Film review: Spectre (12A)

AT times clumsy and ponderous, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as James Bond frequently undermines itself despite flashes of inspiration, writes Alistair Harkness

Ben Whishaw and Daniel Craig in Spectre. Picture: Jonathan Olley
Ben Whishaw and Daniel Craig in Spectre. Picture: Jonathan Olley

Spectre (12A) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Sam Mendes | Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Naomi Harris

AFTER the artistic and commercial success of Skyfall, Sam Mendes was always going to have his work cut out following the biggest Bond film of all time. For the briefest of moments with Spectre, though, he looks like he might have succeeded. Kicking off the 24th official film with a cracker-jack opening featuring 007 (Daniel Craig) hunting down a target amid the chaos of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, the swooping Birdman­-like camera moves he deploys as buildings collapse and Bond becomes embroiled in a collateral damage-threatening tussle in a helicopter help set a breathtaking pace. Unfortunately, the ensuing film can’t really sustain it as the plot struggles to bring closure to the overarching hodge-podge saga with which Craig’s run on 007 has variously flirted.

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The problems emerge early and are weirdly symbolised by the title. Though it is indeed the name of the global terrorist network first introduced by Ian Fleming in Thunderball (and in the movies in Dr No), it has no alternative acronymic meaning here. Its use is more thematic, hinting at the myriad ghosts haunting Craig’s run on Bond. But like the title of Sam Smith’s dismally bland ballad Writing’s On The Wall that plays over the laughable opening credits sequence, such on-the-nose cutesiness backfires somewhat as it becomes readily apparent Spectre is at best a ghost of Skyfall, needlessly regurgitating large chunks of its plot.

Ben Whishaw and Daniel Craig in Spectre. Picture: Jonathan Olley

The double-O programme, for instance, is once again under threat. Bond’s actions in Mexico don’t help M (Ralph Fiennes) cope with the pressures of a merger with MI5 and a new boss called Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) intent on streamlining the security services under one central, Big Brother-style organisation. Max goes by the code name C – the true meaning of which becomes a running gag for Bond and M, particularly as his snide and ruthless approach to Bond’s position forces 007 to once again go rogue – though naturally he enlists some covert help from Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), the latter now thoroughly settled into her secretarial role after proving her incompetence as a field agent in Skyfall.

Bond’s first stop is Rome, where he seduces Monica Bellucci, cast here as the widow of his target in Mexico. Bellucci is the sole recipient of the iconic “Bond, James Bond” line in the film, but depressingly she’s swiftly discarded – the only thing more objectionable to Bond than a stirred vodka martini is, apparently, a beautiful woman his own age. Instead he’s soon united with the 20-something Léa Seydoux, whose character, Madeleine Swann, is some sort of Sorbonne-educated psychologist hiding out in a remote clinic in the Austrian Alps. She jokes about daddy issues and falling into Bond’s arms, but her competence with a firearm doesn’t offset the pathetic damsel-in-distress role she’s been assigned in the action, which at one point is so depressingly retrograde it’s a wonder Mendes didn’t just tie her to some railway tracks.

As for Craig, his recent “I’d rather slash my wrists than reprise the role” comments not withstanding, he’s clearly having some fun with the role. Always a more muscular presence than his predecessors — his fight sequences bloodier and more bruising — he’s now bringing a slyness to what had previously seemed like a bad case of Bourne-envy. In one of the film’s best moment, he floors a security guard with a thunderous punch and orders his about-to-spring into action colleague to “stay” like an obedient puppy – a nifty symbol of Craig’s command of 007, the mix of insouciance and playful self-awareness just right for a character still trying to find his place in the modern age.

Unfortunately, the film repeatedly falls back on lazily preposterous storytelling. That may seem like a churlish complaint for what has always been a traditional Bond trait — and to be fair, Spectre does occasionally get things right. The conclusion to an early car chase through the deserted night-time streets of Rome functions as a smile-inducing throwback to the days when a Lotus Esprit could turn into a submarine, or an Aston Martin could eject its passengers from something other than its side doors. But, elsewhere, the action is too reliant on Bond being able to magic a plane or a speedboat out of thin air, or break his fall on a well-placed couch or – literally, at one point – a safety net.

Lea Seydoux in Spectre. Picture: PA

Even worse, the reveals are obvious and anticlimactic – and the methods to get us there are nonsensical. Why send an Odd Job-style henchman (Dave Bautista) to kill Bond on a train, for instance, when you’ve apparently already laid on a chauffeur-driven vintage Rolls Royce to pick him up at the end of the line and bring him to your desert lair? As the villainous Oberhauser and head of Spectre, Christoph Waltz can’t really do much here to live up to he menace promised by that bad-ass “author of all your pain” line that was all over the trailer. A shadowy figure in the early parts of the film, his beef with Bond is blown with some clumsy foreshadowing long before their big confrontation. Denied the playful malevolence of a Quentin Tarantino script to exploit his off-kilter delivery, Waltz also slips all too easily into the role of a panto bad guy, cackling his way through metaphorical speeches about cuckoos and meteorites as he outlines his diabolical masterplan.

And to quote Bond on the latter, this plan – a mundane riff on the NSA abuses – is “not exactly complicated”. Indeed, as Bond needlessly reiterates it for the benefit of anyone in the audience who hasn’t already figured it out (probably an hour earlier), it becomes all too apparent that the film is racing to keep pace with us, rather than us with it. This makes Spectre frequently ponderous and actually quite boring in places, taking an age to get us to where we all know it’s going. At least Quantum of Solace had the decency to be short and fast-paced. By the time this film’s drawn-out conclusion arrives, the writing really is on the wall for Bond (he literally follows it to find the bad guy’s hiding place). The final shot, meanwhile, is little more than a cheap bit of nostalgia designed to make you go out with a smile on your face rather than think about what that aforementioned “C” might really stand for.