The Spectre of What Might Have Been
by Will Lindus
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call 2015 the Year of the Spy. With cinematic entries like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Spy, espionage and gadgetry are certainly in vogue right now. Appropriate, then, that the patriarch of the genre, James Bond, is back for a brand new mission in Spectre.
Like any good Bond story, the plot of Spectre is convoluted, with twists and bends right through the final sequence. Under pressure from a rival government agency that threatens to shut down MI6, James Bond (Daniel Craig) finds himself with limited resources and defying orders as he tracks down a mysterious organization that has extended its shadowy tendrils in an effort to exert influence on the world.
James Bond is known for a very specific formula - fast cars, loose women, secret hideouts, death defying stunts - and Spectre sticks very close to the all-too-familiar mythology. There isn’t anything new brought to the table, structurally. That said, this isn’t necessarily a mark against the film. Fans of 007 expect certain elements from these films, and in this regard, they won’t leave Spectre disappointed. Present are all of the tropes that have turned Bond into a timeless icon.
Narratively, however, Spectre is lacking the polish that it needs to pull off what could otherwise have been a game changer for the franchise. Without going into too many specifics, a large portion of the film is spent establishing the backstory for Bond’s nemesis and tying him to the events of the most recent films (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall). While the ambition is admirable, the execution falls flat, primarily because the script calls for too many tidy coincidences to be believable even in such an over-the-top world.
Joining Daniel Craig is a very capable supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes joins the MI6 team as the new M, while Naomie Harris is cast as Moneypenny. Both newcomers excel at establishing their characters as more than cardboard cutouts, with quirks and foibles that give life to their iconic characters. It is Ben Wishaw who stands out amongst the supporting cast, however, as gadget guru and quartermaster Q, reprising his role from Skyfall. Wishaw is a master at delivering nervous charm, a trait that makes his Q one of the most compelling parts of the film. These characters could have been used a bit more effectively, though, as their arcs end rather abruptly midway through the film to make way for new story elements.
Also of note are villains played by Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista. The most memorable of Bond films are known for their equally memorable antagonists, and Spectre certainly attempts to deliver on this front. Waltz is a chronic over-actor, a trait that I normally find endearing. Here, his antics are a bit hit or miss; when the scene calls for him to play the mustache-twirling villain, Waltz is simply aces, but when his antics are coupled with grim consequences, his cartoonish-ness comes across as insincere. Bautista, on the other hand, is a mostly silent badass whose only role in the film is to provide a physical barrier for Bond during some of the more harrowing action sequences. Limited in scope, certainly, but Bautista’s presence on screen is always welcome and entertaining.
Here comes the part of the review where I reveal something potentially controversial: I’m not a fan of Sam Smith. His music, even the catchier hits, grew stale for me very quickly, his interviews have cast him in a less than favorable light, and his style feels like a bad fit for Bond. Right? And when I first heard his Bond track ‘Writing’s On the Wall,’ the song’s slow pace and Smith’s falsetto only confirmed my fears. However, when the song is paired with the breathtaking opening visuals, and when taken in context of the film’s themes, the pieces click into place. I daresay that in retrospect, Sam Smith is an inspired choice and his song helps elevate Spectre in ways I wasn’t expecting. Mea culpa.
Bottom line: Spectre is a middle of the road James Bond film that could have been so much more compelling than it ended up being. Diehard Bond fans will appreciate the familiar story elements and the engaging action sequences, but the film ultimately suffers by waffling between high stakes silliness and a grounded dour attitude. It’s worth your time and your money, but only marginally so, especially when compared to some of the stronger spy flicks that have been released this year.
3 out of 5 Bear Paws