“The Dead Are Alive”
Bond fans have been awaiting the return of Spectre for over forty years. Since last making their appearance in 1971’s abysmal Diamonds Are Forever (the first genuinely bad outing), Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his cronies were forbidden (for ridiculous legal reasons) from appearing in the 007 film series, leading to rewrites on The Spy Who Loved Me, and a righteous-if-unceremonial final comeuppance in For Your Eyes Only.
Director Sam Mendes, who, for better or worse, made Daniel Craig’s Bond his own with the over-personal and Nolan-esque Skyfall, has decided to take on the task of bringing the evil organization back into the spotlight, after it was hinted at in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Mendes and Craig also bring a new, or rather rediscovered, sense of humor and fun to the first two-thirds of the film. Action beats have a newfound pep missing even in Craig’s finest moment, Casino Royale. Even so, the drama is still immediate, and the stakes high, as 007 tracks leads and unravels the mystery of the organization which has authored all of his trials since the beginning.
Spectre builds up such a powerful momentum of spy-games and stunning action (brought to us by the possibly magical second-unit director Alexander Witt, back from Casino Royale and Skyfall), so it’s a shame when Sam Mendes decides to grind the picture to a stunning halt in its final act. In Skyfall‘s final act, the movie practically jumped into a different script, getting uncomfortably intimate and making the obnoxious decision to make Javier Bardem’s Silva into a second rate clone of Heath Ledger’s The Joker. Somehow, possibly due to the inclusion of Albert Finney, the movie was able to miraculously hold together.
Albert Finney is not in Spectre.
When the “shocking revelations” are unveiled to Bond, they prove to be laughably underwhelming to the viewer. All the hype that had been building since 2006, or since 1971, depending on your perspective, leads to a painfully stagnant and total bore of a reveal. The villain’s motivations and origin feel like they came from a first draft that they forgot to replace with something interesting, or at least remotely recognizable as 007. Coupled with the most tacked-on romance ever in a Bond movie, and that’s saying something, Sam Mendes attempts a repeat of his style and themes from Skyfall, but this time it bites him right in the ass. And if that weren’t enough, the climactic action setpiece has all the tension and excitement of an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
The biggest shame of all is the first half of the film is easily Daniel Craig at his most charismatic as “Bond, James… Bond.” Rather than the contempt that Skyfall displayed for the conventions of the series, Spectre is happy to swim in the pool, even if it doesn’t quite dive-in headfirst. Christoph Waltz is a delight as Franz Oberhauser, and Dave Bautista shines as the the frightening cross between Richard Kiel’s Jaws and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant. Bautista would steal the show outright if he only had the amount of screentime he deserves. Bond’s support crew, M, Q, and Moneypenny, are also more than serviceable in their roles, especially Ben Whishaw’s Q, who recalls Desmond Llewelyn’s performance in the criminally underrated Licence to Kill.
In a series known for its plots going wildly, recklessly, and endearingly off the rails in their third acts (Moonraker, Die Another Day, and even Skyfall come to mind as polarizing examples), Spectre, which had every opportunity to indulge in the glory of being a James Bond movie, instead rests on too many half-measures and a pedantic final act. What starts out as one of the best Bond adventures ever takes a shocking turn into mediocrity. Spectre had all the pieces to both wrap up an era of films and begin a whole new age of 007. In the end, I suppose it still accomplishes this task, and the future of Bond is always bright, but Spectre is ultimately a testament to unrealized potential.