Our man in Alabama, Matthew Kresal, gives us an American perspective on the latest Bond movie, Spectre.
It has been three years now since Skyfall opened to rave reviews and became the most successful James Bond film to date. If anyone had any doubts that Daniel Craig had what it took to be 007, chances are they were silenced by Skyfall. The only question then was how to top it? The answer would seem to be equal parts look backwards and forwards with the release of Spectre, the twenty-fourth Bond film from Eon Productions and Craig's fourth outing as the British secret agent with a license to kill.
Craig showed in his previous outings that he had gotten a firm grasp on Bond almost from the first moment he was on screen, which has made watching the films all the more interesting. His performance here, his first in any film post-Skyfall, combines all the best elements of his Bond performances to date. There's his agility in the action sequences which suits him well, but also a more sensitive side that remains buried most of the time but does surface, perhaps more here than in any other Bond film including Skyfall, where Bond's past comes back to haunt him in more ways than one. Craig also gets the chance, for what's really the first time since Casino Royale nearly a decade ago, to explore Bond's romantic side thanks to the inclusion of a new love interest which is welcomed after the events of the last two films. Overall, there's a more confident, relaxed feel to Craig's Bond this time around that comes through and it serves both actor and film well.
One place where the film perhaps improves over Skyfall is in its leading female character. As mentioned above, the film introduces the first serious love interest for Bond since Vesper Lynd back in Casino Royale and does so in the form of up and coming French actress Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann. Swann certainly fits the more traditional Bond girl mold though without many of the cliches that go along with the role as she's clearly intelligent but there's also a vulnerability to her when she, like Bond, is forced to confront elements of her past that have remained buried for so long. It is those elements that Seydoux plays marvelously as the layers are exposed to her character throughout the film. It also helps considerably that Seydoux and Craig share some excellent chemistry together which makes their relationship all the more believable.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of casting to come out of the film as a whole was Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as the film's villain. Waltz's villain certainly didn't disappoint though the character's identity was easily figured out by simply looking at the film's title. What is more interesting than his identity is Waltz's portrayal which makes this perhaps the best iteration of the character we've seen in the series thanks to a performance that is never over the top or camp but is cool and calculating. He's not a physical match for Craig's Bond but he is every bit his intellectual equal, if not his superior, something that Waltz seems to instinctively sense. The result is a solid performance and one that works well within the film.
The film's supporting cast is solid as well. There's the returning team of Bond's MI6 allies, including Ralph Fiennes in his first full outing as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Rory Kinnear as Tanner, and Ben Whishaw’s excellent Q who continues to make an excellent foil for Craig's Bond. Speaking of returns, there is the welcomed cameo appearance by Jesper Christensen as Mister White for a scene that ties together elements of the various Craig films. Joining the supporting cast for this film is Andrew Scott as British government official Max Denbigh and Dave Bautista as the henchman Hinx who both do well with the limited amount of material they're given to work with. One minor disappointment is that after the hype of Italian actress Monica Bellucci joining the cast, her role is effectively a cameo with a grand total of maybe seven minutes worth of screen time for a sequence that has an uncomfortable air of rape to it.
Moving beyond the cast, Spectre features some of the best production values of any film in the franchise which perhaps isn't surprising given reports that this is the most expensive Bond film yet produced. The production design from Dennis Gassner is superb, evoking not just the look and feel of the film's varying locations but also, in a couple of instances, bringing the Ken Adams sets of the 1960s up to date. The cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema is simply stunning throughout, which makes the film a visual feast no matter the location or setting. There is also an impressive opening shot which lasts a couple of minutes at least and might well be, on a technical level at least, one of the most impressive shots ever put into a Bond film. Director Sam Mendes, along with editor Lee Smith, does a great job of keeping the film constantly moving so that it never feels dull or lifeless despite being the longest Bond film yet made. All of which are admirable to say the least.
One area of the film that did disappoint was the score from Thomas Newman. Newman, whose work on Skyfall became only the second ever Bond score to be nominated for an Oscar, did an admirable job on that film. His score for Spectre builds on his work for Skyfall, or rather it recycles it with many of the same themes showing up again and again throughout, including a certain piece of action music that seems to appear in every single major action sequence in the film. To his credit, Newman does have some new contributions to make including some nice suspenseful pieces. Last but not least is the opening title song, Writing's On The Wall, from Sam Smith which despite its mixed reception upon release works well within the film and especially as backing music for Daniel Kleinman's superb main title sequence.
After the impressive action sequences of Skyfall, Spectre had a challenge ahead of it. While I'm never quite certain that it tops previous Bond action sequences, let alone Skyfall's, it is certainly a thrill ride of many and varying action sequences. From the slightly overblown opening chase in and above the celebrations for the Day Of The Dead, to a car chase through Rome that evokes many of the Bond car chases of the past, and a series of gun battles, the film puts all of the best action tropes of the series to good use though it never quite manages to top the same type of sequences which have come before. In a way that sums up the film itself rather nicely, especially in regards to its script.
The script is where Spectre is at its most mixed. Despite the return of the same writing team from Skyfall and the addition of Jez Butterworth, the script lacks a sense of polish to it at times. While it does an admirable job of tying together the entire Craig era, and retconning the Quantum organization from the first two Craig era films, the basic idea of what the film is doing is resurrecting elements that the series hasn't used in over forty years and bringing them into the present day. Given the legal issues that have surrounded the SPECTRE organization throughout its history, one can't blame the Bond filmmakers for wanting to get a hold of it though one can fault them for using it when it really wasn't necessary. Where the film is more successful is continuing the thread started in Skyfall of exploring Bond's past and its implications on his present self, something which allows the writers to use elements of Fleming's original Bond works (including a reference that nobody but those who've read two of the short stories will likely catch onto). Yet the script does little more than retread old territory and attempt to give it a new face, something that has often produced less than stellar results in the past, such as A View To A Kill three decades ago or Die Another Day back in 2002. That isn't to say, as some have claimed, that this is the worst Bond film since Brosnan's final outing, for it definitely isn't that, but the script seems to have a lack of the spark of originality that made Skyfall especially standout from the rest of the series.
At the end of the day, Spectre is a good Bond film. It has a solid performance from Craig as well as the rest of the cast along with impressive production values and good action sequences. Yet its script and score seem to largely play it safe, retreading old territory while also tying together elements from previous films. Spectre is a good Bond film but one can't help but feel that it should have been a great one somehow.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.