Three years ago, Skyfall accomplished a miracle. Coming on the heels of the troubled mess that was Quantum Of Solace, it successfully followed through on the promises made by Casino Royale and reinvigorated a franchise that seemed at a dead end. In and of itself, this was already a praiseworthy achievement, but Skyfall did more than that: It managed to hit every single required note with perfect accuracy all while managing to be more than just a James Bond film. In the hands of Sam Mendes, and with the recruitment of John Logan to the Purvis-Wade screenwriting team, Skyfall became a genuinely moving tragedy of revenge, contrition and transition, bolstered by an absolutely stellar oedipal duel courtesy of Judi Dench and Javier Bardem.
Lightning rarely strikes twice in a row, so to expect SPECTRE to match, let alone surpass Skyfall’s near-perfection was almost bound to yield disappointment. It is therefore a testament to Mendes and his creative team’s strong committed grasp on their material that SPECTRE’s ability to surprise and draw us in its ever-expanding universe is hindered neither by its screenplay’s occasional lapses in judgment nor by its intermittently uneven pacing. Not content with letting Skyfall’s argument for James Bond’s continued cultural relevance stand alone, SPECTRE expands on that idea’s connection to a somewhat naive nostalgia for a “cleaner”, up-close-and-personal approach to espionage and defense in reaction to today’s murky, depersonalized system of drones and mass surveillance.
In his scathing review of the film, the estimable Bob Chipman pointed out how SPECTRE’s central plot – a shadowy international crime syndicate using surveillance culture to infiltrate the government and hijack international intelligence and defense systems for its own ends – is almost identical to the HYDRA scheme that served as Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s critique of post-9/11 defense and espionage policies, which it linked to the American Superhero genre’s inherent temptation towards authoritarianism. This, along with the Craig-era Bond saga’s perceived dependence upon current successful franchises as sources of inspiration, is an entirely valid and reasonable criticism. I would argue, however, that the long history and wide-ranging cultural influence of the James Bond saga not only gives SPECTRE’s use of these plot elements more resonance, it justifies it as a logical development in Bond’s prolonged enterprise of re-adaptation and renewal. Old-school purists may understandably long for the escapist extravaganzas of the Connery-Lazenby-Moore years, but I find Craig-era Bond’s constant confrontation with changing cultural and geopolitical realities to be one of the rebooted franchise’s most fascinating aspects.
Part of that confrontation involves Bond’s archetypically masculine characteristics, which are here half-glamourized, half-identified as toxic, without that identification ever quite turning into outright criticism. The slick walking liquor ad model of yesteryear has evolved into a casual alcoholic whose response to his leading lady turning down his advances is to spend the night in a drunken stupor until he stumbles upon an important discovery. His predatory sexuality, once treated with chortling “boys-will-be-boys” indulgence, becomes acknowledged for what it is in a memorable seduction scene where Bond corners the woman he deliberately widowed against a mirrored wall and begins kissing and caressing her like a sensuous boa constrictor, as her half-closed eyes and intonations waver between intimidation and lust without letting us know which one she’s settling on.
Of course, this is James Bond, so all of these scenes are scripted, staged and shot in such a way that he never stops being cool and charismatic while doing all these things but the difference with Goldfinger and Thunderball’s light-hearted treatment of scenes that come across today as little more than rape is quite palpable. Key to this delicate balance of glamour and distance is Daniel Craig’s performance. At this point, he embodies James Bond as a distinct, fully-rounded character with as little visible effort as breathing, yet you cannot help but marvel at how easy he makes it look. Moving in every frame like a bulked-up panther surveying its domain, he imbues every gesture, smile and glance with an underlying sense of danger. In fight scenes, his controlled savagery suggests violence to be less of a grim unpleasant necessity than it is an opportunity to bring out pent-up issues whose alternative means of expression he has trained himself to forget. With Craig’s justifiable weariness with the role now being common knowledge, concerns over any negative impact on his performance appear without merit; if anything, his fatigue seems to have come in handy for his more comical moments, in which Bond uses his legendary wit to express annoyance at unexpected setbacks. Every line and facial movement is perfectly-timed deadpan. The contrast with the less-sophisticated boyish brute of Casino Royale is remarkable, and one of the unqualified triumphs of the rebooted franchise: in spite of its missteps and troubles, not only has James Bond himself retained a consistent identity whose development remains steady and unfettered, so has the world he evolves in.
A shame that the same development cannot be observed on SPECTRE’s female characters; as the series’ portrayal of Bond has grown in complexity, its portrayal of Bond girls has been slowly but distinctly regressing ever since Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd blew the competition out of the water. Competently played by Léa Seydoux, Madeleine Swann is an especially frustrating example: Set up as an intelligent, independent woman trying to escape her father’s criminal shadow, Madeleine is systematically robbed of agency and spends most of her time on screen following Bond from place to place, getting kidnapped and getting rescued, with her rare active moments feeling like lazy token efforts to maintain a shallow illusion of empowerment. Moneypenny, whose relationship with Bond in Skyfall was one of equals specialized in different domains, only gets a few nicely-written moments in the first half hour before getting sidelined – a waste of perfectly good Naomie Harris.
And then there’s the twist. Just like Star Trek Into Darkness, the creative team has seen fit to bring back the series’ most iconic villain and disguise his return by lying to the public despite every sign (including the film’s own title!) contradicting them. Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness, the archenemy’s reintroduction makes a certain kind of sense within the series’ narrative arc and is executed functionally well. It’s some of the specifics involved that make this return a botched one. While the idea of making Ernst Stavro Blofeld a childhood friend of Bond’s may be corny on paper, it isn't an inherently bad idea. His position as chief mastermind behind the events of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace makes sense but the retconning of Skyfall’s Raoul Silva as a SPECTRE agent completely contradicts the latter’s lack of grand vision and purely personal motive, which were precisely what made him such a unique and compelling Bond villain. Worse, the framing of these events as Bond’s punishment for hijacking his father’s affection, aside from unintentionally evoking Austin Powers In Goldmember, makes Blofeld look more like a petty teenager than a criminal mastermind with a tragic background. To Christoph Waltz’s credit, his off-kilter charm – kept in check here, unlike in Big Eyes – considerably downplays the fundamental silliness of his character’s motivation.
In a lesser action-adventure, these problems would derail the entire film, undermining all the goodwill amassed by the first two acts. In SPECTRE, they are, at worst, like irksome little flies interrupting a pleasant outside meal. For all its flaws, the screenplay1 builds Bond and the MI6 team with care and skill, picking them where they left off in Skyfall and working further on their comradeship and differences. Ben Whishaw’s Q in particular gets to shine as Bond’s reluctant accomplice, with many of the film’s funniest moments resulting from the two men’s conflictual chemistry. Filling in Judi Dench’s prestigious shoes, Ralph Fiennes draws most of his strength from his horn-bucking with Andrew Scott’s wonderfully smug bureaucrat Denbigh.
Conducting this cast with dexterous confidence is Sam Mendes, whose contribution to the maturation of the James Bond franchise cannot be overstated. He doesn’t just bring out the absolute best in his actors. He doesn’t just put the story back on track whenever its mistakes threaten to derail it. He creates a veritable, tangible new world of flesh, blood, light and colour for the James Bond universe to dwell in. As photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, car chases, train fights and pre-coital embraces take on a hot, visceral character that sublimates Bond’s impulses like no other film in the series’ history has before. As staged by Mendes, they offer an exhilarating multiplicity of styles, moods and visual ideas. Consider the pre-credits sequence, which opens with an impeccably-executed Touch Of Evil-esque tracking shot, follows on with a short series of stunts worthy of Buster Keaton, then climaxes to an exceptionally intense fight scene on a low-altitude helicopter. In this sequence, as in every action scene, Mendes’s command of perspective, composition, space and timing is on full display; whether Bond is driving a decomposing plane down a snowy slope or throwing every available projectile on the seemingly indomitable Mr. Hinx (a mostly silent, twinkle-eyed Dave Bautista), the camera always knows exactly what to put in and out of the frame and for how long. Even among the good Marvel movies, there is not a single action scene that can compare with anything shot by Sam Mendes featuring Daniel Craig.
If nothing else, SPECTRE is remarkable proof of how resilient the creative team behind the James Bond reboot has shown itself to be and how well its efforts have paid off. Not as accomplished as the franchise’s finest pieces – From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Licence To Kill, GoldenEye, Casino Royale and Skyfall – but executed with inspiring aplomb, it continues to carve an interesting and promising path for a cultural icon whose staying power appears inexhaustible.
1Credited to four writers: The Purvis-Wade-Logan trio behind Skyfall and franchise newcomer Jez Butterworth.