Here's a little secret: most James Bond movies are pretty bad. That's not me trying to be contrarian or trying to rile anyone up, it's just my honest opinion. I think the majority of viewers (excluding true Bond obsessives who have seen all of the movies enough times to know better) have an inflated view of this series' overall quality. Until two years ago, I know I certainly did.
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
I grew up watching a Bond movie here and there with my dad during those holiday marathons, eventually catching most of them on cable and occasionally renting one to fill in a blind spot. For nearly thirty years, I believed that most of the Bond movies fell in the "good" to "great" category, largely because the idea of James Bond is so much better than what we ever actually see on screen. The amalgamation of all of the different actors' personalities — Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig — combined with immaculate production design, stylish suits, global jet-setting, explosive action, and gorgeous women, has become the cultural legacy of the character, and it's rare that people (again, outside of Bond obsessives) really talk about the series in any detail outside of those terms. In most circles, Bond films don't inspire the same kinds of in-depth discussions as, say, Star Wars or the Marvel movies.
Two years ago, my wife and I started a project: we watched one Bond movie per month, catching up with all 23 movies in the series leading up to the 24th, Spectre, which I knew at the time would be coming out in November of 2015. (We also watched Never Say Never Again just for kicks.) I doubt the casual Bond fan has consumed the movies like this, but for me it produced a surprising result: after a lifetime of thinking I was a Bond fan, I discovered that most of these movies are actually not very good. The plots are needlessly convoluted, the villains' plans are often ludicrous, and Bond is never quite the combination of suave, physical, funny, and emotional that society holds him up to be. Yes, certain actors nail certain aspects of his character, but they never manage to check off all of those boxes. The formulaic elements of the franchise become glaringly obvious when watching the movies back to back instead of catching a couple of them every few years on TV, and it got to the point where it felt like we'd seen the same movie five or six times but with slight tweaks and variations added to minimally change it up. The series has its moments, but I came away from the experience disappointed in this franchise's overall quality.
Everyone has their favorite Bond, and by and large that preference is tied to the first interaction you had with the movies. Goldeneye was the first one I saw in theaters, so Brosnan was my favorite for a few years until I went back and really got into the back catalogue, at which point Connery took the top spot. But now, Daniel Craig has edged him out, and even though I don't like Quantum of Solace, I think Casino Royale and Skyfall are among the top 10 best Bond entries of all time.
Which brings us to Spectre, a film with a handful of big problems but one that still easily slides into another of those top 10 slots. It kicks off with a cool long continuous shot in Mexico City, where Bond has gone rogue in order to foil an attack on a stadium. M (Ralph Fiennes) is pissed that 007 blows up some buildings while on vacation, but he's angrier about the fact that a cocky young government agent named C (Andrew Scott) wants to shut down the Double O program in favor of a worldwide surveillance system that he's trying to convince allied governments to adopt. (Side note: screenwriters, please give the whole "Snowden/surveillance state" thing a rest. It's already become tiresome.)
The reason Bond has kept his secrets close to the vest is that he doesn't trust anyone — he suspects there's a larger game being played and begrudgingly includes Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) in his plans so they can help him find the truth. They help a little, but I would have loved to have seen more of them, since Harris and Whishaw are so great in the roles. But perhaps no one is as wasted as Monica Bellucci, who has about five minutes of screen time early on before never being mentioned again.
I won't get into a big plot summary — if you're a fan of the franchise, you're going to see this regardless of what I say about it, so I'll leave some of the ins and outs for you to discover on your own.
If nothing else, Spectre absolutely loves paying homage to Bond movies of the past. Watching every film in the series leading up to this one uniquely positioned me to be able to pinpoint some of Spectre's references that might have gone over my head without those earlier films kicking around in my brain. A train fight? That's a nod to From Russia With Love! A snowy chase scene through the Alps near an isolated building on a mountaintop? Shades of On Her Majesty's Secret Service! Some of its references are more overt: Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx is very clearly an updated take on Richard Kiel's Jaws (Bautista's a silent force who stabs people's eyes out with his metallic nails instead of chomping them to death with his teeth), and at one point Bond is strapped to a torture table that recalled the iconic laser scene in Goldfinger. And then, of course, there's the big one. The one I'm going to need to spoil the last half of the film in order to talk about.
Despite a media campaign in which Christoph Waltz emphatically denied that he was playing Bond's greatest nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, this movie pulled a Star Trek Into Darkness on us. Waltz isn't only Franz Oberhauser, he's Blofeld, just like Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't only John Harrison, he was Khan. It's almost the exact same situation, and I'll never know why the filmmakers decided that playing this as some kind of reveal would be a good idea — the only people who paid any attention to whether or not Waltz would be Blofeld were diehard fans, and the general public probably doesn't even remember who the character is. Why wouldn't they just come out and say "Spectre is going to be about the origins of Blofeld!" Fans would have been excited, not rolling their eyes when it's finally revealed late in the movie. It's a weird decision that probably won't have a hint of impact with the general public, and all it did was make a bunch of diehard fans angry at being deceived for no reason.
That's not even to mention the weirdly personal tone this now casts over the entire Daniel Craig run. It's revealed that Bond stayed with the Oberhausers for two years after his parents died in a climbing accident, and Franz's dad ended up liking James more than his own son. So Franz, now going by the name Blofeld, killed his father and became an international terrorist who's somehow responsible — it's never quite explained how — for every bad thing in Bond's life, including the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. But there's never any real meaning behind this reveal, no larger truth illustrated by Blofeld and SPECTRE being the shadowy organization behind it all. This should be something that completely recontextualizes everything we've seen in the previous Craig movies, something that turns Bond's world upside down and blows the audiences' collective mind, but instead it just sort of plays like, "Huh. OK then." The peek behind the government's curtain in The Bourne Legacy was more satisfying and had bigger implications than this.
I might as well go ahead and get the rest of my complaints out of the way. The movie is at least 15 minutes too long, a good portion of which could have been trimmed from shootouts and chase scenes without altering the point of those scenes — in fact, shaving a few shots might have actually made a few of them more effective. How many times do we need to see a helicopter spin above Mexico City? This movie will test your patience trying to find out.
Lea Seydoux is fine as Dr. Madeleine Swann, but like most Bond girls, her relationship with 007 seemed rushed and not fully formed. She pales in comparison to Eva Green's turn in Casino Royale, since Green played a character that could actually keep up with him. (Nobody does it better [ha!] than Vesper Lynd, except maybe Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.) Swann always feels like she's barely hanging on, but Bond decides she's worth leaving the agency for at the end? C'mon.
Listing all of these complaints makes it sound like I enjoyed the film much less than I actually did. It's just that after Skyfall, I had very high hopes for this movie, and I think its script dropped the ball in some pretty big ways. Most of the other stuff — costumes, locations, cinematography — were up to and even exceeded franchise standards. It's still a (mostly) enjoyable movie. Weirdly, it really feels like Sam Mendes wanted to make a Christopher Nolan Batman film and this was as close as he could come. (I was reminded of The Dark Knight several times, with Bond/Blofeld as a Batman/Joker analogue.) I've seen a lot of hate out there already for Spectre, but even factoring in my myriad issues with it, I'm still convinced a majority of the other Bond movies are far, far worse.