This review contains minor spoilers.
Twenty twelve was a ruddy good year for us Brits. Her Maj the Queen celebrated 60 years of wrist-waving, we hosted a big Sports Day, and we were treated to arguably the best James Bond film ever in Skyfall. Sam Mendes’ first foray into the iconic franchise was brave enough to combine classic Bond camp (Bassey-esque song! Javier Bardem’s hair! Komodo dragons!) with a Freudian emotional core. Turning Judi Dench’s M into a Tennyson-quoting Bond girl/surrogate mother was a stroke of plotting genius which, along with the largely London-set action, created a Bond film that was surprisingly introspective, fitting into cool Britannia sentiment as snugly as an MI5 agent in an Aston Martin.
With almost exactly the same crack team on board for Spectre, things were looking very promising for the future of Bond, even though the title clearly harks back to a simpler past. SPECTRE is of course the organisation which caused Sean Connery so much bother in the 60s; it evokes shady boardrooms, bald leaders, aggressive Germans, fluffy cats, gimmicky henchman. If all that sounds familiar to you, then it is worth remembering that you have seen a version of SPECTRE more recently than the 1960s, but James Bond was played by Mike Myers and he drove a Shaguar instead of a DB-5.
Unfortunately, there is a difficult juggling act going on throughout Spectre which turns this latest outing into an oddly paced mess which leans towards the Quantum of Solace end of the Bond-ometer. On the one hand, Mendes is trying to keep alive the nostalgia present in Skyfall, and consistently nods to Bonds of yesteryear, but on the other is attempting to give Daniel Craig’s 007 his own fresh adventure, while also dealing with the baggage of previous films. The result is a film which appears trapped in two times; in fact, it is fitting that Spectre shares its name with a ghoul, for it moves tentatively, with the languid pace of the dead.
That said, the opening scene is anything but ghostly, despite the Day of the Dead costumes. We find Bond in New Mexico, and Mendes expertly re-introduces us to 007 with a superb tracking shot. Bond is masked, but Craig’s famous blue eyes shine through, reminding us of his effortless suavity. A thrilling chase and a gravity-challenging helicopter stunt later, and we are firmly back in modern Bond territory. Even Sam Smith’s much-derided song floats beautifully over the opening credits, which reinstate the humble octopus as nature’s sexiest animal.
From here, Mendes ramps the exposition up to 0010, and we get a large chunk of talking. There is talking on the phone, talking at a desk, talking in corridors, talking at a funeral, talking at a bigger desk, talking fully clothed, and talking partially clothed. While this sets the tone of Spectre as an intriguing, 60s-style thriller, I’m just not sure this kind of tone works with a modern audience who can watch Tom Cruise literally dangle out of a flying plane for the same price. It turns out that Bond is tracking a figure from his past, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who connects all the things that have happened since Casino Royale, because of… Well, you see, he… It’s something to do with… Reasons. Again, Mendes distracts from an original story in favour of trying to link past films, as if audiences can no longer digest modern cinema unless there is some implication that they might be watching a big old franchise.
In fairness, some of the slowness of Spectre works, you just have to make sure you are awake for those parts. Oberhauser’s introduction, for example, is a sinister, shadowy affair, all nervous glances and whispers, controlled with unnerving charm by Christoph Waltz. While there is no denying that Waltz is a good choice for a Bond villain, he seems far too relaxed here. While this in Javier Bardem’s Silva was a part of his creepiness, in Waltz it comes across as laziness. One can understand why he would want to distance his part from Dr Evil (although his admission that James is ‘a kind of brother’ to him is far too reminiscent of the closing revelations in Goldmember) but there is no clear vision for the character here.
Character is a big problem throughout Spectre, in fact. Daniel Craig doesn’t quite fit the suit this time, and his sardonic remarks cannot hide the fact that he is yet again forced to fall in love with a girl who probably won’t stay alive long enough to be in the sequel. After the perfection of Judi Dench, the Bond girl has taken a colossal step back this time. The left-wing media have been quick to point out that Léa Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann has a PhD, knows how to load a gun and orders dirty martinis, as if this makes her the Pankhurst of the Bond universe, but it is important to note that she is only a feminist icon in the gender-skewed world of Bond. She still goes to bed with him after he saves her life, and her speaking role is largely reduced to asking questions. Basically, if Bond say do, Seydoux does.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast, who were so integral to Skyfall, become data-entry drones this time round, and are largely just on the other end of the phone for Bond. Ben Whishaw’s Q comes out unscathed, and even gets a trip to Austria, but there are big disappointments here. Monica Belluci’s cliché mob wife squeezes out a single tear from a Botoxed face and is then erased for her trouble; Dave Bautista’s silent muscle has a promising entry but predictable exit, and Naomi Harris’s Miss Moneypenny is reduced to holding folders and riding shotgun.
All of this would be fine if we were distracted by jaw-dropping action, but even here Mendes nods to the past by including a range of uninspiring set pieces. A super-car chase through the piazzas of Rome could have been witty and original, but instead is just a scene where two cars go quite fast, but one car goes a little bit faster than the other. Equally, another chase through Alpine snows and a fight on the slowest train in cinema history are horribly old fashioned in their direction and totally lacking in surprises. The climactic scenes have some moments of discomfort and probably the only funny line in the whole film (in involves Ralph Fiennes and the C-word), but it ends messily. Metaphorically speaking, the film attempts a bombastic orchestral finish, but achieves a mushy Sam Smith ballad.
While admirable in parts, Mendes’ dedication to homage means that he has made something that neither shakes nor stirs.