Expectation is a curious thing and, with more than half a century under its belt, the James Bond series of films is one that brings more than almost any other with it. For Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing and Sam Mendes second as director, this was compounded by following up probably the most widely positively received ‘Bond movie’ ever, Skyfall, and so, unsurprisingly, on its initial cinematic release it received mixed notices from audiences and critics alike.
Opening with the classic view down the barrel and theme that had been absent at the start of some of Craig’s outings, it was clear Mendes was taking us back in the semi-rebooted world of Bond established in Skyfall. This is compounded by a classically styled pre-credits sequence combining all the usual staples; exotic locations, mystery, suspense, a ‘Bond girl’ and a great action set piece, to which is added Craig’s now established more serious spy.
All of this combines into something that marked, for me, certainly the first two-thirds of the film, that being that once again Mendes and his team are drawing on the past to create the future. If Skyfall was designed to pay homage to the 1960s Connery era of the series, a lot of this has the hint of the (earlier) 1970s Moore era.
To clarify, this doesn’t come through from Craig, but the combination of elaborate situations, characters, costumes and set pieces, as well as some of the special effects, have something of that flavour, but, in the hands of this team, it works and thankfully never succumbs to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink style that ended up typifying the Moore films.
While Daniel Craig seems somewhat on auto-pilot here, and therefore is never bad he doesn’t seem to have the kind joie de vivre that marked, certainly Casino Royale and Skyfall, while the rest of the cast perform admirably but, unsurprisingly the film really ends up belonging to the villains.
First there’s the slimy bureaucrat Max Denbigh aka ‘C’ played by Andrew Scott and clearly cast based on his run as Moriarty in the recent BBC Holmes adaptation Sherlock. Then comes the ‘henchman’, another clear throwback, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) who does everything you’d expect of the former pro-wrestler and current Guardian of the Galaxy, leading to some hard-hitting action scenes.
Finally we get to the film’s worst kept secret; Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser. As has become his calling card in his mainstream outings Waltz chews up all around him as the Machiavellian big bad of Bond, and, despite appearing for a relatively short time, is the most memorable presence in the whole film.
The remainder of Bond’s back up; M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Tanner (Roy Kinnear) and Q (Ben Wishaw), all get a bit more to do than is traditional, once again continuing the theme from Skyfall, but it’s really only Q who feels like a standout and actually part of the action, while Fiennes does his best to add more to leader of Double-0 section, but ultimately is as one-dimensional as his spiritual predecessor Bernard Lee.
For the film’s final act things go very much more back to Craig-Bond mode but lack much of a sense of real threat and get a bit bogged down in tying up the dual plotlines running earlier in the film.
For the film’s second act in particular this added a nice touch of difference with Bond and Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) doing the classic globetrotting, megalomaniac-hunting bit, while the rest of the team, back in London, grounded things in the modern world concerned with terrorism and surveillance, but it is somewhat clumsily dealt with in its conclusion.
As the film climaxes in a way unlike any other Bond film to date (to my memory), Spectre feels like a lot of good ideas executed for the most part in a slick and smooth fashion, but without the spark to elevate it to the next level expectation was searching for.
As this seems to be the final outing Craig in the role it means he has had one of the most successful runs as the super-spy, with only one outright stinker to his name (2008’s Quantum of Solace) but he hasn’t gone out on the high he and producers EON may have hoped.