It’s strange to expect much from a character like James Bond. From him, you’d expect less of the psychological grittiness that pervades the recent Batman movies and more of just, well, James Bond: a government-backed professional killer who always saves everybody from whichever super villain turns out to have the most ridiculous name. It seems like a simple formula for movie success, yet in “Spectre,” he was injected with an unhealthy dose of “killer with a conscious,” and as a result, this was one of the few Bond movies that nearly bored me to death.
The plot is as exciting and ridiculous as your typical James Bond flick. We see the famous British spy (Daniel Craig) caught in the middle of a power struggle as his most recent actions have landed him in hot waters. M (Ralph Fiennes) is forced to take Bond off duty because, I don’t know, he’s too good at killing people? Meanwhile, C (Andrew Scott), M’s superior, wants to create a broad, Orwellian surveillance system for counterterrorism purposes and wants the ‘00’ section of MI6 to be shut down. Of course, Bond disobeys orders and does what he does best: going country to country picking up clues that eventually lead to him taking out the bad guys.
The acting is great in this movie. I’ve always been on board with Craig as James Bond. Much like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight trilogy, Craig largely does away with the campiness of the old 007 flicks in favor of a Bond who’s more aware of his emotions and surroundings. Craig’s very good at this, too — a single glance or a punch to a wall will tell you all you need to know about how conflicted Bond is about something. The supporting cast is great as well. It was fun seeing Dave Bautista playing a slightly more serious version of his WWE persona as his assassin character fights Bond through over-the-top choreography. And after playing the The Napoleon of Crime in BBC’s “Sherlock,” it was fun seeing Andrew Scott in another villain role. I hope he enjoys being typecast as “British villain with the creepiest smile ever,” because I certainly do.
“Spectre” has some of the most beautiful production values I’ve seen in a recent action film. It was good to see that director Sam Mendes picked up on what worked in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” particularly with its cinematography. For example, the opening action sequence takes place during a Dia de Los Muertos festival in Mexico, and every detail about the physical location — from the celebratory crowd to the specific building heights — is established through panning shots right before the action even begins. And there’s an explosion towards the very end that’d make Michael Bay weep. Thanks to “Mad Max,” we’re slowly living in a world now where action movies give painstaking attention to details in action scenes, and “Spectre” reflects this.
Unfortunately, all of “Spectre’s” star-studded acting and amazing camera work is ruined by one thing: the pacing. This might’ve been the first Bond movie to put me asleep in between the action sequences. Pacing is always important for a movie: if too much is squeezed in between quintessential scenes then the movie will drag on; If too little is added, the viewer won’t feel grounded in the film’s reality. “Spectre” played both of these cards to little avail. What made “Skyfall” such a great Bond film was how well it handled character development (especially with the secondary characters) and the plot’s advancement. In contrast to that, we don’t really know or learn more about Bond’s old and new acquaintances, and we’re rushed through different unfamiliar settings as Bond’s relationships with his peers are brushed aside within a plot that moves too quickly. In its rush to be exciting it lost a lot of charm.
Another factor for “Spectre’s” overall boringness was how serious it tried to be. For lack of a better word, James Bond is a superhero. Superhero movies are supposed to be more exciting than serious, but the screenwriters dropped the ball in attempting to add psychological grittiness to Bond. You’ll often be given what’s supposed to be a very serious scene and leave it thinking “was something at stake here?” This is most evident when Bond meets Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) in Austria due to his connections with the terrorists Bond is tracking. They talk about secret spy stuff before a regretful Mr. White asks Bond to protect his daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) from the very terrorists he worked with (who becomes his love interest because of course). And that’s the only time we see Mr. White. The movie wants to be really serious with scenes like these, but the only thing that’ll wake you up is when shit starts exploding.
I also had ideological issues with the very concept of James Bond. Given that Ian Fleming created Bond in the 1950s, which was a time of rapid decline for the British empire, it’s easy to see how Bond is a standin for British imperialism. He’s a white man with a license to kill who travels through foreign corners of the world in an attempt to save civilized society by shooting all the scary non-British people. It’s practically an imperialist’s wet dream — the idea of Bond taking up the burden of restoring law and order by any means necessary. I know it’s difficult to hold this against the movie, but c’mon. It’s 2015. It’s time to make a subversive Bond movie that challenges the assumptions and tropes that play into the cultural attitudes that allow a fictional character like James Bond to exist in the first place.
“Spectre” isn’t an amazing Bond film, nor even a great action movie. Look past the few little nuggets of excitement here and there and you’ll see something that’s best left for it’s eventual release on Netflix and Hulu. Or if you wish to be like me and fall asleep three times in the theater, then by all means, waste your money.
Rating: 2 stars