Film Review: SPECTRE
Starring Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Christoph Waltz, Jesper Christensen, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, Monica Belluci
Directed by Sam Mendes
Produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Executive producer and unit production manager, Callum McDougall
Director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema
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This year, 2015, is turning out to be a banner year for spy films, as the recent “Bridge of Spies,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and even “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” have all been excellent, and it is great, celebratory news to report that Sam Mendes’ “Spectre,” the latest James Bond film, is equally excellent on every level—including many Bond levels not seen as often in recent years—and is simply the best Bond film of the four starring Daniel Craig; the best Bond film since the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, which ended in 2002; and an exhilarating, wonderfully honorable and welcome return to the classic Bond form and style more than any other Craig Bond film—and that’s a great characteristic to celebrate!
While the last Bond film, Mendes’ and Craig’s “Skyfall,” released in 2012, was indeed also excellent on all levels, somehow the cast and crew have amazingly managed to top even that great film with the wholly entertaining, thrilling, suspenseful, action-packed, fun and superbly executed “Spectre.”
Everything Bond is here and there and everywhere throughout “Spectre”—yet nothing is clichéd, familiar, tired or overdone. That’s a difficult feat for any film or filmmakers to pull off. But the Bond crew and casts have been accomplishing this feat now for fifty-three years.
The “Spectre” filmmakers— confident and assured director Mendes, stalwart veteran Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, veteran writers and Bond film writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, the talented, smart cast, and the veteran action, spy and Bond production crew—are all smart, savvy, aware and awake enough to know that to make a Bond film in 2015 is to not re-make any Bond film from the past. They know fully well that the world is constantly changing at a fast and furious pace today on every level—technologically, digitally, electronically, mechanically, scientifically, socially, culturally, historically, and even in terms of how countries deal with their various intelligence, defense, military and homeland security issues, threats, missions and operations. And all of these realistic themes—the past, present and future of all of these issues, rooted in the foundation focusing on the changes in intelligence and defense matters—are presented as very modern-day, up-to-date, zeitgeist storylines, plots, themes and messages throughout “Spectre,” all to the film’s many credits.
Thus, “Spectre” harks back to the numerous superior distinctive qualities that made the Bond films so unique and original–and fun–during the past 53 years (since the release of the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” in 1962), but the film still fully manages quite well to be as modern, present-day, forward-thinking, fresh, slick, and technologically and culturally savvy and insightful as one could hope a new film could be—in terms of how the film is made itself, utilizing state-of-the-art technologies throughout, and in terms of maintaining that freshness and modern look and feel while also still utilizing familiar Bond canon sets, characters, story lines, gizmos, gadgets, brands, lines, references and themes.
Thus, you have a smart, insightful film that manages to be fun, funny (at times), intelligent and action-packed, and also manages to explore the deeper, more serious themes of constant change and how that change affects not just the present and future, but the important aspects of the past as well. The film also explores some basic human qualities such as family, friends and trust—exploring the very basic, human notion of just who you can trust in live—not on a spy or intelligence level, but on a human relationship level. Perhaps few things are more important in life than love and trust among people. And these are all filmic aspects of “Spectre.”
Exploring the varying dynamics of the past, present and future as they relate to people, professions, intelligence, defense, spies, technology, government and international relations may appear dry on the surface, but these are indeed fascinating, relevant issues for every person—yes, spying and intelligence relates to every person on the planet, as the basis of spying and intelligence is the protection of a country’s citizens. These issues in “Spectre” exist to give the film that required smart, intelligent backdrop, heft and seriousness that is needed to bolster the interesting, layered, complex story and the intermittent, but completely welcome, superbly-executed action, stunt, set and chase sequences, all of which rival many previous action scenes in prior Bond films.
Thus, at a higher degree than many Bond films, you have a mix of past, present and future in themes, stories, messages, homages and references; a seriousness and intelligence in storytelling mixed with some lighter moments; some intense physical action sequences played to an extreme that can be a bit unnerving, but never played at a campy level, thus giving the film a realistic feel amid the fantasy elements; and, expanding on that last point, a perfect mix of more-modern realism, toughness and grittiness and that old-fashioned, pure-fantasy, somewhat science-fiction aspect of some of the Bond films. With this mix, coupled with stunning, breathtaking action and stunt sequences; pure romantic moments between Bond and several beautiful, captivating Bond women; worldly and exotic sets, locales, scenes and production numbers filmed literally around the world in beautiful settings; familiar Bond characters such as M, Q and Moneypenny; an array of classic, updated technological spy, intelligence and surveillance gadgets and computer wizardry; and, again, that layered, complex story focusing on the conflicting paths of time and change, you have all the elements of not just a classic Bond film, but a classic spy film and just simply a classic film in general.
Mendes, Craig, Wilson, Broccoli and the writers said themselves, in studio production notes, that a very-high-level goal after the incredible, worldwide success of “Skyfall” ($1.1 billion in worldwide revenue, critical acclaim, acclaim from Bond fans, acclaim from film fans in general, and just acclaim in general!) was, in the spirit of competition, pushing themselves and being very forward-thinking, to simply make a better film than “Skyfall.” Amazingly, as noted, they have succeeded, and that’s saying something, since “Skyfall” was such a great film.
“We wanted to be better than Skyfall,” Daniel Craig says in the studio production notes. “It is as simple as that. We didn’t have a choice; we had to be bigger and better. With Skyfall, we set something in motion and we wanted to go a bit further with it and experiment a bit more.”
“Skyfall was an entirely reactive movie as far as Bond was concerned,” explains Mendes. “In the first sequence he was pursuing somebody with all his old focus and drive, but he gets shot before the credits even roll and for the rest of the movie he is one step behind Javier Bardem’s character, Silva. You could even argue that at the end of Skyfall he has failed. He has not kept M alive, and though Silva’s death is a victory for Bond, there are other elements that are failures. Hence, with SPECTRE, I wanted to give him a chance of redemption.”
In “Spectre,” Bond (Craig, in his best portrayal, and looking his best, and, as an actor, seeming to fully embrace the character, role and series in the most confident, comfortable manner yet since he took on the Bond role in 2006—nine years ago, if you can believe that) receives a message from his past—there’s that past creeping into the story, immediately, as it will throughout the film. That message sparks a dangerous, undercover rogue mission and quest in Mexico City and Rome. Bond is so rogue during this initial mission that starts the film, no one in British intelligence knows where he is or what he is doing. That includes Bond’s core support group at the British intelligence agency MI6—-M (an energized, enthusiastic Ralph Fiennes, coming into the role on a more complete basis, too), Q (a wonderfully complex performance by Ben Whishaw, in one of the best portrayals of Q in years), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, also fully coming into her role) and Bill Tanner, M’s faithful chief of staff (Rory Kinnear, also given expanded scenes of support in this film).
Bond is so rogue in Mexico City, he prompts a series of events that not only blow his cover, but endangers several thousand people celebrating the Day of the Dead, possibly causes serious intelligence and defense problems, endangers other missions and operations, and even possibly endangers the very existence of MI6 in the present and the future—there’s that present and future appearing in the film! Back home after his seemingly disastrous rogue mission, bad boy spy Bond is promptly reprimanded, scolded, suspended—and given a high-tech implant that enables British intelligence to monitor his location no matter where he goes on the planet. Bond, of course, accepts all of this with his usual casual, suave, laid-back—and knowing—ease, class and style—because he knows that his mission was actually not a mistake, not a disaster, actually proved successful on several levels, and actually is just the beginning and a lead to a much larger, expansive and important mission. Bond is always smart enough to know that the suits, no matter how many times he tells them, over and over through the years, simply don’t trust him, cannot deal with his style of getting things done, and are, continually—as many politicians are in real life—as concerned about public relations, publicity and public standing than they are in completing the actual intelligence mission and operation at hand.
After the spectacle in Mexico City, and his concurrent scolding and surveillance, Bond simply, quietly accepts his punishment at MI6 Headquarters in London—and promptly walks out the door and immediately goes rogue once again to complete the mission. That’s classic Bond. The lone gunman, the lone wolf, the spy who cried wolf–fighting his own battles, fighting the good fight, fighting always for the common good and for her majesty’s secret service, but also fighting his battles whilst also fighting government bureaucracy, ineptitude, red tape and inane office politics. This similar theme, interestingly, also appears in “Bridge of Spies,” “Mission: Impossible” and “U.N.C.L.E.” A common theme in the Bond films and these other spy films is that while intelligence work is needed and important, the work is also constantly impaired by meddling, moronic and overly-wonkish bureaucratic idiots.
After his punishment in London, Bond must head out on his own to complete his mission. His complicated, difficult quest takes him literally around the world to Mafioso funerals, secretive terrorist group meetings at exotic, hidden palaces, meetings of underworld thugs, hidden mastermind lairs, safe houses, spycraft laboratories, spy offices, faraway and hidden residences of spies who could never come in from the cold, torture labs, more spy complexes and even sparkling, architecturally stunning rehabilitation and wellness clinics set atop of secluded mountains. All of these sets, locales and scenes around the world are presented in breathtaking production design, cinematography, lighting and stunt work that expertly combine real-world exterior locations in Mexico City, Rome, the Sahara desert in Morocco, London and Austria and scores of complex, intricate interior sets that were painstakingly constructed at the Bond film’s longtime production facilities at Pinewood Studios in England. The production design, art direction and cinematography are consistently beautiful to look at in “Spectre.”
Throughout his mission, Bond is looking to uncover information about secretive, powerful criminal terrorists and masterminds who are working together for a similarly secretive and powerful worldwide criminal organization, which Bond discovers is named—and this is not giving anything away, as it’s the name of the film—Spectre. But this is a new film in a new era, and while Spectre refers back to Ian Fleming and several of the original Bond films, rest assured that in the film “Spectre,” the organization Spectre is all new, and a high-tech, tech-savvy, globally-oriented Spectre terrorist group that is fully present and operating in the world of 2015. Again, to the film’s credit. Again, that expert mix of past and present, in referencing past Bond qualities and in making them all new for a new age and new film.
“What we’ve got here is a kind of creation myth at play,” says Mendes, in the production notes. “We are not adhering to any previous version of the SPECTRE story. We are creating our own version. Our film is a way of rediscovering SPECTRE and the super villain, setting him up again for the next generation.”
While contacting various contacts, spies, moles and agents in his quest to not only uncover Spectre, but to destroy its leaders, its operations and stop a devastating plan for technological world domination—domination that is not presented in a corny, tacky, fantasy sense, but in a very real technological and informational and power-oriented sense—Bond also uncovers some most surprising, twisting and turning information that turns not only his mission, but his own life, completely upsidedown. This serious plot point adds some impressive depth, intelligence and emotional weight to the story, to the Bond character, to his mission—and to the film. The past intercepts once again with Bond’s present—and his future. And the future of his world and the world in general.
While Bond is on his mission, back home, a new British intelligence leader, the sneaky, slimy and eerily snaky Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott, sufficiently cold, charmless and hateful), who is the new leader of the newly-created Centre for National Security, and who Bond slyly, unofficially nicknames C, is causing problems, too. C wants nothing more than to eliminate MI6, eliminate the 00 spy ranks, eliminate spies like James Bond—assassins who have a government-sanctioned license to kill—and, as he constantly notes, bring all matters of spying and surveillance into the high-tech, consolidated, forward-thinking future. There’s that future thing, creeping into the story again. Bond, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner are facing the end of their world, their way of doing things, their entire agency. Back home in London, the bureaucrats at MI6 and C’s office are fighting their own political battles, and, especially, the MI6 crew are all fighting for their lives, too.
However, they’re also secretly fighting alongside Bond on his rogue mission, working secretly in complete support of Bond as Bond, unsure of who he can trust, slyly, quietly, enlists the covert aid of his covert cohorts—M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner. One of the many great aspects of “Spectre” is the very real closeness that occurs throughout the film among this familiar, faithful—and quite lovable—crew of spies. M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner put their own careers on the line as they faithfully, strongly and confidently support and help Bond in the field, lie to C and his cronies, and cover up and protect Bond. To watch this lovable, classic crew come to together to help Bond is to see a very real, very important aspect of life—to depend on those who you love and trust during the most difficult, dire and needed times in your life. This was an aspect of the long, layered and complex relationship so superbly portrayed by Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig in their interactions and relationships with Judi Dench’s wonderfully written and acted M in previous Bond films.
Thus, “Spectre” builds layers and layers of fascinating storylines, plots and subplots, while meanwhile serving up the required mix of romance, exotic locations and action scenes, chases, fights, gadgets and battles, without ever becoming too cluttered, complex or overloaded. Logan, Purvis, Wade and Butterworth are smart and talented enough to know how to keep and hold the entire mix together, how to mix plot and action, and how to keep things moving and entertaining enough throughout the film.
“Spectre” is a spy film, and part of a spy film’s plot is twists, turns, surprises, deceit, deception and the constant suspense, thrills and mystery of figuring out just who is who, what is what, and who is where in the story and plot. To reveal the intricacies of the aforementioned plot points—the specifics of Bond’s rogue mission, who he is meeting with, why he is meeting with them, why he travels to the various locales—would simply destroy the overall enjoyment, suspense and thrills of “Spectre.” Too many hack film reviewers—and better reviewers, even—spill so many specific plot points in reviews, it simply destroys the enjoyment of the film. Thus, you’ll have to see “Spectre” to figure out just what Bond is doing on this rogue mission, and why he is conducting this operation.
Thus, the basic, general, and specific, plot points, storylines and story developments of “Spectre” are best left to be described in a general sense, in general terms. It’s simply best for the viewer to discover why Bond is pursuing this organization, what this organization is and does, who runs it, and why it matters to Bond, to MI6—and to the world at large—while watching the film.
A core aspect of any Bond film is the action sequences and the filmmakers have simply outdone themselves to an astonishing degree with numerous thrilling action scenes in “Spectre.” The action scenes rival some of the best in the series, and will likely be enjoyed over and again. There are car chases through the streets of Rome—in an inventive, original manner, believe it; a complex and incredibly impressive chase involving 4x4s and a plane—yes, a plane—down a snowy mountain—that’s right, a plane down a snowy mountain; a brutal, painful, hard-hitting close-quarters fist fight in the narrow, claustrophobic confines of a moving train; an explosion that rivals any recent filmic explosion; a helicopter crash that is quite realistic; a helicopter and boat chase along a beautifully lit river at night; and, possibly one of the most impressive, involved, complex and stunningly presented scenes in a Bond film in quite a while—a beautiful, colorful, suspenseful and action-packed opening sequence set in Mexico City’s Zocalo main square.
In this opening sequence, Bond’s first phase of his rogue mission devolves into a rooftop gunfight, a massive explosion and implosion of a hotel, a chase—and a breathtaking helicopter fight literally over the packed Zocalo square—with a thousand terrified people in elaborate costumes and make-up terrified of a very real helicopter twisting and turning literally over their scared heads. It’s not revealing anything to describe this particular scene, because the overall scene is so well-produced, well-executed and exciting, it will thrill audiences no matter what they know about it in advance.
As the Day of the Dead partiers celebrate in the square, Bond battles villains in the swirling, whirling, twisting and turning helicopter above the crowd. And in the square—for real, not computer-generated, the producers promise—were a very real 1,520 extras, costumed and made up by a small army of 107 make-up artists. “Spectre” producers promise that a very real Red Bull helicopter performed actual stunt barrel rolls free-diving above very real people in the square on camera. Much credit for this amazing sequence must go out to the films stunt coordinator, Gary Powell, helicopter stunt pilot Chuck Aaron—and the talented make-up, costuming and hair artists who spent days and days dressing and making up 1,520 extras on the set!
This patented opening sequence is one the many aforementioned classic Bond elements that are present throughout “Spectre,” as noted before. Other classic Bond features that make appearances—in a welcome, fresh, original manner—in “Spectre” are the “shaken, not stirred” martinis; the classic comeback “Bond…James Bond” line; the usual array of beautiful women—a ravishing Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux (Seydoux’s character is notably pivotable to the story); the aforementioned worldly exotic locales; and, yes, a classic villain, Oberhauser, menacingly, scaringly, insanely and appropriately played as a classic mentally unstable, psycho by the great Christoph Waltz; and, of course, Bond’s much-loved Aston Martin tricked-out car. For “Spectre,” the production crew designed a new Astin Martin specifically, exclusively, just for the film.
“In this film it’s the classic, and the classical, protagonist/antagonist dynamic,” Waltz says, according to the studio production notes. “The dynamic is that the hero’s major existential quest needs to be thwarted, and every obstacle needs to be set up to the degree that endangers not just the achievement of this quest but endangers the existence of the hero himself. Everybody was very aware that this dynamic is, to say the least, very desirable in this context. That dynamic is what makes these stories really interesting.”
The dynamics of the past, present and future; the dynamics of the changing world in which we live in; the dynamics of the changing intelligence, defense and homeland security threats that every country faces in a fast-changing world, the dynamics of the changes in technology; and, perhaps most importantly, the dynamics of family, friends, bonds (no pun intended), love and trust among people are all explored in “Spectre.”
Through it all, Bond does find redemption, he knows who he can trust—his family, the people who have been his loyal family all along, through all the years and missions—M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner—and he knows, as always, that he was right all along, and that he fought the good fight the way it should be fought, and that his way, the Bond way, remains relevant, useful, active and a good fit for any time. Just like the Bond films themselves—they seem to fit well in whatever world they appear in, no matter what path the films take, no matter who plays Bond, and no matter what the situations are in that ever-changing world in which we live in–and that can only be something to celebrate every few years.
Bond fans know to wait until the end of the end credits of every Bond film for a traditional cryptic note. And, sure enough, there it was at the end of the “Spectre” credits: James Bond will return.
If the next James Bond film is as excellent as “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” then no matter what cultural, sociological, political, technological, criminal, terrorist, intelligence or historical changes the world endures until then, it will be enough for the world to know that tomorrow never dies; there are always those in life who people—even James Bond–can love and trust in the world; and there will be another reason to celebrate another James Bond film in the world’s movie theaters, in just a couple of years.