Sam Mendes is back in the hand-stitched, luxurious leather driving seat of the 007 series as the next instalment of British espionage kills and thrills reaches the US shores this weekend.
by Owen Hughes @ohughes86
Celebrating fifty years of James Bond, Eon’s twenty third film in the series, Skyfall, was released back in October 2012 and became an enormous runaway success. Accolade after accolade was poured over it – and rightly so, as it was a thoroughly entertaining action film. Our readers and listeners certainly thought very highly of it, voting it above the likes of Amour, The Intouchables, Argo and The Dark Knight Rises back in 2012’s Failed Critics Awards.
It might be fair to say then that the weight of expectation on SPECTRE couldn’t have been higher. Skyfall ably dealt with the notion that James Bond, the suave British super spy, just wasn’t suited to the modern world. That he was too old. Too outdated. Much like Casino Royale did in 2006, it found a way to make him relevant again.
Surely then, SPECTRE wasn’t going to go over the same old ground, right?
Well, not exactly.
Facing a new Orwellian threat that takes Bond across Europe to track down a secret organisation, whilst also under pressure back home with MI6 under scrutiny for its actions, it crosses almost every box on the 007 checklist. Trains, snow, Bond-girls and Aston Martins; if you’re planning on playing a drinking game with SPECTRE, you will be inebriated within half an hour, having your stomach pumped before you’re even half way through the enormous 148 minute run time, and dead before the film has finished.
But it’s not just regular tropes of the series that make a re-appearance. Again, the idea that the secret agent is an outdated practice is continued from the previous movie. Whilst Skyfall focussed primarily on James Bond being too old, this time around it’s expanded to examine the methods employed by MI6 as a whole.
Although SPECTRE is mostly entertaining, one of its biggest problems is that by asking you to consider a world where we have surveillance drones, billions of mobile devices and CCTV cameras on every corner, why do we persist with a man in a tuxedo sneaking into a party to seduce the crime-bosses wife for tidbits of information. The ultimate conclusion is of course a combination of “the old ways are the best” and “nobody does it better”, but unless the audience are well read on their 1984’s and Brave New World’s, what exactly is the problem with information gathering in the way that’s proposed? Why is it so menacing? Is your freedom more valuable than your safety? Whatever your opinion, SPECTRE never fully addresses the issues with this “newer” method beyond showing you that the guy collecting the information is evil.
Speaking of the bad-guy, Christoph Waltz plays the latest Bond villain with relish. His softly spoken, quietly sinister performance is easily the best in this modern era against Daniel Craig’s all action hero. I’m a big fan of Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem (let’s just pretend Quantum of Solace doesn’t exist, as SPECTRE seems to do as well) and they both bring something different to the series, but Oberhauser is perhaps the most nuanced opposite to James Bond thus far. It’s the age-old battle of brains and exploding-gadget-and-fast-cars-braun.
Craig may be getting sick of playing the role, with this possibly being his last appearance as Bond, but he once again seems entirely comfortable at being the rugged interpretation of Ian Flemming’s character. One who doesn’t mind getting his shoes scuffed and suit ruffled in the pursuit of his nemesis. Just watch him during the absolutely incredible opening scene set in Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. He has the swagger, the charisma and perfect timing to please fans of the series, no matter who your favourite version of the character is. Prefer the goofy Roger Moore take? Craig is more then able to match the comic timing Moore offers. Enjoyed Pierce Brosnan’s confidence and cheekyness? Bingo. It’s all there in that opening 15 minutes.
The support cast are all decent enough too. Léa Seydoux as Madeleine – the closest the film gets to having the staple Bond-girl – does a good job at modernising the role. She’s not a floozie there only to fall under the charms of 007 and provide the audience with a bit of eye candy. One scene in particular on a train journey draws us back into the narrative of old-versus-new as she shows she doesn’t need Bond to show her how to use a gun. It’s a subtle development of a role that in the past has been reduced to little more than a damsel in distress that needs the big rugged man to come and save her.
Ralph Fiennes adds his own take on M, whose relationship to Bond has a lot more animosity and begrudging respect than when Judi Dench was in the role previously. Q (Ben Wishaw) is also given a lot more exposure this time around. His quirkiness will either annoy you or feel like a welcome break in the pace of relentless, non-stop action scenes and (£24m worth of) exploding vehicles. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), C (Andrew Scott), Hinx (Dave Bautista) and Lucia (Monica Belluci) are reduced to minor supporting roles which seems a shame, but they all do well with what they’re given.
Overall, for such a long film, it doesn’t ever feel boring or stretched. It suffers from a Skyfall hangover as it will constantly be compared to its predecessor, and in that regard, it is the lesser film. The way it retrofits itself onto the rest of the rebooted franchise is contrived at best and just nonsensical at worst, but it doesn’t detract too much from its own plot. Effectively, it hinges on the relationship between Craig, Seydoux and Waltz (whose appearance really could have come sooner on in the movie) which is well developed across the course of the film, but is not quite enough to elevate it to the delirious heights of Mendes’ last feature.
So no, I don’t expect the Bond revival to die with SPECTRE. Bond (James Bond) is bigger than one film, but as to where I see the film heading next? I honestly have no idea – but I am excited to find out.
You can listen to Owen, Steve Norman, Tony Black and Brian Plank review SPECTRE as well as induct James Bond into our Corridor of Praise on the podcast released back in October.