The 24th entry in the long-running franchise concerning the adventures of super-spy James Bond has become something of a contentious subject amongst my friends. If the word Bond is uttered, usually in a bar after a few drinks, then the result is always the same. We will start by having a unanimous split decision as to whether Craig is a better bond than Connery, he is, although Connery certainly has the best bond films under his belt. From there the discussion will inevitably move onto Spectre, and whether the film is a boring, muddled, campy follow-up to Skyfall, or whether the film is a rather brilliant love-letter to a simpler time in the Bond Franchise, a film that does not attempt another re-invention of the formula, but is content to present a modern interpretation of precisely why audiences have continued to fall in love with the Bond series.
If there are any positives to Spectre, and there are many, despite what some people will say, is that it once again showcases the talent of Mendes as a director. The film is a visual masterpiece: whether it is gliding through the crowds of the day of the dead parade in Mexico, gazing at the stunning location of a clinic perched atop a mountain, or capturing a despondent bond travelling into the midst of a colossal fog in a sequence that strike this reviewer as a cross between the aquatic adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the gothic aesthetics of Dracula or The Woman in White. There are very few moments in Spectre that you are not gazing in awe at the screen, either from the gorgeous locations or the abundance of great action sequences.
The plot that ties these sequences together is one that attempts to wrestle the plot-lines from the first three Craig adventures while also laying the foundation for the next installment. Having foiled a terrorist attack during the brilliant opening sequence, a scene that allows Bond to showcase all of the skills a highly trained agent would need, including agility, hand-to-hand combat, both on the ground and inside a moving vehicle, and flying a malfunctioning helicopter; Bond discovers a clue that leads him into a direct conflict with shady organisation Spectre, led by mysterious figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who is planning on opening his own version of MI5 with help from his own agent, a slimy character whom Bond immediately calls C. The letter stands for careless, among other things that I will not reveal here. There are also some links between Oberhauser and Bond that I will not spoil, but anyone who has watched the previous incarnations of Bond will recognize the shadow of a classic villain, and more importantly their iconic pet.
Whilst Casino Royale showcased the emotional destruction of a young bond, and Skyfall focused on a Bond who was both physically as well as psychologically destroyed by his service to his country, the defining characteristic of the Bond in Spectre is a lack of confidence. This is the first time we have really seen the character come to terms with his life outside of the agency: the villain played by Waltz is not a character whose master plan has been thwarted by Bond, but is instead someone who is able to cut through the myths that surround Bond and destroy the people who are closest to him. The dynamic between these characters is fascinating, especially during an extended torture sequence that comes very close to matching the brutal violence of a similar scene in Casino Royale. The key difference is in the dynamic between the characters: if Le Chifre was unsuccessful in his attempt to physically and symbolically castrate Bond then Oberhauser is able to systematically cut through the bravado and non-chalant charm of Bond. “Can you hurry it up, nothing is as painful as listening to you talk” is the weak reply that highlights the power Oberhauser holds over our hero. Another source of concern for Bond is the introduction of bond girl Madeleine Swann (played by Lea Seydoux).
Swann is the reincarnation of the Diana Rigg character from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, just one of the many references to that film that appear in Spectre, as she is the female equivalent to Bond in almost every way. She is alluring, but can also repel, she is vulnerable but is not a victim: a quality that she shows in a scene in which Bond attempts to teach her to use a firearm. Their relationship is much stronger than the women in the previous Craig films, but this is actually one of the weaker elements of the film. There is very little chemistry between Craig and Seydoux while the relationship that has been built up has very little place in the world of Bond. This is a shame as Lea Seydoux is a terrific actress, but her character may be doomed to the role of plot device in the following installments.
Aside from a few weak elements, Spectre is a strong entry in the Bond franchise. The decision to focus on tying up the loose ends from the previous films means that there is a sense of progression when the credits begin to roll. As brilliant as the Craig films have been, with the exception of Quantum, they have suffered from stationary narratives: each of the films have tried to position themselves as the platform for the modern Bond series to rise, and have failed because the next installment had to wrestle with the threads left dangling from their predecessors. Spectre feels different in that it feels like the end of something, but more importantly lays the groundwork for something to rise in it’s place.