Move over, Hydra! After a nearly 45-year absence, the original, evil terrorist organization makes a grand return in Daniel Craig’s latest James Bond adventure. In a year that saw an inundation of espionage films (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), can the super-spy granddaddy rise above them?
James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue to destroy a secret international terrorist organization that plans to create a worldwide surveillance system that will let them monitor everyone on the planet.
First, I must confess that until recently, I was only passingly familiar with the James Bond franchise. I played a few Bond video games like GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 and caught a few of the old movies when they were on TV, but that was it. Now, I did keep up with reboot films starting with Casino Royale, but that was the only Bond film I saw in the theater. With the release of Spectre looming, I spent my summer watching all of the pre-Craig films, especially when I found them all on Blu-ray at my local library. (True confession time: I only made it up to the Pierce Brosnan era before seeing Spectre). I’m glad I did because it gave me a greater appreciation for what this film did in re-introducing Bond’s oldest enemy.
Much like the classic Thunderball starring Sean Connery, Spectre has everything you could want from a Bond film: exotic locations, exciting action, beautiful women and terrifying villains. It has arguably the strongest script out of any of the Craig films. The pacing is perfect, never getting boring even when nothing is exploding. Unlike the original franchise, which had a loose continuity, Spectre builds heavily on what came before, but not so much so that a newcomer would be lost. However, it does reward those who have followed the new films. Unlike most Bond outings, this one is strangely character-driven. Bond’s mission quickly becomes a personal one once he realizes the leader of Spectre orchestrated every tragedy that befell him—most notably the deaths of his lovers—in the previous three films. It added layers to the story and made it more compelling. Surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of humor in the script, but it’s strategically used to give the audience a breather and never veers into the ridiculous, a common fault in the Bond films of yesteryear (I’m looking at you, Moonraker!). The silliest it gets is Bond landing on a couch after the roof he’s standing on collapses.
While Spectre had fewer action sequences, from what I can remember, than the previous Craig films, the set pieces were superb, the action exhilarating, and the suspense intense. For a franchise that’s done everything (and has overdone a few things like ski chases), this film manages to find new ways to thrill. The most impressive is a sequence where Bond is flying in a small airplane to chase down three Land Rovers. After some fancy flying, the plane’s wings get clipped, but Bond manages to somehow direct the plane down a snow-covered hill, taking out one Spectre vehicle, and crashes through a barn. Best of all, the filmmakers made the wise move of not overusing CGI and instead focused on using practical effects, as evidenced in this plane sequence.
The film’s greatest strength, however, is the villains. Spectre’s iconic leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, returns. He’s played by Christoph Waltz, and his might be the best version of the character ever put on screen. Blofeld appeared in six Bond films played by almost as many actors. Waltz takes the best elements of the previous versions and distills them into a superb character who is every bit a match for Bond. This is no easy feat: Blofeld is arguably one of the most iconic and influential movie villains ever, inspiring countless imitators and parodies. Waltz’s Blofeld is cunning, intelligent and quietly sinister. His dark sense of humor and unceasing smirk serve to accentuate these qualities. His most memorable facets—appearing in shadow, his facial scar, and his white cat—are all utilized quite effectively. He’s given an added layer by revealing he was Bond’s stepbrother growing up. Interestingly, he uses another name for most of the film, which made me wonder if he truly was Blofeld. I’m glad he was because it would’ve been a disservice for him not to be included.
Blofeld’s henchmen are equally as memorable. Former pro-wrestler Dave Bautista plays Mr. Hinx, a mostly silent assassin whose violent actions speak louder than words. While Bautista speaks only one word the entire film, his presence is felt in every scene he’s in. Director Sam Mendes intended him to be something of a callback to Jaws, though minus the steel teeth. Andrew Scott, most famous for portraying Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock, plays C, an MI6 operative spearheading an initiative to create a global surveillance system. He brings a similar quirky, off-putting nature to his character like he did as Moriarty. I must confess that as a fan of his work on Sherlock, I half-expected him to be Blofeld. It would’ve been cool.
Something I wouldn’t have noticed had I not watched most of the previous Bond films are the several subtle homages to franchise’s past. Besides the return of Blofeld and Spectre, the most notable ones are to 1973’s Live and Let Die, the first Bond film to star Roger Moore. Bond wears a skeleton costume similar that worn by a voodoo shaman in that film. Also, Bond has a fight on a train with Mr. Hinx that’s similar to one he has with hulking henchman Tee Hee (Julius Harris).
Spectre features some of the most artful cinematography of the recent Bond films. The opening scene in particular is an impressive sweeping single shot with the camera floating down and following a disguised Bond and his woman through the streets of Mexico City into a hotel, wherein they ride the elevator up several floors and enter a room.
But for all my gushing, I do have a few minor nitpicks. The film’s theme song, “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith, is fine but a far cry from the Oscar-winning “Skyfall” by Adele (though the title sequence was excellent). I’d also hoped for a fight between Blofeld and Bond at the end, but instead the climax was a chase scene. The film also succumbs to the overused trope of having the hero choosing not to kill a defenseless villain who insists the protagonist pulls the trigger.
While Mission Impossible is more my style of spy film, Spectre is Daniel Craig’s finest outing as Bond, and it ranks as one of the best in the franchise. If Craig hangs up his Walther PPK after this, he’ll go out on a high note.
Final Grade: A-