***Warning: Major spoilers ahead. ***
The new generation of Daniel Craig Bond movies was heralded as a gritty take on the Bond franchise, ditching the outlandish spy tech and diabolical supervillains for more visceral action and a dose of emotional vulnerability – a rebranding of the Bond franchise for the 21st century. The movies culminated in the excellent Skyfall, which showcased Bond at his most vulnerable. While Spectre attempts to continue that formula, it also tries to hearken back to the campier, flashier and sexier Bond films of old, but this hackneyed union of grit and camp makes the film feel like a tonally-inconsistent, illogical, and muddled mess.
In this film, Bond faces his biggest enemy yet – Spectre, a super-secret criminal organization headed by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser, one that covertly perpetuates terrorist attacks all over the world in order to nudge world leaders to agree to share surveillance information with Spectre’s vast intelligence apparatus, giving them control of much of the world’s information. To what end, the film is never clear, but we can safely assume that the serpentine machinations of such organizations assure a steady cash-flow.
But in establishing Spectre as the Big Bad, the film strains credulity. It tries to claim that the villains in the previous films were in fact components of this organization. Worse, the film makes the central conflict out to be part of an age-old personal vendetta. Spectre head honcho Oberhauser reveals that he is in fact Bond’s step-brother; resentful that the orphaned Bond had been showered in attention by his father, he has become “the author of all of Bond’s pain”, spitefully killing off all the women in Bond’s life (and yes, that includes everyone from Vesper Lind to Judi Dench’s M). This attempt to retcon the Craig Bond franchise into an overarching continuity falls flat because it feels so poorly-conceived, and trivializes Oberhauser into a vindictive brat with abandonment issues.
Oh, and by the way, Oberhauser is actually Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the name came from his mother’s side). The reveal couldn’t have been more flat and uninteresting – with Bond in the villain’s lair and Oberhauser subjecting him to some over-complicated instrument of torture that appears to have no lasting effect on Bond’s faculties. Then a cat crawls onto Bond’s lap and Oberhauser leans close and whispers his true name into Bond’s ear. This half-baked piece of fanservice has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie, and Blofeld is ultimately taken down by the film’s end.
And Blofeld himself – where do we start? Waltz is wasted on the role. Blofeld adheres to the campy and anachronistic portrayal of a cat-stroking, dastardly plot-explainer, with an unhealthy love for over-elaborate criminal schemes. Raoul Silva was a far more chilling (and effective) antagonist for the general tone and style of the Daniel Craig era films. Blofeld revels in doing ridiculous things like kidnapping Bond’s love interest and hiding her in a building wired up for demolition – and get this – he gets his henchmen to print and paste pictures of the dead women in Bond’s life all over the walls of the building, spray-painting taunting messages to Bond on the walls. If you put as much effort into making your criminal plots more airtight as you did into thinking up of mindgames for Bond to ignore, you’d be ruling the world by now, Blofeld. I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1990s and Austin Powers. This is Dr. Evil type stuff (ironic because Dr. Evil is himself a ripoff of Blofeld). Blofeld is a terrible mastermind supervillain, and because of that, his chairmanship of Spectre seems sillier and less believable than it could’ve been. He doesn’t fit into the new, grittier Bond mythos at all.
In trying to capture a more conventional James Bond tone, the film also strains the bounds of believability in its plotting. In the film, the James Bond that was so carefully built up in the preceding films has somehow vanished, replaced by a suaver, overly self-assured superspy without the emotional depth displayed in the previous films. This newly confident Bond isn’t wracked by self-doubt or uncertainty, allowing him to commit all manner of ill-thought out stunts that would almost certainly have ended in disaster for him if it were not for prodigious application of plot armor: visiting the widow of a Spectre operative he assassinated in full view of all her guards. Wearing said operative’s ring to waltz into a Spectre meeting, and barely escaping with his life after leading his pursuers on a wild car chase through Rome, and not even bothering to check his car’s various functionalities before using them. Carelessly leading Spectre operatives to the location of Mr White’s daughter, who has information about the organization. Strolling into Blofeld’s secret base with said daughter, now Bond girl.
This last sequence is doubly ridiculous. Bond walks into Blofeld’s lair, is captured and tortured, and only wins the day because Blofeld lacked the foresight to perhaps strip Bond of all his possessions while he was unconscious. Someone should tell Bond that plans that work because of your enemies’ incompetence are not good plans. And when Bond makes his escape? He mows like half a dozen people down without any apparent effort, shoots a conveniently placed gas pipeline, and escapes in a helicopter while the entire facility inexplicably blows up. Sequences like these are the glory days of the old Bond, but they don’t fit into the new continuity of these films.
Speaking of Bond girls, Bond’s dalliance with Dr Swann also seems like rote lip-service to Bond tradition. Their romance is formulaic Bond-girl type stuff, and Swann’s declaration of love for him makes little logical sense (they literally hook up after working together to kill a Spectre henchman). Later, Blofeld kidnaps Swann and makes her into a damsel-in-distress to create a moral dilemma for Bond. Swann could have been a great character, but the inexorable requirement for Bond girls to be a certain way around James Bond is uncreative, regressive and almost insulting in its campy simplicity, after the complexities of Skyfall.
Ultimately, with this film I feel like I’m seeing contradictory impulses – the effort to keep the Daniel Craig franchise grounded in the grittier portrayal of Bond, but also an effort to take the franchise closer to its traditional tropes and tone. In trying to do both, it fails to deliver a cohesive whole, creating a film that is dour in trying to inject camp into the Bond formula. Spectre is a disappointing step down from Skyfall. If Spectre is indeed Craig’s last Bond film, it will be an unfulfilling capstone in his Bond legacy.
I give this film: 2.5 out of 5 watch bombs