Daniel Craig’s four film tenure as James Bond has been amazingly uneven. Casino Royale set the bar high with rave reviews and record setting box office takes. Then came the forgettable Quantum of Solace which continued the previous film’s story. Skyfall followed and broke Casino Royale‘s record for highest grossing Bond film and earned near equal reviews as that first film. And now we come to Spectre which, like Quantum of Solace, swings the pendulum backward. Casino Royale and Skyfall earned 95% and 93% on Rotten Tomatoes respectively which make the movies #2 and #1 on that site’s ranking of the entire Bond series. Meanwhile Quantum of Solace and Spectre hit 65% and 63% (so far). That’s a pretty clear split made even more interesting by this back-and-forth swinging. It’d be one thing if the films just petered out, starting with 95%, then hitting 93% before sliding to 65% and 63%. Instead the film’s quality have zigzagged.
So how does Spectre‘s shortcomings change Craig’s legacy as Bond? Well, not much really. Connery and Dalton both made Bond films with worse reviews than Spectre and only Connery’s original trio from the early 1960’s beats Casino Royale in the admittedly imperfect Rotten Tomatoes scale. Comparing Craig’s Bond to that of any of the other actors is extremely difficult given their disparate time settings. Juxtaposing Craig’s four film with modern films like The Bourne Series and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier might make more sense.
Modern action movies have been following the pattern of The Bourne Identity since 2002. The waves left by that film almost certainly played some role in changing the course of the Bond series. Daniel Craig redefined the character in Casino Royale by taking him back to his early roots, throwing off some of the earlier cliches of the five actors who came before him. The new Bond is brooding, physical, and (like most modern action films) dark. These changes were lauded by the majority almost 10 years ago while irking some diehard fans (much like the Star Trek films of JJ Abrams). Craig brought us a Bond for today. One with “smart blood” who deals with government surveillance run amok, a far cry from the radio beams and lasers of the 1960’s.
Of course, one major drawback with this update is the fact that it places Bond in plots seen in contemporary films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier arguably tells the same story as Spectre: one of the government’s most effective agents learns about a secret organization that takes over major world governments and pushes for intrusive surveillance systems in the name of “freedom” while our hero must work outside “the usual channels” to expose the truth. Debuting just one year earlier, Winter Soldier develops this plot much more effectively and manages to make its evil organization Hydra appear more threatening and dangerous than Bond’s Spectre. In Winter Soldier (except for the Winter Soldier himself), the enemy is largely unknown and the film works to surprise us when it reveals Hydra members (sometimes the surprises work but not always). Spectre leaves this card largely unplayed and even allows Bond into a secret meeting with all the Spectre bigwigs. Some mystery is maintained by leaving Christoph Waltz’s face obscured but was there any real doubt about who we were watching? Were we supposed to be surprised when we finally see his face? It’s not like we knew anything about the character that would lead us to believe he wasn’t the leader of the group. Besides the trailers already told us he was the badguy.
Instead, the main reveal turns out that another government official is working for Spectre. But the reveal is so benign that I’m not even sure if we were supposed to be surprised. The character who inevitably learns about the double agent doesn’t seem surprised either. To be honest I thought that the big reveal would be that the obvious reveal would be a Scooby Doo-style fake-out and some other character would be revealed as the big bad. Nope. The film telegraphs its “reveals” from the beginning, robbing us of suspense.
What suspense is built comes largely from re-working plots of the previous three Craig movies. That’s a tough sell. I admit I’m no expert of those films but if the big reveal of this movie is that the actions of those other movies were actually all tied up in one big conspiracy, I’m sorry but that’s a hard pass for me. Re-writing the stories of old movies is always tough. Sometimes it works like with the Maury moment between Luke and Papa Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. But the twist usually doesn’t extend out of the movie (eg The Sixth Sense) and sometimes doesn’t even last the entire movie (eg The Village). The big reveals within Spectre which pertain to only Spectre are relatively boring and predictable. The big reveals within Spectre which relate to the earlier films seems forced and unnecessary.
Here’s the moment when I should confess that I never really know what is going on in any given James Bond movie. Spectre included. The movie plays the pronoun game for the first hour with everyone saying “where is he?” or “HE sent you didn’t he?” I assume this was a personal problem but I wasn’t really sure who “he” was at any given moment. This isn’t new for me. I rarely remember what the villains plan is in any Bond film. Sometimes that’s because the plots are insane but I suspect I don’t pay as much attention in these movies as I do in non-Bond movies. So maybe the reveals here were great. Maybe I was paying enough attention to suspect something was happening but not enough to realize why that was a big deal. Maybe I’m too distracted by the action scenes and the gorgeous shots of Mexico City or Austria or wherever the action scenes in this movie happened. Which is fine by me because those scenes are fun even if the framework that connects them comes up short.
Bottom-Line: Disappointing but no where close to Fantastic Four levels, Spectre doubles down on uninteresting elements while leaving better plot-points unexplored. Still, it’s a beautiful film with some great action sequences that almost make up for the plot troubles.