Spectre is the 24th film in the Bond franchise, the fourth starring Daniel Craig, the second directed by Sam Mendes, and the first at not much of anything. Nothing new to report, in other words. It probably delivers what the die-hard fans want, but it is not like Casino Royale or Skyfall (no one talks about Quantum of Solace, by the way, because it’s assumed everyone involved was drunk) as it doesn’t deliver to those of us who never liked Bond, but then discovered that we did. Where has Bond’s interior landscape gone? Where is his woundedness? Where is the emotional heft? Who might we actually care about here?
At least we open quietly, with Bond lying back in a meadow, simply watching the clouds float by… I’m kidding, of course. We open with an action sequence set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. It’s a set piece that sees our hero blow up a building and loop-the-loop in a helicopter, and it’s filmed by Mendes as a continuous five-minute tracking shot, which other reviewers have gone wild for, but I’m kind of over prolonged tracking shots. (The Player famously opens with an eight-minute tracking shot; Birdman is a single 100-minute tracking shot.) And then it’s to London, to discover that Judi Dench’s M has left a message from beyond the grave and it’s not ‘please look after my cat’ even though that’s a film I’d like to see. I’d like to see Bond looking after M’s cat, or performing everyday tasks generally, such as picking up his dry-cleaning or finally getting through to British Gas. ‘The name’s Bond. James Bond. I do not know my mother’s maiden name as she died when I was very little. How about the first school I attended?’
M’s message, in fact, puts him on the trail of a nasty outfit called Spectre. But is he going to be allowed to go after them? There is a new M (a peevish Ralph Fiennes, who is terrible at running, not deliberately), and a C (Andrew Scott), who is above M. C has decided that drones can do 007’s job. ‘007 is prehistoric,’ says C, and he does have a point. By my reckoning, Bond is now 98, or thereabouts, and deserves some downtime to look after a cat, had there been a cat to look after. But Bond won’t be grounded, and goes rogue to Rome and Tangier and Austria, chasing Spectre, which is intent on hijacking the world’s surveillance services, and whose members identify themselves to each other by wearing a ring engraved with an octopus. Personally, if I were part of a sinister, secret organisation intent on hijacking the world’s surveillance services, I would not wear a highly visible ring engraved with an octopus, but you do have to bring a sense of fun to these films, or it would be unbearable. You’d never stop. How come Bond always finds a parking place right outside any place he’s visiting? (In Rome! Have you ever tried to park in Rome?) How come big buildings in densely populated cities are blown up but there are never any civilian casualties? There’s no point to this, and it’s not in keeping with the spirit to keep harping on, but it’s hard. British intelligence HQ? Wouldn’t they have built that with shatterproof glass?
Bond, of course, tracks down the most evil of the villains to his lair, who, in this instance, is Christoph Waltz. He is hiding out in a meteor crater and wants to drill into Bond’s brain, for no good reason whatsoever. The more interesting character by far is Monica Bellucci, a widow whom Bond seduces, but so urgently that she’s only on screen for three minutes, tops. Still, there was genuine chemistry there, and wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see Bond hooking up with a woman more his own age, for once? Who was at least 51, to his 98?
But no, instead, he falls for Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who is a doctor, so it’s not like her only purpose is to look lovely in a silky nightie although, that said, she does look lovely in a silky nightie, while doing no doctoring at all. And, there is no chemistry between Bond and Swann. Not a hint, not a squeak, not a whisper. I would also add that while Q (Ben Whishaw) has been upgraded to an expanded role, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has been downgraded to what is effectively a cameo.
This offers everything the die-hard fans want, as all the formula is here: the chases, the exotic locales, the cars, the babes, and so on. But for those, such as myself, who only came on board from Casino on, it’s a lost cause, without any decent back stories, and without Craig putting in his brilliant wounded pathos performance. Instead he is merely sultry, and dull, and there’s no proper jeopardy either. We know Bond is safe, and there are no characters to invest in otherwise.
I wept when Eva Green died in Casino, and I wept when Dench died in Skyfall, but I wept only with frustration here. This film does what it does and probably does it well (she says, grudgingly), but we have seen it all before.