Review: 'SPECTRE' manages to majorly muddy Daniel Craig's James Bond legacy
Oh, "SPECTRE," you vex me. You vex me mightily.
There is a sense as you're watching the first half of the film that they're having fun playing with the iconography of the entire series, staging scenes that nod at moments from a number of the other films. There's one in particular, a sort of brutal homage to the fight with Robert Shaw on the train in "From Russia With Love," that I think might be the best moment in the film. In those moments, "SPECTRE" is enjoyable and a fitting entry to celebrate the history of Bond on film.
But the things that the film gets wrong, it gets so powerfully wrong that I can honestly say they have retroactively ruined the Daniel Craig films for me. I will have to actively ignore the information and ideas that are introduced here if I'm going to enjoy the three films that have already been released. And, yes, "Quantum Of Solace" is a better overall entry in the series than this one is, because the ideas introduced in that film don't change the very nature of what we consider a James Bond movie.
My frustrations with "SPECTRE" can all be summed up in one disastrous choice, and I've been dreading this moment for well over a year now. The moment they cast Christoph Waltz and then started adamantly insisting that he was not playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, I figured they were going to try to play some sort of twist in the film, and they do indeed. But of all the variations they could have run, the one they chose is confoundingly stupid. It is so ill-considered that it feels like a prank, like Sam Mendes and his screenwriters are mad at Sony and James Bond in equal measure. I honestly can't believe some of what I witnessed in the theater tonight, and I am really sad to see the franchise stumble so violently in the exact moment it should be celebrating.
After all, this is the first time since "Diamonds Are Forever" that they've been legally allowed to use SPECTRE as an organization inside the James Bond universe, and while we've seen a figure who looked suspiciously like Blofeld in "For Your Eyes Only," they haven't been able to use him, either. Then again, in a world where Dr. Evil exists, can you really ever use Blofeld in a film again without it seeming like self-parody? Seems like a fair question to ask, especially considering just how hard the studio and the producers fought to get those rights back. You'd think that once they finally did so, they'd make sure to do something very special with them, but it feels to me like they have thrown it away to such a degree that I wonder why they bothered.
My first real disappointment here is that the Craig films will not add up to anything narratively, and it felt until now like there was at least a chance they had a plan for how to pay of various threads that were introduced in "Casino Royale," then explored further in "Quantum Of Solace" and "Skyfall." Nope. Not gonna happen. There's nothing left for them to bring together or pay off, and they burned down anything that might have been interesting from those earlier movies. Want to know more about the mysterious organization that has been pulling the strings since Le Chiffre, the group that took Vesper Lynd, that backed Mr. White and Quantum, that helped Silva kill M? Well, you won't, because there's nothing to it. Oh, they'll tell you repeatedly that they were somehow involved with all of those earlier events, but there's nothing offered here that explains how or why those things would have been connected. They threw John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth at the script, and the best they could come up with is this mishmash that not only fails to tie things together but actually makes the series make no sense whatsoever.
The film opens with an impressive technical shot that is, like the movie itself, stylish but without any real purpose. The greatest of the single-take shots in film history are great because they communicate something. It's not just that they are impressive on a technical level, but that they tell us something about the characters or the theme of what we're watching. This is a well-staged sequence in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations. James Bond (Daniel Craig) and a beautiful young woman ("Miss Bala" star Stephanie Sigman) make their way through the crowd, up some stairs, and into a room where Bond sheds his mask, picks up a gun, and goes out a window, searching for someone. There's a nimble quality to this scene that made me think we were in good hands.
Then we get to the opening title sequence, and it's pretty much the polar opposite of the title sequence from "Skyfall." That was not only a great theme song, but also managed to lay out the entire film thematically in a way that was both evocative and beautiful. This one is a weird mess that tries to tap the full erotic potential of octopi built around a Bond theme that I couldn't remember as I was actually listening to it. It's strange enough that the sequence seems to suggest that Daniel Craig is an Elder God and hentai fans might have a point, but I honestly couldn't even get my head around the tune itself. It's a mess, but there have been lame Bond theme songs before, and that doesn't mean the movie is a mess…
… only, it is. The entire thing is built around a mystery, with Bond off on his own adventure while the new M (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to defend MI6 and the 00 program against encroachments from C (Andrew Scott), who represents a more high-tech solution to international espionage. Bond is put on the bench for his Mexico City exploits, and immediately heads back out into the field anyway. Here's one of the things that bothers me this time around. The last film saw Bond finally accept his place in the world and become the James Bond that we've been waiting for him to become since "Casino Royale." If we accept that movie as the first real hard reboot of the entire series, then the story they've been telling has been about James Bond becoming James Bond, and he finally did it. He became that person, with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) and a new M in place as his support team, and now…
… well, now he once again pretty much walks away and does everything by himself. They make a few cursory gestures at including the team, but while Fiennes, Whishaw, and Harris are all good in their scenes, they are criminally under-utilized. One look at this summer's "Mission: Impossible" sequel shows just how well the model can work when the entire team is treated like they're valuable and part of things. In this film, they only exist as apps on Bond's figurative smart phone that he can call up when the plot demands it.
Here's where they really start to get things wrong. As Bond digs further into his mystery, he ends up at what looks like a cross between an "Eyes Wide Shut" orgy and a board meeting where he first gets a glimpse of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the man in charge of this big shadowy organization. The meeting is, frankly, hilarious and about as far from menacing as popular. It's one power-point presentation away from being overtly comic, and I'm confused how Mendes, who had such a strong sense of mood in "Skyfall," seems to be so abundantly tin-eared this time.
Even the set pieces feel perfunctory, with a car chase through Rome where there are no real stakes and no sense of urgency or a scene in the Austrian Alps where things keep threatening to erupt into actual excitement. And through it all, Oberhauser is just off-stage, with Dave Bautista serving as the main threat for the film's first half. Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) shows up to help tie things back to the events of "Quantum Of Solace" and "Casino Royale," and he leads Bond to his daughter, a doctor named Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), who is targeted for death because…. ummmmmm… she knows something about, uh… no, wait, it's because… well… I guess it's because Bond needs someone to save and screw. Beyond that, the film doesn't seem terribly concerned with explaining anything.
Still, there are plenty of Bond films that have some good parts while never really working as a sum of those parts, and taken simply as a long spy movie with occasional bursts of action, "SPECTRE" is entirely mediocre. It's no "Moonraker" or "A View To A Kill," so for that reason alone, some Bond fans will shrug off all criticism. That's fine, except with "Casino Royale," the producers made a huge mistake. They made it too well. They have tried, with this Daniel Craig run of films, to elevate the Bond movies so they are more than just acceptably silly spy movies, and one of the reasons "SPECTRE" is so frustrating is because it feels like the collapse of that ambition, and it is in one moment that you can see the entire thing burn to the ground.
So let's talk about that moment. Yes, this is a spoiler. Yes, this is "the" spoiler. But in this context, we're talking about a different kind of spoiling. When Bond and This Season's Fleshlight arrive at SPECTRE's surprisingly easy to find sort-of-homage-to-the-volcano-lair in the middle of nowhere, Oberhauser picks them up at the train station and then just drives them right into the base. Everyone is so set in their part that Bond practically hops up onto the torture table himself. First, though, there's some monologuing and a big "reveal" that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. Yes, Oberhauser is indeed Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but just like in "Star Trek Into Darkness," all of the name games seem pointless. Blofeld has no value as a name to any character in the film. It's just a pseudonym that Oberhauser started using after he faked his own death when he murdered his father. And why did he murder his father?
Here's where I have to grit my teeth to even type something so stupid: the reason that Oberhauser became a criminal mastermind in charge of an international organization that is involved in human trafficking, drugs, terrorism, and myriad other destructive crimes is because when James Bond's parents died, Bond was sent to live with the Oberhausers, and Papa Oberhauser decided he liked James Bond better than he liked his real son, Franz.
Yes. It's true. Blofeld is Blofeld because his daddy liked James Bond more than him.
And it makes me want to never watch a fucking James Bond movie again. That is such a stupid, pathetic, ignorant choice for a creative team to make, and it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of anything that has ever been part of James Bond, either in print or on film, that I genuinely struggle to understand how anyone could justify it. Let's set aside the truly insultingly stupid idea that the main villain in the James Bond universe just became a weepy fop with daddy issues. How about the way this choice means that James Bond is no longer a spy tackling individual cases over the course of his career, but is now a licensed sociopath who has unwittingly been the focus of a dedicated campaign of horror on a global scale resulting in hundreds of collateral civilian and intelligence deaths, all because he had no idea someone was targeting him.
Even worse, the movie suggests that Bond only coincidentally stumbled over SPECTRE's plans. So now we're asked to believe that Bond is the center of the universe, but that he accidentally kept foiling the plans of the supervillain dedicated to ruining his life in order to make up for the time Daddy enjoyed mountain climbing with James more.
The more I think about it, the more I write about it, the more it infuriates me. And then following that reveal, Mendes and company stage two sequences that are so devoid of tension that you might as well be watching "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." Once he's revealed as Blofeld, we know he won't die in this movie, and we also know Bond's going to hit the magic reset button and make everything right. And now, finally, after four movies, Bond is fully James Bond, ready to get to work stopping villains and foiling terrorists and… wait, what? He quits again at the end of the film so he can run bump uglies with Seydoux?
REALLY? REALLY?! Even now, even four movies into the series, you can't finally let him become James Bond? This has become a joke. This one film has finally stretched the premise so thin that it snapped, and I find myself genuinely fed up. Why bother? Will BOND 25 finally be the James Bond film where they let James Bond be James Bond? Or will it also have to tell a gritty personal tale of James Bond turning his back on the system so he can face a great personal crisis that will add up to ABSOLUTELY GODDAMN NOTHING?!
This twenty-fourth film in the series was meant to be a sort of summation of what had come before as well as a triumphant reclamation of iconography and characters that had been off limits for forty years. Instead, it's a lazy greatest-hits tape featuring a brand-new version of a song with an arrangement that suggests that the singer didn't even like the original. It is a crushing disappointment, and a reminder that the gloss and the respectability of the previous Daniel Craig films was a fluke, not business as usual.
James Bond will return. And after this, I have no idea why he'd bother.
"SPECTRE" is in theaters on Friday.