SPOILER WARNING: this article features close discussion of many plot points in Spectre, including elements which take place at the very end of the film. We recommend reading this post only if you have already seen Spectre.
Spectre opens with a bravura one-shot sequence, made all the more amazing by the fact that returning director Sam Mendes keeps up the pace it sets until roughly one hour into this, the fourth outing for Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Unfortunately, having set off at a pace, tone and style which matches the Craig high points of Casino Royale and 2012's Skyfall, Spectre does not sustain them. What emerges is a film desperate to get back to the Bond formula of the later Connery films, and which does so, but which simultaneously sacrifices some of the hard work of the Craig films to somewhat reinvent the character. The cost of returning to Bond's roots, it seems, is to return to cliché, poor writing and tired genre and franchise tropes that were worn out long ago.
The opening hour though is golden, and worth close mention. We join Bond blending into the crowd in Mexico City at a Dia De Los Muertos celebration. As new-to-Bond cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's camera tracks our hero through a crowd, into a lift, into a hotel room and out onto rooftops, the effect is spellbinding. As openings go, it is difficult to think of one that could have been more immersive. The sequence ends and the opening titles begin with an fight set inside a helicopter, something only marred by what looks like some slightly suspect effects work when Mendes shoots the outside-the-chopper fisticuffs in close up.
From here, Bond's motivations are set quickly and cleanly. Ex-M Judi Dench has left him a message and he is due at the funeral of now-deceased helicopter adversary Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Christoph Waltz is introduced, there's a threatening, occasionally frivolous car chase through Rome and, all of a sudden, Bond is reunited with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) in Altausee, Austria. A showdown of words, rather than violence showcases Craig and Christensen at their best (though we have seen similar before) and Bond is off again on the trail of White's daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Somehow an hour has passed. It's occasionally breathlesss, but Mendes finds time for fun (the involvement of a Fiat 500 in the Rome car chase is particularly great) and the quick, clean introductions of people like C (Andrew Scott), are handled with the right mixture of brevity and hinted depth.
Before he reaches White, Bond does find time for 'love' in the shape of Sciarra's widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). It's the first sign of the film's tentative steps around moulding the old franchise staples with the new Bond attitude, though the timeline of quite where the 'new' and 'old' meet is blurred in this particular case, especially in light of the previous Craig films.
Bond's seduction of Lucia consists of barely more than him saving her and breathing on her neck a few times. The moment is throwaway, of course it is: it only exists for Bond to receive more information to drive the plot onwards, but the modern Bond films have been keen in some ways to ensure that peripheral female characters, such as Lucia, are not the mirror of their status in the plot, something most readily seen with Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who features prominently in this film. This leaves a problem: how do you dispatch Lucia? Old Bond would have seen her killed by the enemy in some moment of carelessness by our hero, a trope still relied upon by Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall. The conversation though, around female characters in Bond films, has moved on since even those productions and Mendes is clearly uncomfortable repeating both himself, the previous two Bond films and copious other moments where the character has sacrificed a female star to advance his own aims. Instead, Lucia is promised Felix Leiter as a solution, a character who doesn't appear within Spectre. The solution fits in terms of finally moving Bond on from this over-used plot device, and simultaneously absolving him of blame for whatever happens next, but it doesn't satisfy. Even Lucia, shot finally sitting up on her knees, looking at Bond from the bed, seems unhappy with her resultant limbo.
Meanwhile, in Austria, Spectre shows the first signs of losing momentum. Bond finds Swann exactly where White said she would be, proffers some double entendres and witnesses her kidnap at the hands of Hinx (Dave Bautista), a character previously encountered in the first of Spectre's overly graphic moments, gouging a hapless nobody's eyes out. Bond gives chase and we're back in familiar territory; our shining Mario is once again in need of rescuing Princess, who really he knows little about.
To skip forwards chronologically somewhat, the fact that Swann needs rescuing again during the finale makes at least one or the other of these instances feel extremely lazy. It's one of two specific points when Bond's writers, John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth seem to forget this is a modern film and revert to really deep-rooted Spy genre and Bond clichés. The latter kidnap of Swann is the more egregious of the two abductions, happening off screen and transporting the character from London street to tied up in a chair, in a ruin, but the second of the writer's lazy miss-steps is arguably even worse.
In possession of new knowledge on the location of Oberhauser (Waltz), Bond formulates a bland plan which involves nothing more than walking straight into his lair. The resultant torture sequence (the second time the film needlessly goes too dark and graphic in tone) is as unsurprisingly inevitable as it is tired. No one seems to commit to the scene. Waltz apparently doesn't even bother to put his socks on. The execution is driven by the setup: there must have been a hundred ways to get Bond here. Why do we, and the writers, have to settle for such unexplained and thin laziness?
Heading backwards a few steps, Bond discovers the location of Oberhauser thanks to a mundane trip to Tangier with Swann and a subsequent train journey. It is during the course of these two segments when Spectre's soul is revealed as empty. It is the characters' first real chance to be alone, the first real chance for the writers to give us a reason to be interested in Swann, for Bond and her to become romantically linked. The sparks have stopped flying literally and can begin metaphorically. Instead both segments feel flat. In L'Americain, a hotel frequented by Swann's parents, she jokes that she's not simply going to fall for Bond because of a Freudian complex. Funny, if we the audience didn't know that that's precisely what will happen later on (and not much later on, as it turns out). During the train journey, another opportunity is passed up to learn anything about Swann. Instead, the dialogue returns to Skyfall, posing questions about Bond's literal and metaphysical existence. Is he an assassin, a person, how does he live, survive? We've been here before and advanced Bond beyond it. There was no reason to revisit it, no reason not to give the time over to Swann.
As it is, throughout the film, we are given little reason to care about Seydoux's character. Her performance is charming, emphasising the right lines of strength and intelligence, and managing grace without ever becoming objectified. But it is almost entirely without further meaningful support from the script to bolster her personality. Had she been killed at the end we would feel for Bond, but not for Swann herself.
The train journey the two characters embark upon sees another scripting miss-step that has been present (or rather, absent) throughout. Interrupted by Hinx, believably now operating as a lone wolf after Bond dispatched his men in Altausee, a Bourne-like close-quarters fight ensues (with obvious echoes to From Russia With Love), the finale of which is Bond causing Hinx to exit the train, by way of attaching him to some jettisoned cargo. There is a moment before Hinx is pulled to his doom. A Bond film is, of course, generally unable to let a pause sit. A one-liner must be offered. Hinx decides upon 'shit', the first, and last word of dialogue he delivers during Spectre.
There is a problem here in the wasting of Bautista. Had he been cast pre-Guardians Of The Galaxy, Mendes could have been forgiven for giving him limited room for 'acting', but in that film he showed that he can deliver at least monosyllabic laughs. Keeping him quiet makes his casting feel rotundly uninspired. The larger problem though is, of course, to do with the choice of witticism. If swearing in criticism is lazy, swearing in a Bond kiss-off is downright criminal, especially given the writer's attitude towards one-liners in every scene previously. Landing on a convenient sofa in Mexico, Bond says nothing. Kicking Sciarra out of the helicopter, Bond says nothing. Waving at a shady character in Rome: nothing. Pulling alongside Bautista's car whilst flying a plane: again, we're given no line. Why add such a mundane one in for Hinx on the train? Again, choices such as this affect tone and Spectre's is rarely consistent.
There is consistency in the main underlying theme, although the fact that Mendes struggles to directly link it to his hero is telling of the struggle to drag 007 into the 21st Century. Spectre has a healthy distrust of government and, as one newspaper review highlighted, a post-Snowden awareness of privacy. The introduction of Scott's character (who I will forever think off as being in charge of 'C-Unit', thanks to the inference of some great, classically risqué Bond writing) gives us a superior to distrust, M (Ralph Fiennes) now firmly on Bond's side. An earlier, throwaway, scene tells us that C has achieved his position through some form of relationship with the home secretary, again leading Bond towards the attractively liberal. The way this plays out in the script though leads Bond away from the zeitgeist of personal data. Instead, this baton is taken up by an honest element within the security services; M, Moneypenny and Q (Ben Whishaw). It works for the film, but claims that Bond himself has adopted this superhero-esque 'protector of the people' persona are overblown. The character's concerns within Spectre are never anything but personal; self-preservation, redemption, a happy ending and a closing of business. Happily, whilst he is about it, he stops Oberhauser's shadowy organisation.
And so to Oberhauser himself and to Waltz, who I must admit I had prejudged. Waltz, thanks mainly to his English language breakout turn in Inglorious Basterds, is the perfect, slightly overblown Eurovillain. For that reason, his casting in Spectre as the perfect, slightly overblown Eurovillain (for, of course, Oberhauser is revealed as Blofeld) always rubbed me as uninspired. In fairness to Waltz he gives this his all by not giving it his all. His turn is restrained and composed and in his first appearance in Rome he is correctly mysterious and deadly. But this is still not only a role that Waltz was sculpted for but also a role he has himself at least semi-parodied, in 2011's The Green Hornet.
The result is that, first appearance aside, Blofeld very rarely feels genuinely threatening. Where Le Chiffre and Silva, in Casino Royale and Skyfall respectively, each seemed to have Bond in a corner at some point, Blofeld never really does. His henchmen feel less like Bond cannon-fodder and more like Hunger Games soldiers; faceless protectors from some odd future where everyone seems to have joined a cult which allows you only to wear black jumpsuits.
It speaks to Blofeld as a whole who is the very epitome of Spectre's inability to know whether it is past or future and thus to do either adequately. By the finale, Blofeld has disintegrated into the sort of villain who prints out pictures of Bond acquaintances and leaves them around a shell of a building whilst waiting for Bond (and it) to blow up. Blofeld is presented to us as the head of the shadowy collection of internationally active villains we have encountered throughout the Craig films, but would any of those villains have resorted to this sort of play-school finale?
The character, of course, gets his just desserts, but his conclusion is again revealing of the film's approach as whole. Having forced his helicopter down, Bond could kill Blofeld (he is, after all, an assassin) but, harking back to an earlier conversation between M and C, our hero opts not to use his licence to kill and walks off into the distance with Swann. Like Lucia before him, Blofeld's kiss-off works for Bond, but not for the character left in the lurch.
Bond's walk away from his adversary is, of course, all about Craig, which is why it only just works for the film and does not work for Blofeld, who ends up feeling even more insignificant and throwaway than he already did. The point though is to allow Craig to walk into the sunset, should he so wish, and allow Bond to be reborn once again. By that point there is the potential that the secret agent may have worked out his place in the modern world but, then again, there is also the potential that we will have to sit through several more conversations about it, before all is revealed.