007 Christoph Waltz

Spectre Review: A Colossal Mess with Occasional Entertainment Perfection

Monday, November 09, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes
Rating: Three stars out of five
Available in theaters now
[SPOILERS for people who have not watched the trailer and/or have never seen old Bond movies.]

Few things are more promising than sitting down to a movie and immediately being presented with a knockout sequence of not only extreme technical difficulty but also one that understands the activities and proclivities of the characters it depicts. That is how the latest James Bond installment, Spectre, begins. Director Sam Mendes, returning after 2012's Skyfall, picks up with the splashy pizzazz of his first go-round with this franchise and perhaps even tops it in a long take winding through a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Several moments of mastery follow each other in quick, unbroken succession. Striking, colorful costume design indicates exactly who we should be watching in this crowded, vaguely malevolent party. Bond's prey is decked out in an impeccably cut white suit while 007 himself is disguised in a black skeleton getup that makes him appear shrunken and wiry rather than the broad-shouldered hulk he has proven to be in the Daniel Craig era.

Bond, in his frightening skeleton mask, skulks around holding the hand of a local woman, never letting himself lose sight of the man in white. The camera retreats as they walk, then pans and follows them into a hotel, up the elevator, into a sleazy room with pealed paint where it appears some standard Bond seduction will take place. After a quick pause on the beautiful woman on the bed, her facial expression turns to confusion as the camera turns back to Bond removing the last vestiges of his disguise as he calmly wanders out the window and across the roofs of the Mexico City skyline, unspooling a high-powered rifle and preparing it with the cold precision to match the grim but most likely necessary task that awaits him at the end of his preparation. As the camera continues its perpetual backtrack and Bond readies for the assassination of the man in white, Mendes says much about process and the act of work, the determination to do a job efficiently. It's not a Hitchcockian obsession with voyeurism, although watching people without their knowledge remains part of what Mendes does with the camera in this moment. It's a glitzy, high-octane heightening of actual spycraft, the kind more “realistically” depicted in the films based on John le Carré's novels, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And it melds perfectly with the chase sequence and fist fight aboard a barrel-rolling helicopter that immediately follows it. It is Bond done to perfection.

The problem is, from the point that opening Mexico City sequence ends and Sam Smith's wholly uninspiring broken heart anthem, “Writing's on the Wall,” kicks in – it's such a bland, mid-tempo choice for a 007 adventure flick – Spectre goes off the rails. The deft, almost wordless love letter to Bond that was the opening sequence segues into a movie littered with confused motivations and a half-hearted love story.

It never falls into full-on badness, because Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema use the beauty of each exotic locale – Spectre goes to places like Tangier, Austria, the African desert, and more – as thematic backdrops for each turn the story takes. The buildings are huddled closely together in Tangier, which reflect the frazzled state of mind Bond and love interest Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) find themselves in. The snowy expanses of Austria are desolate and open, showcasing the loneliness of Bond in his solo pursuit of Christoph Waltz's primary villain, whose desert-based compound is so expansive and overwhelming so as to seem like it is impossible to get out of the way of its surveillance capabilities.

But the underlying elements of the relationship between Bond and Waltz's Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld do not work. This is the fault of the script more than any other element. It forces a childhood connection between the two and implies that the horrors of the preceding three Daniel Craig-starring Bond films were all orchestrated as a piece of jealousy. It is perhaps implied that the three torturous adventures before Spectre were a “side project” for Blofeld on his path to becoming world dominating megalomaniac. However, the lack of clarity suggests that this trillion-dollar worldwide conspiracy to control humanity is all because of some petty jealousy between two kids who couldn't get along 25 years ago. Even in a universe that has an indestructible, catchphrase-spouting suaveness machine at its center, this setup strains for believability.

Ditto for the love story between Bond and Swann. The age difference between Craig and Seydoux – 17 years – isn't quite as extreme a logical leap as the reasons for their falling for each other in the movie. In Casino Royale, Craig's first foray as 007, he had Eva Green's Vesper Lynd as an opposite-but-equal, a rival in the cool-and-collected department. Her death has reverberated through Craig's tenure as a tragedy he is unable to get past, largely because there is a simple, organic connection between them in that movie. This time out, Bond promises Swann's father he will protect her as a piece of transaction to get information – not the strongest start to a romance. It could have worked, though, if the romance had been less jarringly integrated. They go through half their time together as mere traveling companions, with little chemistry beyond some annoyance at the situation that binds them. A thrilling fight sequence (not between them) on a train later and suddenly they're soul mates. It's a snap of the fingers love story, with no gathering, forward momentum where they gradually enjoy learning more about each other. It's quick and mostly senseless but treated like Bond is getting his happily ever after.

For those deep structural faults, Spectre maintains the exquisite action filmmaking that has defined the Craig era, while lightly dropping in some of the silly, jokey stuff that has largely been eschewed in the same four-film span. There is a car chase through the winding streets and staircases of Rome, plus the aforementioned train fight between Bond and the Guardians of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista, who stands a good chance of becoming the new recurring henchman that Jaws was in the Roger Moore days. The confrontation at Blofeld's desert fortress is the natural place for a climax in the movie, but it is used half an hour before the actual climax, which is probably the only action-based disappointment in the picture.

And for all the messiness that follows it, that opening sequence will always be there. That thing is wonderful and cannot be tarnished.

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