I wonder if the filmmakers of Spectre saw Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation earlier this year and went ‘oh shit, we wrote pretty much the same movie’. This was one of my most highly anticipated movies for 2015 – how could it not be, with Christoph Waltz joining the already proven Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes for another Bond film? The same team which adopted an extremely personal story for the eponymous British spy in Skyfall is now back with an overworked movie that can only be termed disappointing. While it may be better than half of the 24 that stand in the saga, and perhaps close to best in terms of visuals and cinematography, it is only fair that it is judged in light of the previous three in this ongoing version of Bond – a grittier, cold and deftly witty assassin. However, in its unwise attempt at mixing the gritty and the Moore of James Bond, Spectre only manages a watered-down plot, shaky characters and a misplaced script, making it a colossal waste of talent.
Spectre finds Agent 007 following a trail in Mexico during Dia de Muertos and opens with a breathtaking tracking shot that sets up the immaculate visuals we are treated to in the film. From the very get-go, another thing is clear as well: there is an almost marked shift from the more personal and dark tone that has come to define the Craig era to the more campy and quip-saturated Roger Moore era. The part where Bond is back at MI6 is wherefrom things get creepily similar to the plot of the Rogue Nation, as long as you replace the ‘Syndicate’ with ‘Spectre’ and Alec Baldwin with Ralph Fiennes. In short, MI6 is undergoing a possible takeover by the government to be handed over to an information intelligence agency, with the age-old argument that this is an era of information and not ground agents. But Bond – the Spy Who Doesn’t Give a Damn – has his mind set on only the trail, disobeying anything M or anyone has to say, as usual. With a little help from Q, he sets out on a hunt that will lead him to several exotic locations in Europe, presenting us audience with a delectable picture show, somewhere in the middle of which they forgot to add an interesting plot.
It’s not that the latest Bond film should be avoided like it’s the Black Death; simply put, it feels uncertain of itself and fails to breathe life into its individually interesting elements with a tight script, something that both Casino Royale and Skyfall used in good measure. There was clearly a lot of work put into this film: the visuals and consistently good acting from most of the cast giving it a place above many others. The problem is that there isn’t much given for the actors to do in this film besides utter caricature-ish lines and take the action to as many environments as possible, from helicopter to snowy slopes to super-villain lair. The plot is subpar and derivative of many spy films before it – and I’m sure some of them even within the Bond franchise – with the chase leading upto the reveal which is also handled rather messily. It is clear that Mendes’ idea of a good Bond story is one where the stakes are personal, and while it worked out great in Skyfall, the same feels overreached and undeserved in Spectre, where every glimpse at the stakes is less than impactful and breezed over. For a film where the focus is the trail Bond is following, and the pieces of the puzzle falling in place, the way it unfolds is unremarkable and only brightened by the action-heavy scenes scattered throughout.
If Casino Royale was clever in replacing most of the generic chases and physical action with a game of bluffs, this one is all for embracing the physicality of Bond, which is not necessarily a bad thing. No, this is where Bond steers back to his days of action in the ‘70s, filled with all sorts of ridiculous vehicular chases and sleeping around, both striking disjunctive chords with the assassin that Craig has built his character to be. The threat that occupies the majority of the screentime could literally be named ‘thug’, being one tough muscle wrapped up in a suit who utters but one word in the entire film. Dave Bautista however was perfectly cast as the brute of one word, making us feel the danger as Bond did, a quality I only wish the main villain could have brought to the experience. The action itself is masterfully shot, making you appreciate how much they embraced the glorious days and went through with all of it, despite perhaps making this film stick out in an awkward way. The car chase through the streets of Rome especially calls for applause, making for an extremely nail-biting sequence which satisfied to no end. Ah, every time I think of this, I cannot help but imagine the far superior movie we could have gotten with the plot and the villain being given the same attention.
Now the pointedly problematic parts of this film for me were the script, the execution of the villain, and Bond’s romance. What had me most excited for this film was the sheer potential of Christoph Waltz playing a Bond villain; which turned out to be an absolute disappointment, and not for the brevity of his time on screen. No, every moment Oberhauser gets close to shaking Bond up mentally or doing anything that would leave a lasting impact on the characters or the audience, it is immediately brushed away or replaced with explosions. This is not to take away from Waltz himself, who is clearly giving his best to the role he’s been given: unfortunately one which mirrors the old chin-stroking villains closer than realistic human antagonists of the recent films. There is so little imagination put into the script that everyone ends up saying the most generic lines that could be thought of at the drop of a hat, something fatal for a newly introduced villain. This lack of imagination and character goes beyond just his lines, from his very method which is to *too obvious to call spoiler* take away every woman in Bond’s life to the dentist-chair torture device to drill holes in his head. And what’s more, instead of embracing his evil genius and at least going full steam ahead with his evil plans, Oberhauser fails to do much more than brag to Bond about the many sly ways he’s ‘gotten’ him in the past. It’s not even as though his character ever has a real purpose in making Agent 007’s life agony beyond the reveal – intended to shock – on which not more than a moment’s thought is spent, by either Oberhauser or Bond.
I’m not going to dwell on the smaller details that fail to make any sort of sense in this realistic version of James Bond such as the brain-meddling drills having no apparent effect on Bond, but I refuse to buy the romance that wins Bond after all this time. As I said before, this Bond is clearly not the same that learnt the lesson at the end of Casino Royale where he refuses to trust anyone – based on a betrayal by a woman he loved, too – and instead throws trust around on ‘instinct’. It surely must be this unknown instinct that leads him also to fall in love with Madeleine Swann, who aside from being the daughter of an assassin falls short of any connection with the man that is Bond. Instead, after saving her once from Bautista’s character, Bond seems to be madly in love and even perhaps willing to give up his duty for someone who to the audience fails to rise above the ordinary Bond girl. There is no reason I can see that our favourite British spy would fall for this woman unless the words that Vesper uttered in Casino Royale – so unimaginatively repeated by Madeleine in this one – are some sort of oral key to his heart. Every romantic moment between the pair feels undeserved as for one, the script is too deplorable to incite any sparks, and two, Bond clearly has more chemistry with Moneypenny and Q.
At the end of the day, Spectre falls short of all expectations aside from the cinematography and scenic imagery, an unfortunate thing to be called the highlight of any spy movie. Although all the actors embody their characters in appearance and manner, this fails to translate to the words they speak, making even actors such as Christoph Waltz and Ralph Fiennes little more than cartoons. Daniel Craig is still solid in his role as Agent 007, something he has defined and made his own since 2006, but even that is caught up in a disjointed hunt with poorly written plot-turns. However, the film definitely does not bore its audiences, with chases and fight scenes rallying one after another to deprive you of your nails. Where Spectre truly fails its audience is in the absence of new characters that invoke emotion, and more importantly the half-assed plot which lacks any satisfactory peak or conclusion, and every minute reminding us of its similarity to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which isn’t a good thing. At least that one had better writing, which is truly saying something.