As a follow-up to 2012’s Academy Award-winning Skyfall, both director, Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road), and Bond himself, Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), return for the 24th installment of the Bond series: Spectre. While being rumoured to be Craig’s last outing in the tuxedo, the film has the rather tough job of trailing behind one of the most well received Bond films in recent decades, if not ever, and it’s a daunting task that seems almost evident in the construction of the film.
After Bond (Craig) returns from foiling a planned terrorist attack in Mexico that was off the books, M (Ralph Fiennes) takes the agent off active field duty leaving him to investigate the mysterious Spectre crime organisation on his own. After having chased down and rescued the daughter (Léa Seydoux) of a former member of the Spectre controlled Quantam, and with the help of Mi6 quartermaster, Q (Ben Whishaw), and M’s assistant, Money Penny (Naomie Harris), Bond is able to finally track down the Spectre leader (Christopher Waltz), although he soon learns that the two share a tangled dark past. Meanwhile, M fights to retain control of Mi6, which now falls under the control of C (Andrew Scott) who plans to create a multi-national intelligence network using an extensive surveillance system that would also effectively end the ‘00’ program in the process.
The film sets out to deliver on two distinct points: hitting all the necessary Bond beats and attempting to tie previous films together into one sprawling narrative, which it simultaneously succeeds at, and also slightly falls short of. Bond gets to have his martini, walk away suavely as things explode in the background, and then sleep with beautiful women, yet all of these moments have this underlying feeling that we’re simply ticking them off a list, rather than finding them naturally inherent to the plot. It’s also worth noting that Monica Bellucci’s (Ville-Marie) appearance is rather underwhelming as a Bond girl, appearing for only a few scenes towards the start of the film before being forgotten about soon after. The counter to this though, is Seydoux’s (The Lobster) Dr Madeleine Swann, who in a lot of ways appears to be a refreshing anti-Bond girl: unwilling to be ordered around by Bond without question or allowing herself to be easily seduced by his charms.
We’re treated to some fairly superb action sequences however, with the best being the opening involving a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. In what appears as a seamless one-shot, we follow Bond as he makes his way through the colourful crowd, up to his lovers room, and then across the rooftops to confront the baddie, before ending in an impressive escape from an exploding building and a fight that takes place in a helicopter that dips dangerously close to the city streets below. While definitely up to scratch in this regard, it’s in between these set pieces that we seem to miss what was truly great about Skyfall: a gripping story that didn’t feel like a by the numbers entry or have characters seemingly get from point A to B solely because the narrative required them to do so.
The film’s other goal is to present the idea that the events of past installments in Craig’s tenure were all the master plan of Spectre’s leader, Blofeld. In a lot of ways this works, and as an audience you want it to work because the story seems to come to this immense climatic conclusion, and Blofeld appears like the exact type of villain that could mastermind such a complex scheme. But the lack of any prior mention of Spectre in the current series (which was admittedly due to the lack of rights to the name ‘Spectre’ prior) means it’s hard not to get the impression that one is watching someone’s attempt to pull a whole lot of loose threads into a coherent narrative, and then present it smugly as if it were a long thought out plan, which it is evidently not (or at least not before Skyfall).
Waltz’s villain, whose motivation is iffy at best, and is awkwardly shoehorned into Bond’s past in a way that ultimately seems unnecessary, also doesn’t help. While his performance is great, and he’s proven before that he can create an interesting and multifaceted villain in films like Inglorious Bastards, and in much of a similar vein to Dave Bautista’s (Guardians of the Galaxy) turn as his henchman with knives for thumb nails, he’s never given any material that allows him to step beyond the stereotypical expectations of his character and thus seems stuck in the film’s mentality to appear as just ticking boxes.
A welcome change in this film though, was the inclusion of a more ensemble centric plot, which saw M, Q and Money Penny take on an increasingly involved role as a team. At the start of Craig’s series, Casino Royale seemed to be a purposeful step away from many of the more exaggerated, and in some cases camp, elements of a Bond film, yet with each installment there’s been a slow return of these, which feels not only natural within the world but is also rather gratifying (think ejecting seats and purring white cats). Although Harris (Southpaw) seems to unfortunately get lost in the events of the climax, Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Whishaw (The Lobster) get to take their turn joining in on the espionage activities, which is not only good fun for us, but appears to be fun for them also.
Ultimately, it would be a shame if Craig decides not to return for another film, seeing that the idea of Bond working with a team that’s been slowly built up would be a rather good watch, but also because Spectre is rather lacking in the quality that his final installment deserves. In what has been a rather crowded year for spy films (see The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman, Spy, Bridge of Spies, to name a few), Spectre does happen to be one of the better ones yet, as a Bond film, it falls short of being a worthy successor to Skyfall.