There are two James Bonds. The first is the wise-cracking, woman loving, silly gadget using, evil villain beating, eyebrow raising hero that holds his licence to kill with a large dose of campy eccentricity (thank you very much indeed Roger Moore *cough*). The second is the cold, brutal killing machine we’ve come to recognise in Daniel Craig’s more recent films – his licence comes with a heavy burden. After all, Bond is a spy, a killer and a misogynist – if anything he’s a likeable anti-hero who travels to glamorous locations to do a very un-glamorous job.
The opening of Spectre epitomises this latter Bond – a sequence set in Mexico City where he lures a woman to her hotel room before promptly leaving her to pursue his target, culminating in a violent mid-air fight over the city. This is a man who uses others in order to do his duty and as the Día de Muertos festival symbolises, it ends in death. It’s followed by Sam Smith’s quietly intense yet romantic song Writing’s On The Wall that certainly reflects the inner turmoil of Craig’s Bond as he’s continually haunted by his past, a theme mirrored by Thomas Newman’s orchestral score as well as the film title itself.
With this film, though, director Sam Mendes has amalgamated the two Bonds – the harsh realism of twentieth century Bond with the gadgets, women and megalomaniac villains of the past. It’s as if he’s trying to create the ultimate Bond film. But didn’t he do that already with Skyfall?
Together, the four Craig Bond films create a homogenous narrative arc, not only in plot but within the Bond canon. Casino Royale remains the high point as it tore up the rule book, but film by film Bond has been pieced back together – psychologically and structurally. Skyfall created a clean slate with the introduction of new characters, but Spectre now feels like a step backwards – it’s the most formulaic Bond in years.
It begins with that exciting opening, before introducing all the classic elements: awkward meetings with M (a stern Ralph Fiennes), gadgets from Q (the ever likeable Ben Whishaw), a bulky evil henchman (a mostly silent yet imposing Dave Bautista with shades of Jaws), car chases, snow chases (though minus skis), a train sequence reminiscent of From Russia With Love, and plenty more links to the past. Most of all there’s the base of Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser, with architecture and colour palette that’s ripped straight from 1962 – a fun throwback to the past but without straying into camp. Here we finally have a supervillain worthy of Bond, cleverly tying up the loose threads from the previous films into a satisfying conclusion. Initially introduced in suitably shadowy silhouette, you can’t imagine anyone but Waltz playing this role: weird, frightening and sadistic. He even has a pet cat. He’s also not the only villain, with Andrew Scott revelling in his role as the scheming Denbigh, though his story feels secondary to the main thread.
Spectre is often a thrilling retro ride with all the quips, glamour and tense action you’d expect, but it’s also somewhat predictable and doesn’t advance the formula it adheres to in any meaningful way – with its female characters in particular. Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is disappointingly stuck behind a desk after such a spectacular introduction in Skyfall; Monica Bellucci is woefully underused as mere sex object; and Lèa Seydoux doesn’t quite convince as a suitable love interest, though as a counterpart sultry killer she excels. Craig, though, continues to be an alluring presence, pairing machismo with elegant style and adding in a few more comic quips than before with a wry, charming smile. By contrast, Mendes’ directing feels a bit by-the-numbers: subtly stylish, yet lacking the standout shots and artistic vision of Skyfall. Thankfully Tom Ford provides plenty of style in Bond’s outfits – doesn’t every man dream of being dressed by him?
There’s a slight sense of disappointment with Spectre, then, despite it being an excellent spy thriller that moves slowly but ultimately satisfies. But then, this was never going to live up to the hype of the most successful Bond film in history. What remains is a worthy entry in the series and a fitting end to this particular story arc.
So where do we go from here? Can Bond move with modern times – can he be black, gay or even a she? Or does Spectre prove that Bond will always have a foot in the past? If there’s one thing there shouldn’t be in the next film, it’s Daniel Craig. He’s created a superb Bond that is a true embodiment of the character, a Cold War relic who’s equally an essential figure in modern cinema. It will certainly be a tough job for whoever comes next. Yet Spectre brings us neatly full circle. After this, it’s finally time for some fresh blood.
Watch: Spectre is out now.