by John S
WARNING: Some SPOILERS.
Just over three years ago in late 2012, the James Bond franchise was riding a wave of popularity higher than any since the early glory days of Goldfinger and Thunderball in the mid-1960s. Skyfall, the 23rd entry in this longest-running active franchise in cinema history, was released that November and proved to be immensely popular with critics and audiences alike. To be frank, some of its plot details weren’t exactly original, having been cribbed from other franchises (the hard drive with MI-6 operatives’ identities is basically the NOC List from the first Mission: Impossible movie) and even previous Bond films (the element of M having an expanded role with her past coming back to haunt her, courtesy of a villain with whom she has personal ties, was first used in the very underrated 19th entry, The World is Not Enough). Still, Skyfall used these tropes deftly and took enough liberties of its own with the tried-and-true-and-therefore-not-always-fresh “Bond Formula.”
The result was a nicely atypical entry into the Bond franchise that finally saw Judi Dench’s formidable MI-6 chief take center stage – even more so than in The World is Not Enough. Let’s face it: M was basically the main Bond Girl, er, Woman in Skyfall, with Eve (Naomie Harris) and Severine (Berenice Marlohe) in decidedly secondary (but still very engaging) roles. Also jettisoned was the usual overblown Bond Flick finale that often involved Bond and his leading lady leading an assault on the Big Bad’s headquarters, usually some high-tech lair located in a hollowed-out volcano, floating city, underground complex, nuclear submarine, offshore oil rig, giant blimp, or mountain peak fortress, to name a few. Nope, this time, Bond (Daniel Craig) and M retreated to Bond’s run-down family ranch in the Scottish Highlands, where they lured the deranged Silva (Javier Bardem) and his cronies into a stand-off that is equal parts Home Alone and Straw Dogs, with shades of Night of the Living Dead. Happily, the resulting climax was far from ridiculous, given that mash-up. Frankly, we needed something different at that point in the Bond franchise – and Skyfall more than provided it, with audiences around the world eating it up. A global box-office take of $1.1 billion can’t be wrong. Truthfully, Skyfall doesn’t quite crack my personal Top 10 James Bond Movies list – but it comes very close.
Now, here we are just over three years later. Spectre, the 24th entry into the Bond franchise and Skyfall‘s much-anticipated follow-up, has just finished a global theatrical run to the tune of about $880 million. That’s markedly less than Skyfall‘s numbers, but still streets ahead of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace‘s. Truthfully, it was always doubtful that Spectre would match or even top Skyfall‘s box-office performance, given that the latter was able to capitalize on the 50th Anniversary goodwill of the franchise back in 2012, as well as having arguably “softer” competition during its release window. Spectre had no such anniversary hoopla to piggy-back on, and it had to contend with the pre-release build-up of hype for a certain juggernaut called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Given all that, I think we can safely say worldwide box-office of $880 million is more than respectable. Nope, it’s not in the ticket sales department that Spectre is suffering in comparison to Skyfall. It’s in the word-of-mouth department.
Depending on which critic you follow, Spectre is either “the worst Bond film in 30 years” (courtesy of Forbes.com) – or “James Bond in top form” and “having everything anyone could possibly want in James Bond movie” (per the San Francisco Chronicle). All the waystations in between these two extremes are occupied by pretty much everyone else, critic and mere moviegoer alike. This is in stark contrast to Skyfall, which was almost universally-loved. Sure, it had its detractors – but nowhere near the number that Spectre has. Where does my own opinion stand within the critical spectrum? Well, let’s just say that I lean more towards the “pro” side, versus the “con” contingent. However, I do have some significant reservations about the direction the franchise has chosen to go in Spectre, as well as some of the story choices made, and can understand some of the gripes of the naysayers. Let’s save that for later. For now, let’s discuss what 007 is up to in his latest mission.
Spectre starts off with a bravura pre-titles sequence in Mexico City during an improbably lavish Day of the Dead celebration. Bond, along with pararmour du jour Estrella (Stephanie Sigman), tracks a mysterious assassin named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) through the crowds decked out in Walking Dead attire. They branch off into a hotel, an elevator, and finally a suite where Bond doffs his Grim Reaper get-up and leaves Estrella to prance, cat-like, out the window and along the parapet of the hotel’s roof, a rifle at her side – all masterfully shot in one long, seemingly-unbroken take. This leads to a botched assassination of Sciarra that results in half a city block being demolished, with Bond and our baddie later winding up beating the tar out of each other in an airborne chopper doing crazy loop-de-loops over a crowded city square full of revelers. Needless to say, Sciarra bites it – and Bond flies off with a trophy: an enigmatic ring etched with an octopus-like figure. This leads to turmoil back in London and the MI-6 offices, which are under siege from a rival government agency that want to take them over. Led by the slick and hissable C (Andrew Scott), the takeover has already gotten New M (Ralph Fiennes) in a dither. It doesn’t help that Bond was apparently in rogue status when he was down in Mexico City – and basically started an international incident with his battle with Sciarra, with nothing more than an octopus ring to show for it.
Bond refuses to tell New M what he was doing down in Mexico City and why. He does share his motive with Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), though: turns out that Old M (Dame Judi Dench) sent Bond a secret video message right before they absconded to the Scottish hinterlands back in Skyfall, in essence giving him one last mission from beyond the grave. Bond follows a trail that takes him to Rome, where he meets Sciarra’s gorgeous widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). Lucia feeds him some vital info that leads to a midnight meeting among some sinister big-wigs, the shadowy leader of whom makes out Bond hiding in the balcony, leading to a nocturnal car chase through an inexplicably deserted downtown Rome. Escaping this scrape, Bond reconnects with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace baddie Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who points Bond in the direction of his estranged daughter, Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), who can help him. She eventually tells him that weird board meeting he interrupted back in Rome was run by a group called, um, Spectre, which leads to Bond and Madeline teaming up to unravel the origins of this mysterious organization that revels in pulling the global strings from behind the scenes, not to mention giving out questionable jewelry as membership tokens. Meanwhile, New M, Moneypenny, Tanner (Rory Kinnear), and Q (Ben Whishaw) lend able support from home base. In Q’s case, sometimes from right in the field, as well. Not surprisingly, everything comes full circle to the turmoil back in London involving C’s plan to eradicate the Double-Oh program and MI-6. However, who is the real baddie behind Spectre? Is it the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who was supposedly killed 20 years ago in an avalanche? And what ties does he have with Bond?
To answer those questions, you need to see the film yourself. Yes, Spectre is definitely worth a look. It doesn’t have the atypical flow of Skyfall and decidedly follows the tried-and-true Bond Flick Formula, giving it a more predictable air. Nevertheless, director Sam Mendes and his cast manage to make the film a mostly engaging experience. Daniel Craig is probably the lightest and breeziest he’s been in any of his movies, giving Spectre more of a traditional “fun” Bond feel. However, contrary to some pundits, neither he nor the film go so far in the tongue-in-cheek department as to resemble a modern Roger Moore. Spectre most definitely still has some of that Craig Era darkness and grit, despite the increased flippancy. Where this film stumbles a bit is in the usage of the iconic Bond Ladies. Monica Bellucci is striking and terrific as Lucia Sciarra; however, given all the press surrounding her age-appropriate casting, her role is merely a cameo. Lucia exists merely to give Bond some important intel, get seduced, then disappear from the action. Why waste the hauntingly gorgeous and talented Bellucci by giving her a “go-to-the-restroom-or-concession-stand-at-the-wrong-moment-and-you-might-miss-her” part? Lucia’s fleeting connection to the plot might be okay if it didn’t hamper Bond’s relationship to Spectre‘s main heroine, Dr. Madeline Swann. Bond’s connection to Madeline is supposed to be the film’s emotional center, and sets up some important decisions on his part very late in the film. However, we don’t meet her until nearly halfway through the movie and the script barely gives Bond and Madeline time to, um, bond. Fortunately, Lea Seydoux is gifted at expressing a lot without saying a lot, and the role still works. The combo of resilience and vulnerability that she gives Madeline makes us understand why Bond would feel compelled to stand by her side, through thick and thin. Still, Spectre might have rivaled and even surpassed Skyfall if Lucia would have been edited out entirely – and Madeline introduced much sooner into the narrative to allow her relationship with Bond to be fully realized. We might have had a modern day On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on our hands. What a delight that would have been.
However, what truly hampers Spectre is a third-act plot twist that is supremely ill-advised, to say the least. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but suffice it to say that the Bond producers seem intent on copying the Marvel films by creating a “super-hero/arch-enemy universe” that connects all the previous Craig Bond films, starting with Casino Royale. I don’t have an issue with that. In fact, I think that’s a great way to build dramatic momentum and emotional investment in the franchise in a way that’s never been done before – but it needs to be done right. Unfortunately, the method the powers-that-be behind the Bond series have chosen is very silly. It’s basically the kind of thing the Austin Powers films have used to ridicule the Bond franchise. The problem is those movies did it jokingly and in an absurdist vein. Spectre plays it dead serious – and we’re supposed to buy it. Wait, what? This element is one of the main faults that Spectre‘s detractors use against it – and I can’t honestly say I blame them. Without this singularly ill-conceived element, and with a more compelling (and less ridiculous) twist to link all three previous Craig Bond films to this one, then even with the rather rushed Bond-Madeline romance Spectre would have been a much stronger film, possibly a minor classic. Instead, it is merely a solid film that is a bit of a come-down after Skyfall, and one that has left a decidedly mixed view of the franchise. This is unfortunate, given how high public opinion of James Bond was just three years ago with all the post-Skyfall love.
Which brings us to the ghost, er, Spectre of James Bond’s future. With their decision to go in the direction they chose at the end of Spectre, the Bond producers have unwittingly brought the franchise to a bit of a crossroads: continue down the chosen path that many have reacted against, or ignore it and possibly even reboot the series without Daniel Craig? To be fair, I think that Craig’s comments about being weary of the role might have been taken a bit out context by the media, and I hope he comes back to do at least one more movie that somehow puts the series back on track. I just hope that lamentable twist in Spectre‘s third act somehow gets less silly with time, because if the producers insist on continuing with it, the future of the James Bond films may very well depend on it. Now is the time to ask if that would be a wise thing to do – or simply go in another direction while the going is good. With Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation displaying longer legs at the North American box-office this year (opening gross vs. final gross) than Spectre, and with the formidable Jason Bourne franchise (seemingly more popular with American audiences) roaring back to life this summer with, um, Jason Bourne for another round of less-nonsense action, our boy James may get lost in the shuffle a bit. It may behoove the folks who bankroll his missions to take a step back and take stock, before James Bond becomes indistinguishable from Austin Powers.
In closing, where Spectre fits in my own personal James Bond Movies Ranking:
1. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
2. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
3. CASINO ROYALE
4. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
7. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
8. LICENCE TO KILL
10. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS
12. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
13. QUANTUM OF SOLACE
15. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
16. DR. NO
17. TOMORROW NEVER DIES
18. LIVE AND LET DIE
19. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
20. A VIEW TO A KILL
21. DIE ANOTHER DAY
23. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.