Double-Oh-Seven is by turns callow and caring in 2015’s fine but largely unsurprising spy thriller ‘Spectre’

February 9, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 9, 2018

Skyfall was released in November 2012, about five months after I launched this blog. It was Daniel Craig’s third appearance as James Bond, and director Sam Mendes’s first contribution to the long-running film franchise based on Ian Fleming’s espionage novels and stories. The plot wasn’t super-original — there’s a list of spies that could become public, à la the first Mission: Impossible movie; there’s someone from one of the main character’s pasts, out for vengeance, à la at least half of all action-adventure movies ever — but the action was well-executed and Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes lent the proceedings an air of excitement and gravity.

Skyfall also put into place some of the traditional elements of the Bond franchise that had been absent from the Craig movies, which are a sort of series reboot. (Bond had yet to earn his license to kill as Casino Royale opened.) We met Bond’s new quartermaster, Q (Ben Whishaw), a figure who I believe was missing from Craig’s previous pictures, and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who had definitely been missing from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Moreover, a successor for Dench’s embattled spymaster, M, was established in the form of Fiennes’s Gareth Mallory.

The concern I voiced in my mostly laudatory Skyfall review was whether the return of these classic Bond hallmarks signaled that the franchise was about to turn toward camp. Three years later, an answer to my musings arrived in the form of Spectre, Craig’s fourth outing as Double-Oh-Seven, although I didn’t see the film until quite recently.

I’m happy to report that Mendes, Craig and company have increased the comedy factor only minimally in Spectre. The cast of British spies return — Fiennes, Whishaw, Harris are back along with Rory Kinnear as Tanner, M’s right-hand man — for a story scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan and Jez Butterworth. (The first two have worked on all four of Craig’s 007 features; Logan joined them for Skyfall, while Butterworth is a new contributor.)

Spectre begins with Bond doing a bit of freelance mayhem in Mexico City before he returns to London to discover that the new M’s grip on power may be even more tenuous than the old one’s. That leaves Bond mainly on his own as he trots around the globe tracking down leads on the massive worldwide criminal network that gives the movie its title.

The conspiracy, hinted at in Quantum of Solace’s opera sequence, strikes close to home in more ways than one. One of Spectre’s leaders, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), turns out to be a sort of foster brother to Bond. Additionally, the British spy pledges that he will protect Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), estranged daughter of disaffected conspirator Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, returning from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace). Bond makes this promise in hopes that Swann can lead him to the lair of his sinister semi-sibling.

Oberhauser ultimately claims responsibility for many of Bond’s misfortunes in the previous three movies, but this revelation seemed to me more ludicrous than weighty. Spectre is somewhat gritty — the metal-taloned Hinx (Dave Bautista) claws out a man’s eyes in front of a criminal conclave, for instance — but it’s best not taken too seriously, after all.

The movie has all the polish you’d expect and raises the stakes from Skyfall; whereas there Dench’s M and her protégé Bond were the antagonist’s main targets, in Spectre we learn that the titular organization is a secret puppet master that has infiltrated not just criminal activity but ostensibly legitimate governmental and nonprofit agencies as well. But again, I’d advise viewers not too worry much about the details — just sit back and enjoy the fights, the gadgets and the stunts.

With that in mind, the movie’s best sequence occurs about halfway through, in an alpine chase where Bond is trying to protect Swann while one of Bond’s colleagues finds himself menaced by Spectre henchmen. We know the spy is going to survive these particular proceedings, but his associates may not be so lucky.

The movie also offers an interesting twist on Bond the seductress. Craig’s secret agent hasn’t been quite as promiscuous as his predecessors, and he’s seemed a bit more compassionate than past 007s; this time around, however, he’s given three love interests, each of whom he treats with escalating levels of, well, interest. But I suppose we wouldn’t want this undercover jack-of-all-trades to be too perfect, would we?

Another thing I found curious about Spectre was how many parallels there were between it and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which was released some four months earlier. Both feature the protagonists defying the orders of a suspicious superior, both have key episodes set in Morocco, both stage their final acts in London and both show a major character stalking a wounded, unarmed opponent at the end. These coincidences are probably meaningless, in the end, but I didn’t expect to find so many of them.

The 25th official Bond picture — 1967’s Casino Royale is a spoof, while 1983’s Never Say Never Again, featuring an older Sean Connery, was made without permission from the owner of 007’s movie rights — is due out next year, and once again I’m curious as to where the story will go. That said, however, I don’t suppose we’ll see that Bond has truly committed to settling down, starting a family and holding a desk job. That would be truly surprising.

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