“If you don’t leave now, we’ll die together.” ~ Lucia Sciarra
“I can think of worse ways to go.” ~ James Bond
“You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.” ~ Mr. White
“It was me, James. The author of all your pain.” ~ Franz Oberhauser
“I have a mortgage to pay and two cats to feed.” ~ Q
“So you’d better trust me. For the sake of the cats.” ~ James Bond
“You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone, because you don’t trust anyone.” ~ Eve Moneypenny
“Is this what you really want? Living in the shadows? Hunting, being hunted? Always alone?” ~ Madeleine Swann
“I don’t stop to think about it.” ~ James Bond
The world’s greatest cinematic spy is back on the big screen (sorry, Ethan Hunt, but you suffer from the terminal condition that comes with having Tom Cruise play you, so you’ll never qualify). James Bond returns to the dark world of spies, terrorists, assassins, and intrigue in the new film Spectre. Daniel Craig reprises his role as the suave and relentless British agent for the fourth time, while Skyfall director Sam Mendes returns once again to direct this follow up. In a plot that crosses the globe, pits Bond against the mysterious Spectre organization, and draws out secrets of the past, the film may be Craig’s final take on the iconic character, and if so, it’s a fitting send off.
The film opens in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, where we come across Bond among the crowd. He’s seeking out a target, an assassin named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), who’s conspiring to blow up a stadium. Bond takes the initiative and takes measures to stop the plot in a spectacular pre-credits sequence through and above the streets of the city. As it turns out though, the mission wasn’t sanctioned, and M (Ralph Fiennes) is decidedly unhappy with 007, putting him on leave. M has problems of his own, dealing with a power struggle with C (Andrew Scott), the head of the Joint Intelligence Service, the newly merged MI5 and MI6 services.
Bond, however, has other ideas, having had removed a ring from Sciarra with a strange symbol on it; he reveals to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he was acting under orders- from the previous M (Judi Dench, in a cameo), who issued him specific orders before her death. And so the secret agent sets out on his own mission, with some assistance from Q (Ben Whishaw), which takes him into encounters with Sciarra’s widow Lucia (Monica Belluci), an old adversary, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a doctor, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), a mountain of a henchman by the name of Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), and a face from his past, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who leads a nefarious organization (no, not the Boy Scouts).
The script has nods towards both the larger history of the James Bond films as well as continuity threads to the Daniel Craig incarnation of the character, with Spectre revealed to have connections to the earlier adversaries, particularly the Quantum organization that appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace, now shown to be a subsidiary of Spectre. Four writers are credited with the screenplay. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have a lot of experience with the world of 007, having had been involved in the writing of each Bond film since The World Is Not Enough. John Logan has a lot of screenplay experience, having had worked on Gladiator, The Aviator, and with Purvis and Wade on Skyfall. Jez Butterworth has more experience with the stage, but his film screenplay work includes The Last Legion and Edge of Tomorrow.
The story concerns itself with themes like government surveillance, the use of private information, secrets of the past, and the idea of whether or not a spy has a choice about the life he leads, something that’s strongly brought up in conversation between Bond and Madeleine in a quiet moment. Another quiet moment stands out to me among the action of the film, a conversation between Bond and an old adversary that turns their old antagonism completely around. It’s a good character moment for both men, and quite unexpected.
Before Skyfall, Sam Mendes would have been an unlikely choice for a director of an action film, let alone a James Bond film. His previous work included American Beauty (which I disliked), Revolutionary Road, The Kite Runner, and Road To Perdition (which I really liked as a character study). And yet with that film he proved just how good he can be with the genre. So his return to helm this film was a welcome one. He has a good touch for action, for the intensity that the genre requires, and I like the way he frames sequences (an early sequence that follows Bond crossing over rooftops in Mexico City has a mesmerizing and creative feel, and might give people who have problems with heights an issue or two).
He and his camera crew capture the action well- fistfights are delivered with the right amount of intensity, while grand set piece chases involving cars, planes, and boats become breathtaking. A good deal of the filming was done on location in Britain, Italy, Austria, Mexico, and north Africa, and that sense of globetrotting comes across in the way Mendes shoots the film. It also shows itself in the work of the rest of the crew- special effects are well done (particularly a showstopper of an explosion that’s still done in a way that doesn’t feel obnoxious- Michael Bay’s explosions by contrast are always obnoxious).
Costuming work this time out is also nicely done- the Day of the Dead costuming for the pre-credits sequence, not only for Bond but hundreds of extras- looks exactly like what you’d expect out of the festival (the costume designers deserve an Oscar nomination just for that). And a dress Madeleine wears at one point inspires a playful moment- she tells Bond he shouldn’t stare, while he quips “well you shouldn’t look like that.” Thomas Newman, who frequently collaborates with Mendes, returns again to compose the score, weaving the familiar 007 theme into his music, and shows a great skill for action music while also continuing his own good reputation for character driven themes.
The cast are well chosen. Jesper Christensen returns as Mr. White, the shadowy antagonist from Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace for a cameo appearance, but an important one. He’s developed something of a conscience since last we saw him, as well as a deep concern for his daughter. Spectre has thus turned on him, and the character’s dying and looks like a wreck. His conversation with Bond is an enlightening one- the man is at the end of the line, dealing with the consequences of his own actions, and how the two men reach an understanding is a surprise.
Andrew Scott has become well known for his role as the malevolent Moriarty in the current BBC series Sherlock, playing the adversary to the great detective. He dials down the crazy on the way he plays Max Denbigh, aka C, but fundamentally the audience doesn’t trust him (I found myself wondering if he’s typecasted himself playing Moriarty). Where M clearly has principles and has experience in the field, C doesn’t seem at all to care about the real consequences of his policies. When the character’s true motives are revealed, it’s not quite a surprise.
Dave Bautista really makes an impression as Mr. Hinx; in fact he seems more interesting as the villain than his boss. Bautista comes from a background in wrestling, so we’re not talking about a Shakespearean actor, but I really like what he did with the role. The character is largely silent throughout the film- he speaks only one word- but he’s ferocious right from the start. Hinx establishes himself early on as brutal, ruthless, and dangerous, a powerful fighter who can kill without hesitation and never seems to give up. Essentially the character seems to thrive on violence. We haven’t really seen a character like this in the Bond films since Gotz Otto played the henchman Stamper in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Christoph Waltz has done most of his work in European cinema before working with Quentin Tarentino in Inglourious Basterds (side note: I really don’t see why anyone pays attention to Tarentino). We only see him briefly at first before he really shows up later in the film. Oberhauser seems polite on the surface (before he starts resorting to things like torture and nefarious ideas), and comes with old ties to Bond himself, as well as another name he’s used. Oddly, the character seems underperformed, as if Waltz is really dialling down the way he’s playing the role. He still plays him as smart and ambitious- and totally sociopathic.
Bond’s workplace colleagues get a surprising amount of exposure this time out, and a lot to do, something that I particularly liked. The character Bill Tanner has been around the books and movies before, and during Daniel Craig’s tenure has been played by Rory Kinnear in each film since Quantum Of Solace. The character is the Chief of Staff at MI6, and Kinnear has always played him as a professional, organized, calm under pressure sort of person. This is the second appearance for Ben Whishaw as Q, and I welcomed his return. He has a dry sense of humour that’s perfect for the quartermaster of the spy organization. His banter with Bond is done just right, and this time out he finds himself an active part of the story, dealing with danger on his own and showing himself to be as resourceful as one might expect.
Naomie Harris makes a welcome return as Eve Moneypenny after her debut in Skyfall, and I like her take on the character. Moneypenny’s always had something of a playful relationship with Bond, and that’s seen here, but Harris also plays the role as a person entirely in possession of herself, secure in herself as a person, and not necessarily making moon eyes at Bond, unlike some previous Moneypennys. I like that Bond, who finds it hard to trust anyone, chooses to trust her, and it speaks to a mutual respect between them.
Ralph Fiennes, who’s played such a rich variety of roles through his career, was an ideal choice to come in as the new M, starting with Skyfall, and continuing on here. Usually the role is a mix of gruff laying down the law to 007 and worrying about agents in the field, but Fiennes gets a lot to do through the film, including action. I like that he starts as being at odds with 007 over tactics, and yet shows strongly held principles and integrity during a conversation with his counterpart C. As a former military officer, M also demonstrates calmness in a dangerous situation late in the game.
There are always Bond girls- more properly Bond women in this day and age. The only complaint I would make here is that one of them was underused. Monica Belluci only appears briefly as Lucia Sciarra, widow of a Spectre assassin, not particularly grieving her husband. And yet she makes such a strong impression in her performance that you wish she was around longer in the film. There’s good chemistry between she and Craig (and it’s a rare thing in a Bond film, since the two are roughly a match in terms of their age), and the actress makes the most of the role.
Lea Seydoux is a surprising choice for the other love interest, and as it turns out, a very good choice. She’s a French actress primarily, but came to international attention in the erotic romance Blue Is The Warmest Colour (do not watch that film in the presence of nuns, your parents, or your children). I also recommend her in the recent French language La Belle Et La Bete, otherwise known as Beauty and the Beast. She plays Madeleine, who we first hear of before we meet her. Madeleine is the daughter of Mr. White, and Bond swears he’ll protect her, a driving influence for 007 throughout the rest of the film.
Bond meets her at a medical facility in the Alps, and Seydoux first comes across as professional and believable as a doctor- this is a sharp contrast to Denise Richards in The World Is Not Enough, as there’s no way the audience could have bought her as a nuclear physicist. Madeleine has turned her back on her father, unwilling to forgive his crimes and sins as part of Spectre- and yet beneath that resolve there’s the hint of grief and regret that Seydoux plays to. I like that the character is a complete person in and of herself- she’s smart, capable, accomplished, and she doesn’t need Bond to make her a whole person. I also like their interaction as the connection between them develops- her suggestion that he does have choices about his own life is something that wouldn’t have occurred to him.
This may or may not be Daniel Craig’s last turn as James Bond. He’s done well in the role, bringing a physicality to the role, a tough determination to the spy. He has that dry sense of humour that the character has always had, the sense of an intelligent man who uses his brain as much as his brawn, generally calm under pressure and able to adapt and improvise. While the character’s charming and suave, there are elements of Craig’s performance that I’ve also seen in Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the character. The self-loathing and notion that he doesn’t care if he gets fired is common to both portrayals of Bond, and feels true to the character and how he was written in the books.
I like how Craig’s taken things over the course of these films. He’s the relentless, never give up agent that’s been common to the actors playing the role (honestly, when is a villain just going to take a hint and put a couple of bullets in him straight off instead of deciding to brag?). When Craig started this role in Casino Royale, Bond ended that movie betrayed and bitter, becoming the icy killer the character required, and that betrayal by Vesper lingered ever after (and is touched upon in this film). There’s always been a streak of ruthlessness in Bond- the ending of Quantum Of Solace shows that in how he leaves the villain in the middle of the desert to die rather than just end his life mercifully. Skyfall started showing his humanity more, and that carries on here- rather than come to the conclusion that his life as a spy isn’t a matter of choice, he comes to the point where he understands he can make choices for himself, and his choices by the close reflect this sense of his own humanity, as well as the notion that he’s letting go of that bitterness that’s haunted him since Vesper’s death.
Is Spectre the end of the line for Daniel Craig playing Bond, or will he come back one more time as the secret agent? If this is the end, it’s a worthy finish, with formidable enemies, well crafted romantic interests, and a James Bond that has grown and changed. Even if he still has a habit of destroying incredibly expensive cars.