Success isn’t always a good thing. For the Bond franchise in particular, the massive critical and commercial success of Skyfall created enormous pressure. I even called Skyfall the best Bond movie of all time. How do you follow up the best Bond movie of all time?
For the creative minds behind 007, you bring back a lot of the same talent to try to make lightning strike twice–starting with director Sam Mendes. You also double down on putting modern twists on classic Bond elements. People loved the introduction of Ralph Fiennes’ more traditional M, and they certainly loved the return of Moneypenny and Q. Producers wanted to bring all those back and more, aided by the conclusion of a decades-long lawsuit that had banned 007’s biggest nemesis from the series following 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. With the lawsuit gone, producers were free to bring back the one and only Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (S.P.E.C.T.R.E.)–the villainous organization headed up by Ernst Stavros Blofeld. Most of the evil plots in the early Bond movies were tied back to Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Speculation that the world’s most nefarious criminal organization would be back was confirmed when it was announced that the new Bond film would be called Spectre (updating the organization for modern times by dropping the overly fussy, dated acronym).
So the producers placed their bets, hoping that the answer to the question “how do you follow up the best Bond movie ever?” would be that you bring back his greatest nemesis. Did it work? Let’s go to the tape.
Spectre (2015): A Recap
Bond makes the new M mad by going rogue in Mexico City. You see, M is in a pissing match with the head of the Joint Intelligence Service, Max Denbigh (or C). C plans to shutter MI6 for good in favor of a fancy new electronic surveillance system called Nine Eyes that can watch over the entire world. 007’s exploits aren’t helping M prove MI6 provides a vital service that can’t be farmed out to electronic surveillance.
Turns out Bond got a video from the old M after her death, telling him to kill an assassin named Marco Sciarra, who has a taste for rings with an octopus emblazoned on them. She also told him not to miss the funeral, so he escapes to Rome and seduces the widow right after the services. With her intel, Bond crashes a secret meeting led by his old foster brother, Franz Oberhauser, who sets his goon Mr. Hinx after 007. Bond escapes and so does Mr. Hinx, because the movie isn’t even half over yet and we have a lot of revelations to go before the final showdown.
Bond tracks down Mr. White, a Quantum agent from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, who advises Bond to find his inexplicably hot daughter at a clinic in the Alps. She can take 007 to L’Americain and all the information he needs. In exchange, 007 helps White commit suicide because White is dying of thallium poisoning (note to self: don’t betray Oberhauser).
But White’s daughter, Madeleine Swann, is a smart girl. When a rakish secret agent shows up out of nowhere to tell her that her father is dead and assigned him to be her new protector, she tells him to fuck off. Except she immediately gets kidnapped by Mr. Hinx. Bond gives chase in a plane because it’s been too long since we had an elaborate set piece. He crashes the plane, saves Swann, and convinces her to come with him. Of course, Hinx also survives and gives chase.
Swann reveals that the organization is named Spectre, and its membership includes not only Mr. White but Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva–retconning all of the Daniel Craig Bond movie villains to be Oberhauser’s pawns. Swann agrees to take Bond to L’Americain–which turns out not to be a person but a hotel in Tangiers (because Bond clearly needed another stamp on his passport).
From L’Americain, Bond and Swann catch a train to Blofeld’s secret desert lair and shamelessly flirt. But romance is put on hold when Hinx shows up and they fight on a train suddenly devoid of any passengers or crew. With Swann’s help, Bond eliminates Hinx for good by throwing him off the train like one of those barrels in Jaws. Stimulated by the violence, Bond and Swann get it on.
At the lair, Oberhauser does the classic villain thing where he explains everything instead of killing the two intruders. Turns out C is one of his agents, and when he gets Nine Eyes instated it will give Spectre unlimited access to intelligence worldwide. Oberhauser has also been messing with Bond ever since he ruined Spectre’s plans in Casino Royale. He even had the old M killed. Why does he hate 007 so much? Because when Oberhauser’s father took young James Bond in as a foster child, Oberhauser wasn’t pleased that his father was so taken with Bond. So he killed his father and staged his own death. He doesn’t even go by Franz Oberhauser anymore. These days he’s known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld (yup, Blofeld is back, fluffy white kitty and all). Now he wants to kill 007, but when Swann tells Bond she loves him, he performs an impossible escape. An explosion goes off right in Blofeld’s face, allowing them to execute a suspiciously easy escape just as the lair explodes for no clear reason (except to make a big boom).
Back in London, the M and Q stop Nine Eyes from activating and send C plummeting to his death. Bond and Swann tried to help but got kidnapped and surprise! Blofeld is still alive, with a jagged wound reminiscent of Blofeld’s facial scar in You Only Live Twice. He’s staged an elaborate endgame for Bond inside the old headquarters, which were bombed out in Skyfall. A bomb will go off in an absurdly small amount of time with Swann inside. Bond can either find her to rescue her only to die with her in the explosion, or he can leave and escape with his life. Being James Bond, he manages both: finding Swann, jumping to safety with her, commandeering a boat, and shooting down Blofeld’s helicopter. But Bond doesn’t kill Blofeld, even though Blofeld is left injured on the road in front of him. He leaves Blofeld to M instead, and literally drives off into the sunset with Swann.
It could have gone much worse. If that seems like faint praise, I suppose that’s because it is. Spectre has good intentions, but it doesn’t handle them so well in a few key areas. First, retconning all the villains in the Daniel Craig movies to be agents of Blofeld is effective at making Spectre seem dangerous, but at the expense of those villains. It diminishes them in favor of Blofeld. This is fine for Le Chiffre, who was always just a patsy working for others. It’s even fine for Dominic Greene, who was something of a wet napkin anyway–and if you pursue the storyline that Quantum was a shell for Spectre, it makes sense. But Silva deserved better. The whole point of Silva is that he’s a former agent who wants revenge on M for what he thinks she did to him. He’s dangerous and he wants to watch the world burn. I called him the greatest Bond villain of all time. Now you expect me to believe the whole scheme was a plot of Blofeld’s? The ‘think on your sins’ angle in Skyfall had a profound meaning when it was a personal message from Silva to M. It gets neutered when it’s just a shell game for Blofeld to mess with Bond. Personally, I choose to pretend it didn’t happen.
It doesn’t help that Christoph Waltz has been given a significantly less theatrical interpretation of Blofeld. I understand if producers didn’t want to go to Donald Pleasance levels of camp in reintroducing Blofeld, but it almost feels like they neutered Blofeld in the process (more on that in the villain section below). In a similar vein, they seem to be setting Madeleine Swann up to be the new great love of Bond’s life, not just a passing fancy. There are rather deliberate callbacks to both Vesper Lynd and Tracy di Vicenzo (commonly thought of as the greatest Bond love interests). But when Bond rides off with her into the sunset, are we meant to expect Madeleine Swann to return and continue to be Bond’s love interest? If she does, it could be an interesting twist depending on how they handle it. Them driving off together echoes Bond’s decision to quit the spy game to marry Tracy, only to have her die cruelly by Spectre’s hand. If Swann does return, will she have to die for Bond to be 007? Traditional wisdom for 007 relationships says we’ll never see her again, and if so what was the point of comparing her to Vesper and Tracy (more on Dr. Swann in the Bond Girl section below)? So again, both the villain and the Bond girl–two key metrics for any Bond movie–have good points but are left curiously neutered in the face of the history they are forced to carry on their shoulders.
Nevermind that the entire movie centers on a gaping plot hole. Why would M leave such a cryptic video for Bond? Why was she investigating Marco Sciarra in the first place? The fact that she tells Bond not to miss the funeral insinuates she knew Oberhauser/Blofeld would be there, but if that’s true why wouldn’t she just put him on Oberhauser’s trail? Why tell him to go to Sciarra’s funeral and count on the chance he’d seduce Sciarra’s widow and end up at the Spectre meeting? When did she create that video anyway? Did she keep recording new videos at different phases of her investigation to keep it up to date just in case she died before completing her investigation? Let me sum all this up for you before I continue rambling: IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
So I’ve complained about the movie a great deal. You know what will surprise you? I actually liked it. No really. This movie is really only problematic because it strains so hard to honor the legacy it had worked so hard to leave behind in the first two Craig movies. Skyfall was much more confident in introducing modern versions of Bond lore. Spectre, in comparison, trembles. It also unfortunately sands some of the edges. But is it a bad movie? No. If the Bond series really had started with the Daniel Craig movies–if we had never met Blofeld before, and if Tracy di Vicenzo didn’t exist–I wouldn’t be so harsh on this movie’s decisions. Its worst sin, in that scenario, would be retconning Silva. And while Blofeld still wouldn’t hold a candle to Silva, he’d be a fine enough Bond villain. Remember: there are some criminally boring bad guys in this series. The bar is surprisingly low.
It will be interesting to see where we go from here. There’s a lot of speculation that Daniel Craig is saying goodbye to the role of Bond even though he’s contracted for at least one more go-round. Spectre would actually be a fitting end to the Daniel Craig era, with him getting the girl and riding off into the sunset. Except even if Craig doesn’t come back, we know the series will continue and Bond will have more adventures, and the Craig era has kind of made a point of indicating that Bond was past his prime anyway. In the future, it would probably be wise to dial down those insinuations and pretend Bond suddenly got younger and fresher again. A new Bond would help them do that. I love, love, love Daniel Craig as Bond–but if he has to go, thematically this would be a good place for him to make his exit.
Spectre is a flawed movie–and some of those flaws run pretty deep–but it’s not a bad movie like so many other Bonds have been. I would take this over Quantum of Solace, Moonraker, any of the Brosnan Bonds, and several others. The fact that it’s a well-made and well-acted movie helps a great deal. That may not seem like a great recommendation, but it is what it is. The only real problem here is that Spectre can’t stop trying to be like things that came before in the Bond franchise, when it should have been focused on adding to the conversation instead.
Notable Moments: Did you hear? Blofeld makes his return to the screen after an absence of 44 years (I refuse to count the catty opening of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, in which Bond faces off with a man in a wheelchair who looks suspiciously like Blofeld from the back and murders him at long last). We also have an honest henchman for the first time since the execrable Yao in Die Another Day. Plus: when Bond and Swann rendezvous in secret with M, Moneypenny, Q, and Tanner in London, they meet in a shop that acts as a front for MI6 business. The name of the shop, Hildebrand Rarities, is a nod to a 007 short story by Ian Fleming named The Hildebrand Rarity. It’s one of the only Fleming titles that hasn’t been used for a Bond movie (the others being Risico, 007 in New York, and Property of a Lady).
Bond gets an exploding watch that saves the day when he’s in the
dentist torture chair. He also gets his first truly tricked-out car from Q branch in the Craig movies. Other than that, there’s really only the nanodes Q injects into Bond’s bloodstream to help M track his movements.
Moneypenny would be Bond’s biggest ally for sure. She seems to have inherited the Judi Dench M’s role as the only person Bond truly trusts–not to mention the only constant woman in his life. It suits Moneypenny to a T. But Bond also gets a big assist from Q, who joins him in the field and is nearly kidnapped trying to help 007 uncover Spectre’s secrets. Q also helps Bond hide his location from Q after those aforementioned nanodes make it virtually impossible for Bond to sneak off alone. But wait! There’s more! The new M and Tanner get in on the action in the finale. I suppose we can credit Moneypenny’s trust of M for Bond being suddenly willing to get over his distrust of authority figures. By the end, Bond has a regular posse going. That kind of diminishes Moneypenny’s role as his sole confidante, but it’ll do.
Spectre‘s writers made a fuss about making Bond Girls more than sex objects in need of rescue. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) is a nice blend of tough, sweet, and brains. Producers usually choose one of those categories and overdose on it. When it’s sweet, the Bond Girl is a brainless (or irritating) sex object. When it’s tough, they write a woman who is essentially a dude. And when it’s brains, they write a porn version of a scientist (a la Christmas Jones). The implication is that a tough girl can’t be feminine, and a sweet or brainy girl can’t be tough. Swann can’t be pinned down by a single brand. She’s tough, but she doesn’t want to do the things 007 does. She rejects violence even though she’s trained to inflict it. This is a Bond Girl with layers. That’s only happened twice before: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s Tracy di Vicenzo and Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd–two of the all-time best Bond Girls.
If only Spectre weren’t so keen on calling back to Tracy and Vesper. Tracy also had a crime lord father and rejected his path. Being with Tracy required James to leave his life as 007 behind, which could explain him driving into the sunset with Madeleine. His retirement in OHMSS was short-lived (Tracy was killed by a Spectre agent as they left their wedding). Will Madeleine meet a similar fate if she returns? OHMSS even has an allergy clinic in the Alps–further blurring the line. As for Vesper, the scene where Madeleine and James dine on the train recalls the moment Bond met Vesper. Like Vesper, Madeleine’s blunt assessment of Bond’s life unnerves him. In both cases, these moments allow the Bond Girl to get under 007’s skin. It’s probably no mistake that when Blofeld kidnaps Madeleine and 007 must save her, she ends up locked in a chamber–mirroring Vesper’s death in the elevator car, when James couldn’t get to her in time. But this time he gets the girl.
The problem is that they make Madeleine a palimpsest of Bond’s ultimate loves. She doesn’t have a moment that is uniquely hers, making her inherently less interesting than the women you’re asked to compare her to. In contrast, well, she’s a little bland. And that’s unfair because without Tracy and Vesper’s ghosts, Madeleine would be just fine. Maybe still a touch bland, but worse crimes have been committed with Bond Girls.
Supporting Bond Girl
Monica Bellucci, who was seemingly born to be a Bond Girl, somehow never got to be one. She was up for roles in Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough but got passed over in favor of bigger names. Ultimately that worked in Bellucci’s favor because both those movies were terrible. Instead, 16 years later, producers called on her to be the oldest Bond Girl ever (she filmed the role at 50). She beat the previous record-holder, Honor Blackman (Goldfinger‘s Pussy Galore to you), by 11 years. Accordingly, Bellucci asked to be referred to as a Bond Lady during her press tour for the film.
The title of Bond Lady is also meant to refer to the new feminism of Bond
Girls Ladies, in which more substantial roles are written to make them more then just sex objects. But Bond seduces the newly widowed Lucia Sciarra for information almost immediately–right after her husband’s funeral no less. What was that about feminism? Then Lucia disappears. Usually, Bond’s sex object/informant would be killed off, but instead 007 gives her Felix Leiter’s phone number and tells her to get to the American Embassy for protection–saving her from Blofeld’s goons. Feminism, ladies and gentlemen.
Bellucci smolders, but the Italian bombshell’s skills are wasted here. If you told me she only had five minutes of screen time, I wouldn’t be surprised. The only thing that saves Lucia from being classified as a ‘disposable’ Bond Lady is the fact that she doesn’t actually get disposed of. In all other regards she fits the bill: show up, look hot, sleep with 007, provide him with useful intel, and go away. It’s just that going away usually means dying. There’s so little substance to Lucia that you fall back on saying Bellucci looked gorgeous. There’s simply nothing else to say. Bellucci deserved better. But at least she gets to be fight the sexist notion that women stop being attractive after a certain age.
The much-heralded return of Ernst Stavros Blofeld was ultimately a disappointment. After a 44 year absence from the Bond series due to a legal dispute, producers were tasked with updating Bond’s greatest enemy for the modern world. But how to do it? The camp spectacle of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice would be a bad fit for the sleek, modern Bond. You’d think, then, that they’d go with the Blofeld who oozed menace in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. You’d be wrong, though. Instead, we got the terminally boring Blofeld from Diamonds Are Forever, but with the danger factor dialed up enough to make him a more worthy adversary. Yawn. Adding to that, Blofeld spends half the movie pretending to be Franz Oberhauser so producers could pull the wool over our eyes with their Blofeld reveal the way we didn’t know Eve was Moneypenny in Skyfall until the final scene. Except we all knew you couldn’t have Spectre return without Blofeld. Literally everyone who cared knew. Really, the Oberhauser red herring only exists to give Bond and Blofeld a backstory/origin story to explain why they menace each other so much. And the original Blofeld never needed motivation to be crazy. Instead, modern Blofeld was a depressed teenager who was mad that James got close to his father after Bond became an orphan and the Oberhausers took him in. Modern Blofeld literally has Daddy issues.
Making things worse, producers had the incredible benefit of having Christoph Waltz on hand to reintroduce Blofeld. How do you mess that up?! Waltz has proven extremely adept at playing unhinged crazies–he even won an Oscar for it in Inglourious Basterds. All you had to do was give him some material reminiscent of that and let him go. I don’t blame Waltz. He’s a great actor with material he can sink his teeth into. I suspect he got tethered by a more low-key approach to Blofeld. The script never lets him unleash the way you really, really want him to. Basterds‘ Hans Landa is a much better villain than this iteration of Blofeld.
For the first time since Die Another Day, we have a henchman to discuss. Henchmen seemed to have been thrown out in the Daniel Craig Bonds along with Q and Moneypenny as dated items the series no longer needed. You remember how I said the problem with Spectre is that it can’t stop trying to be like things that came before in the Bond franchise? We saw it with the Bond Girl, and we see it again here. Director Sam Mendes said he took inspiration for Spectre‘s Mr. Hinx from Goldfinger‘s Oddjob–the man I called the best-ever Bond henchman. Like Oddjob, Mr. Hinx is played by a wrestler–in this case Dave Bautista. His bulging muscles are covered away in a stylish suit, just like Oddjob. And like Oddjob, Mr. Hinx doesn’t speak, preferring to flex and let his violent actions speak for themself. Except Mr. Hinx does finally speak just as he’s about to be offed in a lame attempt for a laugh. So the one defining feature they give Mr. Hinx is a letdown. He’d have been better if he stayed silent. So to summarize: Mr. Hinx is fine, but he’ll never be one of the best henchman because he’s deliberately staged as one who came before him.
Yawn. Like with the casting of Christoph Waltz, producers seemed to have everything going for them when they snagged Sam Smith to sing the theme song. With his impossible high notes and ability to hit the rafters with his somber voice, Smith should have been a perfect successor to Adele’s Academy Award-winning theme for Skyfall. Except “Writing’s On the Wall” is a total snooze. The intro sounds like the perfect cliche of a Bond score. To be fair, so did “Skyfall,” but that song tied in so seamlessly with Adele’s vocals that you didn’t really care. “Skyfall” also pulled you in with intriguing lyrics, like Adele’s constant refrain that “this is the end.” The rest of this song relies heavily on Smith’s vocals to carry it. And his voice sounds great, but that’s all there is. The music occasionally swells to accent what he says, but it’s just dull background noise for the vast majority of the song. “Writing’s On the Wall” is the first pure love song to lead a Bond film in a great long while. The last one I can remember was Gladys Knight’s theme to Licence to Kill, which was also a mess. The lyrics seem to give strength to the argument that Bond is going to retire to be with Madeleine Swann, but it just isn’t interesting enough to make you care. Smith did better with his own music, including “Stay With Me.” And yet somehow “Writing’s On the Wall” became the second Bond theme to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song after Adele’s “Skyfall.” Gross.
There’s also the annoying way Smith denied that he was going to sing the Bond theme for months before the reveal that “oops, he is! Fooled you all!” Such theatrics may have fueled internet speculation as to who would sing the song, but in the end it was just irritating that they tried to play you like a fool.
Hmmmm. I would say that it’s too difficult to predict what will become iconic about this movie given that it just came out, except when I reviewed Skyfall a few months after its release I was able to name three scenes that would definitely be iconic (Bond getting shot off the train in the opening, M dying in 007’s arms, and my selection for the ultimate iconic moment: the clever shock that Eve was Moneypenny all along). In hindsight I could even throw in Silva’s introduction, when he rambles insanely about rats in barrels. Or the horrifying moment when Silva shot Severine. See what I mean? The fact that I’m having trouble naming a single iconic moment for Spectre says it all, I suppose. That’s probably because so much of the movie cribs on things that have already happened in the series. The Blofeld reveal was a shameless attempt to relive the glory of the Moneypenny reveal, and it didn’t work as well because you saw it coming miles away. The action is serviceable but doesn’t particularly stand out. If I have to choose, I’d go with the spectacularly filmed opening sequence in Mexico City on Day of the Dead. The intrigue gets you into the swing of things, the helicopter fight (swaying dangerously over a crowd in a plaza) gets your heart to beat faster, even though you know 007 will emerge victorious. It’s an opening sequence I would call Skyfall-worthy. It’s just a shame the rest of the film isn’t so confident and bold.
Grades: Movie: 4/5; Bond Girl: 4/5; Supporting Bond Girl: 2.5/5; Villain: 2.5/5; Henchman: 3/5; Theme Song: 2.5/5
You can find links to all the Bond movie reviews as well as ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists on my Bond Project page. I’m now caught up on all existing Bond movies, but don’t worry. James Bond will return–and so will I.