, the new M in a perfect office, and Bond ready to go on a mission. Everything was as it should be, and it seemed like we were poised to get a classic Bond film, with Bond getting a mission from M, not going rogue, and getting some good spy-work done. But that’s not what we got.
And the primary reason for that was, as happens shockingly often in this series, thanks to some legal drama. As I’ve mentioned before, the Bond franchise has long been plagued by legal issues, all stemming from the fact that Ian Fleming more or less stole the idea of Thunderball from a writing partner named Kevin McClory. Over the years, and several lawsuits, McClory ended up gaining the rights to Thunderball, and all it contained. Including the concept of the criminal organization SPECTRE and it’s leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And that acquiring of rights is what made the Bond franchise finally abandon SPECTRE and Blofeld, choosing to go with one-off villains from there out. However, as the Daniel Craig era of the Bond franchise was growing, they decided to take a brief trip back into the land of the evil organization. Both Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale featured the mysterious organization that came to be known as Quantum, and it seemed poised to become a grand new threat to Bond. But then Quantum of Solace was perceived as a failure, and they seemed to ditch it all with Skyfall. Then some court battles happened, and EON suddenly had access to SPECTRE and Blofeld again, and things changed. They convinced Sam Mendes to return to the franchise, without Roger Deakins this time, and they began marketing the hell out of the fact that SPECTRE was back. Hell, they named the movie after the organization. And along with some marketing that seemed to hint at some On Her Majesty’s Secret Service references it was clear that they were desperate for some nostalgia, promising that this was going to be a big, classic Bond film.
Spectre begins with Bond on a less than authorized mission in Mexico City, during some sort of Dia de los Muertos parade. He’s stalking a man who the previous M put him on the trail of, and ends up foiling the man’s plot to set off a bomb during the parade. And along the way he learns the man is part of a mysterious organization, steals his octopus sigil ring, and overhears the codename the Pale King. We’re then given an incredibly weird title sequence featuring the spectacularly lackluster “Writing on the Wall” while looking at weird images of octopus porn. After that we’re thrown back to London where we learn that things aren’t exactly going to be a typical Bond movie. Bond isn’t going to be given a mission, because there’s some serious heat on MI6 and the double-oh program in particular. There’s a new head of MI5, a man named Max Denbigh, and he’s attempting to merge the organizations and dismantle MI6. But that isn’t going to stop Bond, because he knows that the man he killed in Mexico is the key to uncovering the identity of this organization, so he disobeys M’s orders and heads to the man’s funeral in Italy. And, after awkwardly attending the funeral of the man he killed, he follows the man’s widow back to her home and seduces some information out of her. She tells him that her husband was a member of a very powerful criminal information, and gives him the location of a meeting that they’ll be holding to find her husband’s replacement. Bond then heads to the meeting, wearing the ring to gain access, and finds himself in a room full of criminals, planning their elaborate schemes to gain money and influence all over the world. He witnesses a hulking man named Mr. Hinx kill his way onto the high council of the organization, before everyone pauses to show deference to the apparent leader of the group. And, eerily, the man seems to recognize Bond, and blows his cover.
Bond and Mr. Hinx then are thrown into a high-speed chase through the streets of Rome, ending when Bond destroys his stolen prototype Aston Martin in a river and getting away from Hinx. But, he has some leads. Because the man that he just saw at the head is also familiar to him. He appeared to be Franz Oberhauser, a man who was essentially his foster-brother, and who was presumed dead. He calls Moneypenny up and has her dig into Oberhauser, while also getting some information about the Pale King. Turns out it’s Mr. White, prominent member of Quantum. So Bond heads off to find White, and ends up locating him hiding out in Austria. White is dying from thallium poisoning, and he’s oddly open to helping Bond figure things out. As long as Bond promises to help protect his daughter Madeleine, who can also point him in the direction of the answer. So Bond heads to a Swiss clinic where Dr. Madeleine Swan is working and attempts to convince her to work with him. It does not go well, and Madeleine ends up kicking him out of the clinic. Luckily he finds that Moneypenny has sent Q to help him out, and Bond gives him the ring to identify. However at that point Bond finds Mr. Hinx kidnapping Madeleine, and gets into a chase with him, ending with Bond knocking out Hinx, and saving Madeleine. She now trusts Bond, a bit, and comes to talk with him and Q. Because after identifying the ring Q has found that several criminals over the years have had the strange metal the ring was made from in their blood, including Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva. So they were all members of this organization. But it’s not Quantum. Quantum was just a subsidiary. According to Madeleine the group is called Spectre, and it’s more powerful than anything they’ve come across. So Bond sends Q back to England to help M deal with Denbigh, while Bond and Madeleine head to Morocco where Mr. White had a safe house. They spend an awkward night together in a hotel room, before finding Mr. White’s secret base, including the location of a facility in the middle of the Sahara.
Bond and Madeleine then board a train and head to the facility. They have a romantic dinner together, where Bond realizes that her growing up the daughter of Mr. White has given her a very unique perspective on his way of life. But it’s ruined when Mr. Hinx arrives, getting in a tremendous fight with Bond. They manage to kick Hinx off the train though, and end up arriving near the hidden base in the desert. They’re then picked up by some oddly polite and proper people, and brought to Spectre’s hidden base. And once there they’re introduced, formally to Franz Oberhauser, the leader of Spectre. He explains that he and his organization are behind all sorts of crime around the world, and are the secret backers of Max Denbigh’s plan to control all surveillance in the world. He also reveals that he’s been behind all of the tragedy in Bond’s life, because he has a special hatred for him. Apparently when Bond’s parents died he went to live with a foster family, Franz’s father. Bond and Franz then became foster-siblings, and Franz had a deep jealousy for him, even going to far as to kill his father and fake his death. He now goes by the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and is planning on killing Bond with some sort of surgical torture. Bond and Madeleine are able to escape though, and seem to kill Blofeld in a small explosion. They then flee from the compound, destroy it, and return to England to help M, Q, and Moneypenny stop Denbigh. Everyone meets up in London and Madeleine ends up leaving Bond, saying she can’t live this kind of life anymore. However, almost immediately Bond finds out that Madeleine has been kidnapped by Spectre goons, and he heads off to the old MI6 building while M, Q, and Moneypenny go to stop Denbigh. They manage to kill Denbigh and stop his spy program from going active, while Bond searches through the wreckage of MI6 and finds Blofeld alive. He’s decorated the building with memories from Bond’s life, and wired the building for demolition. He then triggers the bomb and Bond has to run through the building to find Madeleine. He succeeds, the two escape the building before it explodes, and Bond gives chase to Blofeld’s helicopter in a speedboat. Bond manages to shoot down Blofeld’s helicopter, but decides against killing Blofeld, leaving him to be brought to legal justice. Bond then gets to drive off into the sunset with Madeleine, seemingly abandoning his life for a more peaceful one.
When watching Spectre the main feeling I have is one of frustration. Because there are so many interesting and solid ideas in this film. It comes so close to being a fun and memorable Bond film. But for every great idea, there’s an equally bad one. And, by the end of the film, the score ends up more or less tied. This film ends up being essentially equal parts good and bad, making it a jumbled and confusing experience that just ends up being kind of bland and forgettable. Daniel Craig is putting in a typically great performance, lending himself to some really fun and goofy Roger Moore-esque moments while also having good chances at showing off his romantic Bond, and his more stoic and deadly Bond. Lea Seydoux is quite good in this film, making Madeleine a very enjoyable character, while she remains pretty undeveloped. The film keeps telling us that Madeleine is an amazing person, and the perfect partner for James Bond, but it doesn’t really do a great job at showing that. The whole supporting MI6 cast, Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Wishaw as Q, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny are all really great, and it’s a blast to see them having their own desperate adventure. Dave Bautista is terrific as the stoic and deadly Mr. Hinx, instantly becoming one of the most enjoyable henchmen in the series. But things get a bit dodgy with the rest of the villains. Andrew Scott is monumentally miscast as Max Denbigh, especially when you consider the fact that he’s most known for playing an evil villain whose identity was a twist, which makes the fact that Denbigh being a villain whose identity was a twist a bit of an obvious plot point. And then there’s Christoph Waltz. I love Christoph Waltz in the two Quentin Tarantino films he’s been in. But, other than those films, he can often be a little hammy. I don’t know what it is, but whenever he’s in a non-Tarantino film it kind of feels like he’s doing a Christoph Waltz impression. So while he makes for an enjoyable supervillain, he becomes a little camp for Blofeld. But, really, it’s not the acting that keeps Spectre from becoming a great Bond film. It’s the script.
Specifically it’s the script’s insistence and reliance on fan service. The Bond franchise has always been very self-referential, constantly reminding the viewer of fun moments in the series’ storied past. And after the franchise’s reboot in Casino Royale that didn’t change. True, it was rebuilding it’s world from the ground up, but it was also taking ideas from the series’ fifty year history and putting new spins on them. Which of course means that by bringing back Blofeld and SPECTRE it was inevitable that they were going to be referencing the classic portrayals. And yet, this film decided to do something very weird with Blofeld. Instead of making an interesting and compelling villain for Bond to spar with, they just relied on nostalgia for the character. Now that we live in a world where Hollywood is insistent on never letting anything die, and rebooting properties is just a fact of life, there’s always going to be the question on how to handle the reimagining of characters that were famously portrayed previously. And, for some reason, one popular way to doing this is to lie to the audience, and have odd “twist” reveals. This film uses it, but one of the most famous examples of this was the monumentally bizarre choice on the part of JJ Abrams to insist that the character of Khan was not in the film Star Trek Into Darkness, only to have a character dramatically reveal himself to be Khan halfway through the film. It’s a bizarre choice, and the exact same one was made in this film. We spend half of this movie thinking out villain is a man named Franz Oberhauser, who for some reason is the foster-brother of James Bond. But then, in a big dramatic moment he reveals himself to actually be Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Which means nothing to this Bond. Daniel Craig’s Bond has never met a man named Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This name means nothing to anyone in the logic of the film. But it’s a huge moment, essentially breaking the fourth wall. And this weird choice becomes very symbolic for the treating of Blofeld as a whole. He’s not a character. He’s just a sentient ball of fan service. They don’t really give the character any character. They just tell us that he’s Blofeld, and expect us to fill in the blanks, and assign any feeling we have towards that character to this one. And that’s a weird way to introduce the person who should be the biggest villain in this franchise. It completely throws off the rest of the film, and makes you realize that, other than Bond, this movie doesn’t have a whole lot going on in the way of character. Madeleine Swan, Blofeld, and Max Denbigh, all the new characters, are really just cardboard cutouts. They’re character archetypes that you expect from a Bond movie, and they just expect your fan knowledge to make them work. And all of that, combined with the film’s weird decision to make every action of the past three movies linked together in some massive storyline, makes you feel like it was trying too hard to be something special. And, unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, instead becoming a very traditional and forgettable Bond film, which history will probably not be kind to.
Spectre was written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk