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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Spectre movie review: Bond goes backward

Spectre yellow light

After a truly spectacular and fresh opening sequence, everyone might as well be enacting a Bond puppet show, which is sometimes unpleasantly retro-icky.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved Casino Royale and Skyfall

I’m “biast” (con): didn’t love Quantum of Solace

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The opening gambit of Spectre — the fourth outing for the 21st century’s James Bond — is absolutely spectacular. It begins with a long and apparently uncut sequence in which the secret agent and a lady friend wend their way through raucous Day of the Dead revelers in Mexico City, through streets heaving with partiers, into a fancy hotel (where the party continues), up to a room. They are dressed for the mock morbid mood, gloomy yet merry, and we catch that fun-ereal contagion: if soaking in this gruesome funk doesn’t make you want to instantly sign up for a Halloween trip to Mexico, you may actually be dead inside. And then it graduates to authentically thrilling, as Bond leaps out the hotel window and across rooftops to do a Secret Agent Thing; this is where I started to doubt if this had actually been shot in one take, because now we get camera perspectives that cannot be real (or would at least have been incredibly difficult to pull off). But it doesn’t matter. However this was crafted, we are powerfully in the moment with Bond as he goes to work.

There is atmosphere to spare here, and humor, and action-movie grace: the helicopter stunt bit with which the sequence climaxes is breathtaking. And it is exhilarating. If this is how Spectre begins, what amazing goodies does it have up its sleeve for the meat of the movie?

As it turns out, not much at all. Spectre never reaches that same pinnacle of movie-movie joy again; it’s like director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty) steps out once the opening has unspooled, and leaves the rest of the movie to his understudy. The thin plot never catches fire, either. After the brilliant previous installment, Skyfall (also directed by Mendes) I suspected that perhaps there was a grand unifying theory coming together to wrap all these new Bond adventures into one big tale, and a way to move a dated and unpleasantly retro franchise forward. And, indeed, underlying connections between all four films are laid out here… yet Spectre only moves Bond backward. The earlier films —Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and particularlySkyfall — hinted that there was a place for a Cold War relic like Bond in the new global paradigm, and actively worked to make room for him. But now Spectre throws that all away, even as it believes it is making its slam-dunk case for the likes of Bond today. It’s difficult to believe that the same minds behind Skyfall — screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, this time joined by Jez Butterworth — which seemed to have a smart grasp on the anxieties of our time, got it so wrong this time around. (They seem to think, for one, that it’s cartoonish supervillains who are instituting total-surveillance schemes, and that legitimate governments would oppose such measures. Adorable.)

In the immediate aftermath of the events of Skyfall, Bond (Daniel Craig: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn) has gone rogue, chasing hints of a big bad guy around the globe, while back in London, the new M (Ralph Fiennes: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Invisible Woman) is battling with C (Andrew Scott: Pride, Sherlock), who is about to launch a new blanket electronic surveillance scheme that will replace the 00 program: something something about drone warfare being more efficient than spies with a license to kill. It’s an idea that the movie doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with — Bond can be just as indiscriminate as a drone strike — but it does give 007 a literal ticking clock to race against.

It’s a dull race, however. Apart from occasional explosions of not entirely undiverting action — the plane-versus-SUV game of chicken is mildly amusing — Bond’s globetrotting and spycraft is dreary and perfunctory this time around: very little of the brains or verve of Casino Royale or Skyfall turn up here. There’s nothing in the least bit surprising or unexpected about anything Bond uncovers on his journeys: if we are meant to be startled by the things he learns about the mysterious criminal organization called Spectre (we are offered no hint of what that name means) or its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz: Horrible Bosses 2, Muppets Most Wanted), startlement fails to materialize. “You are a kite dancing in a hurricane,” a bad guy tells Bond, which is wonderfully poetically sinister, implying that Bond cannot hope to defeat the menace he is up against. But we never see a Spectre that lives up to that.

Everyone might as well be enacting a Bond puppet show, which sometimes descends into that unpleasantly retro ickiness, as in the sequence with Monica Bellucci (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Shoot ’Em Up). For all the astonished to-do over a Bond “girl” being an actual contemporary of Bond, instead of a woman young enough to be his daughter, Bellucci’s character is completely superfluous except as someone for Bond to mechanically bed, as if as part of a box-ticking exercise for Essential Bond Scenes: they’ve barely met before they are engaging in the unsexiest grappling imaginable, and then her character is completely forgotten, never spoken of or seen again, even though her tiny slice of the story suggests she won’t be, that Bond will have to circle back round to her. But the movie no longer has any use for her, even though it drags itself on for an unforgivably long two-and-a-half-hour slog.

Even the second-best section of the film, after Mexico City, eventually trips over itself with awkward Bondian self-consciousness. It starts out all desert romanticism, classy and smart and funny, as Bond and the daughter (Léa Seydoux: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blue Is the Warmest Color) of one of his old enemies travel in and around Tangiers in search of Spectre’s HQ. And then the mood is lost with the deployment of what is perhaps meant to be a sort of punchline, but might as well be a placard that reads Insert Obligatory Sex Scene Here. (Seydoux, at 17 years younger than Craig, is almost young enough to be his daughter.)

Of course the sex is as empty and as bloodless and as tween-friendly as the violence, which is a particular problem here when there’s nothing but old-school Bond sex and violence on offer. And yet little here works on the level of nostalgia, either. It just feels trite and tired. Which is a particular disappointment for a series that had, until now, avoided that trap.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Spectre for its representation of girls and women.

yellow light 2.5 stars

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Spectre (2015)
US/Can release: Nov 06 2015
UK/Ire release: Oct 26 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    So basically they used an argument from the real-world intelligence community – spies on the ground versus ELINT – that was new and timely in, um, the mid 1980s. Wow.

  • Except the movie doesn’t even really develop that as any kind of argument.

  • Bluejay

    Skyfall actually gave me the sense, by the end, that they wanted to take Bond backward. We got back a male version of M, got Q installed, got Moneypenny in place (at her desk and not in the field), and it was the old Bond setup all over again. (Even Adele’s theme song, gorgeous as it is, is a throwback to the old Bond themes instead of the rock edginess of Chris Cornell’s or Jack White/Alicia Keys’ songs.) So I’m not surprised this new film continues retreading old ground.

  • You’re probably right. That didn’t occur to me at the time, though.

  • Captain Megaton

    And not just Moneypenny at a desk, but *the* desk, Moneypenny’s desk. It was nostalgia overload.

    I’m seeing a split in opinion between the people who liked the emotional high stakes of Skyfall and those who found those story arcs overwrought and false. (I take the latter view)

    But face it, even if you liked Skyfall you must admit that you can’t do plot points like M dying every movie! If you aren’t happy with Bond just going out and doing regular Bond stuff, you are probably watching the wrong franchise.

  • Bluejay

    I like watching Bond do “regular Bond stuff.” But you can have a Bond film that feels fresh and isn’t wallowing in nostalgia (I thought Casino Royale pretty much got it right).

  • treta

    Agreed with Bluejay – Skyfall really set the stage for the series’ regression, and not just in gender roles and male gaze. Casino Royale was wonderful in that it portrayed Bond as he is, a villain working for the good side, in his vulnerability and his unethical-ity. But while the audience (should) know that, and Daniel Craig knows that, I never got the sense in Skyfall that the screenwriters or Sam Mendes knows that. Bond is treated like a sympathetic protagonist at every stage, even when seducing a former sex slave and shrugging off her death. I liked the attempted themes of redemption and renewel, but the inevitability of stagnation started to dawn on me around the time they had Judi Dench heroically defending the shady things a government could accomplish with lack of oversight, using poetry – because it was the only thing the writers could to do defend their Bond, the way the pushed him back into the corner of all things 1950’s. Sad to know that Spectre continues the trend, but it looks like it might be the last Bond outing for a little while at least.

  • Jujijoker Jones

    The problem is that it doesn’t sound as if it is Bond doing regular Bond stuff. A conventional M sends Bond off to investigate a small scale issue that mushrooms into a global threat is exactly what could have worked but instead they tried to smoosh nostalgia and change for the sake of change. Casino Royale remains the best of the Craig run, because it hit formula beats whilst still doing a thorough make over of the main character.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Definitely 3rd of 4 for the Craig era. But otherwise still better than pretty much any Bond since “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

    The biggest problem seems to be one of over-writing. The script just screams “troubled production” and “creative differences”. Too many conflicts between key members of the production team being played out on screen. Trying to make everyone happy, I don’t know that they made anyone happy in the end. That may be why Craig himself has seemed so down on the character and the franchise. He took a co-producer credit, but I don’t think his argument about who the character is and what the theme of the film should be won the day. If anything, the winning argument seems to have been “Yeah, but, nostalgia!”

  • Allen W

    Spectre. You have failed this franchise.
    Worst Bond flick since TWINE. Thin plot. Indulgent slow scenes that give the viewer time to think about the thin plot and realize how ridiculous it is. A revealed villain that just doesn’t go anywhere — why is he sending the Mute Thug after Bond if he wants Bond alive to give him a tour of his lair and monologue the plot to him again? What’s Bond’s plan at the desert train station — stand around and wait for the villain to pick him up for said tour, monologue, and torture? Wow was that lair conveniently poorly designed. Just too chock full of plot contrivances and railroads to get Bond from scene to scene.

  • I feel you have been a bit too harsh in your analysis. Spectre does have its moments… but it is also the weakest of the four films starring Craig as 007 save Quantum of Solace. The culprit is its weak storyline and a runtime that’s the longest ever for a Bond film. However, the action is topnotch and the fight sequences featuring Daniel Craig and Dave Batista are the movie’s real highlight. Spectre proves to be a worthy addition to the James Bond film franchise but unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall it fails to leave a lasting impact. Spectre is an attempt on the part of the makers to pay homage to the classic 007 movies but the execution only reflects their confused state of mind. The creative think-tank must quickly decide if it wants to return to the classic 007 elements or build upon the new ones that Casino Royale brought in. Despite its aforementioned shortcomings, Spectre serves as a pleasant viewing experience and is a must watch for the Bond movie enthusiasts. 7/10
    My complete review can be read at:


  • Race_Dissident

    Hmm. I wonder if you would be as disturbed by sex between men as you apparently are by heterosexual sex between two adults.

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