Without a doubt, SPECTRE, the twenty-fourth film in the long-running 007 series, is the worst of the films featuring Daniel Craig as 007, if not the worst Bond film in recent memory. Cursed with a laden, nonsensical script, full of overwrought, listless set pieces and pedestrian action, it’s an affront to all the progress the series has made in terms of revitalizing the 007 brand since Craig’s tenure as Bond began with 2006’s Casino Royale. It’s the sort of underwhelming effort that should leave fans of the series livid, especially considering all the wasted talent assembled for the production and the potential they represent.
SPECTRE picks up some time after the end of 2012’s Skyfall, with the loss of the previous “M” (Judi Dench) still casting a shadow over MI6 and Bond in particular. After an unsanctioned mission in Mexico City during the famous “Dia de los Muertos” festival causes an international incident, 007 finds himself in hot water with the new “M” (Ralph Fiennes) and relieved of his duties. That sort of technicality, having his license to kill revoked and whatnot, has of course never stopped Bond from doing his work before, and so he sets off to follow up on the waves he made in Mexico, the trail leading him to Rome and a secret meeting of what appears to be a massively powerful international criminal syndicate. What he discovers there, and the man he sees sitting at the head of the table in that secret chamber, changes everything he and MI6 thought they knew about some of Bond’s most important and dangerous adversaries of the past: that they were all connected, all arms of this one powerful organization, simply known as “SPECTRE.”
Forced to operate with limited help from M, Q (Ben Whishaw), or Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who all are being watched by the new Centre for National Security into which MI6’s operations are being folded into and marginalized, Bond seeks out Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), a doctor whose own mysterious past unwillingly links her to SPECTRE and makes her one of their primary targets. Together, they’ll track down and come face to face with the shadowy head of SPECTRE, who in addition to his ambitions for world domination has a long-standing personal score to settle with 007 that he plans to settle in the most painful and humiliating manner possible.
The Bond film series has enjoyed a prolonged revitalization over the past decade with Daniel Craig in the lead role primarily because the creative minds at work behind the camera kept finding new and interesting ways to tweak the 007 formula, to further distance the series from the rote cheekiness that came to define the series during the Roger Moore era, and which crept back into the films at the end of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the early 2000’s. While some longtime fans of the series point out that the changes made the films far too serious in tone, for the most part the grittier, more character-driven style that characterizes Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall has been readily embraced by contemporary audiences, who applaud the more realistic and hard-hitting action as well as enjoy each time the series’ writers would take a playful jab at their own creation’s well-known conventions and clichés.
So if the recipe for success was to evolve away from the elements of the series that had clearly become tired and stale by the late 1990’s, why in the name of Dame Judi Dench would the powers that be here decide to reverse course entirely with SPECTRE, and go back to utilizing those very same tired, stale elements in almost precisely the same ways as before? Oh, it all looks pretty — having Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes return for a second stint at the helm after the success of Skyfall assures audiences of at the very least a pleasant visual experience — but all the style and beautiful framing of shots and locations cannot hide the flaws in the hackneyed script churned out by seasoned Bond script writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, working alongside John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) and Jez Butterworth (Black Mass, Get on Up). Bond suspended and goes AWOL? Been there, done that. Bond girl doesn’t like 007 at first, but opinion absurdly changes in moments after a near-death experience? Done and done. Bond restrained to a chair and tortured as he’s taunted by the villain? Done, done, and DONE. Yawn.
To be fair, yes, all those same elements were utilized in Casino Royale, arguably Craig’s best Bond outing. But the manner in which they were executed was tweaked in such a way that their silliness in and of themselves was mitigated — they staged it all in a way that made sort-of real world sense, not just Bond-world sense. Here, in SPECTRE, we get it all back the way it was done in the campy, cartoonish era of Bond: with no sense of self-awareness, no wink and creative twist, just the same old trope, as though giving it a break for a few decades would somehow make it fresh enough again to use.
Compounding the outright clunkiness of the script is the absolute absence of innovation and energy that characterizes the film’s many overly-long set pieces, each of which owes a debt to earlier Bond films in which they were executed to far more enjoyable effect. Whether the action takes place in the air, on a train, or in a speeding car chase through the narrow streets and alleys of Rome, it all feels obligatory and uninspired, as though the second unit director simply watched a few older Bond films the morning of the shoot and decided, “Yeah, we’ll recycle that sequence. That’ll work.” Watch for how the helicopter sequence early in the film that recalls a similar set piece in 1081’s For Your Eyes Only, or how the aforementioned car chase seems to drag on and on simply to provide an opportunity for a few ill-timed jokes regarding gadgets not working quite the way they should. And what happened to this Bond getting bloody when he gets into a fist fight? In one of several examples of wasted casting, SPECTRE features former WWE star Dave Bautista playing a henchman in the mold of Odd Job, Jaws, and Tomorrow Never Dies‘ Stamper, which you’d think would result in a fight that would leave our hero at least a little bloodied once the two throw down. But no, not even a nick or scratch. The white dinner jacket does take a beating, though.
Speaking of wasted casting, perhaps the greatest waste in SPECTRE is Christophe Waltz, who apparently Mendes and the producers felt didn’t need to do much of anything aside from recycle that soft-spoken, quietly menacing demeanor he used to such great effect in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. He sleepwalks through his on-screen time here, playing what should be THE iconic Bond villain role with the same level of effort and energy that he played the villain in Seth Rogen’s attempted Green Hornet film back in 2011. He steals his paycheck here, and he’s not the only one, though the others one could just as easily fault the producers and casting directors for their involvement. Case in point: was it really necessary to cast Monica Bellucci, 51, for the role she’s called upon to perform, a role so woefully underwritten, forgettable, and beneath her talents that its very presence screams “obligatory for the formula”, just so that SPECTRE could claim the distinction of featuring the series’ oldest “Bond Girl”? Hopefully, there was more to it and the role was simply cut back for time, although at 2 hours and 28 minutes, the longest running time of any Bond film in the series, why not have a few more minutes to have her role be more meaningful? Or better yet, cut back on the overly-long set pieces that go nowhere in order to give the characters just a little more heft, as they did in the earlier Craig films? Mio dio!
Taken all together, SPECTRE is easily the most disappointing sequel of 2015, if not one of the year’s most disappointing films, overall. If it does turn out to be Craig’s final outing as 007 — he’s contracted for one more, but that means relatively little — it will serve as the worst possible crash-and-burn ending for a tenure as Bond that arguably soared higher and won more acclaim than any since that of Sir Sean Connery. At the very least, it’s a terrible waste. He, and everyone involved in this production, are simply capable of so much better in terms of film making than this, and his time as Bond deserves a finer coda.
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, with Monica Bellucci and Ralph Fiennes as “M.” Directed by Sam Mendes.
Running Time: 148 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language