When Spectre starts, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re about to watch a Bond classic. The opening title card just says “Dead,” as in the day that the first scene takes place, and the screen cuts to Bond in a skeleton suit, a mask, and a cane wading through other exquisitely dressed people, clearly on the hunt for someone important. This scene has the technical tastefulness of the contemporary Bond, but the sexiness of the classics. It’s a one shot, no-cut following camera as he leaves his girl and begins expertly climbing on a rooftop, clearly after a long-haired man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). One blown-up building and a great helicopter scene later, we are introduced to the larger over-plot of the film, and it’s also the first introduction of the film’s many problems.
The original M (Judi Dench) had left Bond one last, very personal, assignment before she passed away in the superior Skyfall. Bond is to attend this man’s funeral, and he uncovers answers by his betraying wife (Monica Belluci). It appears that a big overarching theme behind financing Bond’s many villains over the years, such as Quantum, or the unnamed villain behind LeChiffre in Casino Royale, or the aid of Silva in Skyfall was actually a man by the name of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) whose organization named Spectre manages to create an overarching security detail for nine main countries that contributes to them being able to spy on and manipulate personal information.
Bond has known Blofeld from his past, so in search of answers, he seeks out a former Quantum leader named Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) who offers Bond information in exchange for Bond protecting his daughter Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) from Spectre. Bond and Madeleine obviously hit it off, and start tracing Spectre back to its roots to stop Blofeld.
A similar problem is derailing MI6 and their leadership, when Spectre tributary worker named C (Andrew Scott) decides to deactivate the 007 program and rely on drones and other technological advancements instead, can anyone say subliminal messaging?
Either way, the new M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) all must try to cover-up for Bond while he pursues this agency. While Bond heads to beat Spectre, they have actually sent an assassin after him (Dave Bautista) which results in an excellent fight scene and then sex scene with Lea Seydoux, and she’s just fine as a Bond girl, making up for the really awkward ten minute encounter earlier in the film with Monica Belluci.
Scenes involving what happens back at MI6 while Bond is on his adventure grind this film’s pace to a halt, and although some of the plotting really doesn’t work with the Spectre organization, at least there’s some good action, set pieces, and a half interesting love interest to keep you engaged. Andrew Scott really overacts here as a Spectre agent that has taken over MI6, he’s just awful, and if he rubs you the wrong way from ‘Sherlock,’ now he will make you want to turn the movie off. Then when these MI6 characters do get a chance to shine in the final act, the execution is so messy and disjointed that the cutback scenes all feel unnecessary. While the point about drone strikes and whether not a human assassin should be the one to pull the trigger is an important concept, it comes of as clunky, unnecessary, and unrelated to the main plot of the film. An already bloated running time could’ve been trimmed with these scenes.
As for Bond, it’s hard to follow up Skyfall with a film like this. If we are to accept that these Daniel Craig films are stand-alone in terms of Bond’s canon, then we must also accept their separation from the older Sean Connery-era Bonds that they come closest in tone to. Bond’s emotional ark was completed in Skyfall, and although he remains in the 00 program, Skyfall dealt with an older bond who is damaged and may not have the same steadfastness that his younger self would’ve had. To go from that tone to a film like this that relies heavily on the sleek, sexy, bad-ass Bond goes against everything that the prior films worked for. In addition, no one can tell me that Silva in the last movie was working for anyone. He was a psychopath driven by revenge, and the fact that they tried to have a half-assed villain re-write the history of Casino Royale and Skyfall felt so unnecessary and frustrating.
Parts of trying to make these connections jump over the line to near parody. When Bond enters a booby-trapped abandoned building to find Blofeld at the end, there are pictures of important dead characters hung on the wall. Just because the movie TELLS me that they’re all related doesn’t mean they were in reality. The reality of those films is that they were about a Bond who could feel, who washed blood off of him and Vesper in Casino Royale, who watched his mother figure die in his arms in Skyfall. Some stripped down, fake, family-oriented revenge story that Blofeld perpetrates is not the point of the movies. It’s insulting to have a few spare lines of “it was me James. It was always me. The engineer of all your pain,” dictate the emotional resonance and power of the prior films.
As for Blofeld himself, the filmmakers expect his backstory to work for us. They expect an idea of James Bond’s now-evil childhood friend/pseudo-brother to register with us, but personally, I had enough of Bond’s difficult upbringing in Skyfall. Blofeld was not a very personal villain even though the script says he is, and outside of the four scenes (yes only four) he’s in, the movie focuses more on Bautista’s character as a villain than Blofeld, anyway.
It’s hard to still enjoy a movie when its villain, writing, and plot are so loose and frustratingly back-track from everything that was previously established, but the cinematography, done this time by Hoyte van Hoytema of Interstellar and Let the Right One In, is gorgeous, and the opening Day of the Dead scene in Mexico may be one of my favorite opening scenes to a movie ever. Yes, you read that right. Ever.
Plus, some of the throw-backs to the olden days are actually nice. Bond finds Lea Seydoux at this top-of-the-mountain clinic like in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and we get a train-fight with Bautista that rivals From Russia With Love. Once the shock of how much the script messed up this Bond universe wears off, the second act with Lea Seydoux as the secondary star is actually enjoyable. She commands the screen, and Daniel Craig’s performance is as good as ever. He really understands the kind of Bond he is supposed to play in these more down-to-Earth versions, and there are a few moments of absolute sincerity in this messy plot. Any scene with Blofeld SUCKS, but considering the action pieces and the romantic chemistry, some flaws can be overlooked. Not all, but definitely some.