With Skyfall released on the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, Spectre marks the beginning of what would hopefully be another five decades of 007. For me, Skyfall was so awesome that it sets the bar for subsequent Bond movies. That’s why it is virtually impossible for me to review Spectre without comparing it to Skyfall. So let me say this right now. Spectre does not top Skyfall, but only because the bar is set really high. The question then is whether Spectre is still exciting and engrossing enough to be a very good Bond movie. You can rest assured that the answer, in my opinion, is yes.
This is also a good time to talk about the Bond Formula (i.e., action, beautiful women, nefarious villains, gadgets, cars, vodka martini, etc.) and how it varies. Many of the prior Bond movies follow the formula in predictable ways. Exceptions include Licence to Kill in 1989 where Bond conducts a personal mission out of revenge, Quantum of Solace in 2008 that has very little Bond Formula in it, and Skyfall in 2012 that had enough of the formula but still dared to be very unconventional and original. As for Spectre, there’s a little more of the familiar formula than Skyfall, but not much more, because there are still plenty of moments that have never been seen in any of the previous Bond movies.
Let me illustrate this by reviewing some scenes in the movie. First off, the gun barrel sequence that was moved to the title sequence in Casino Royale and to the end credits in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall has been moved back to the beginning of Spectre, the way it’s always been done in the Bond series. The pre-title sequence features Bond (Daniel Craig) in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, where he carries out a mission to kill a terrorist. In the office of his superior M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond is chastised because the mission was not ordered by anyone. So far, the formulaic aspects of Spectre include the gun barrel sequence in the beginning of the movie and a meeting in M’s office, while the unauthorized Mexico mission is essentially a nonformulaic element. But then the movie reveals the reason why Bond carried out that mission, which I found quite interesting because no prior Bond film ever involved something like it.
Here’s another notable example of mixing a few formulaic Bond elements with a heavier does of nonformulaic material. This movie initially presents M, the secretary Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and the quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) in their traditional Bond movie roles. In other words, M is talking to Bond in his own office, Moneypenny is seen at her desk just outside M’s office, and Q is working with gadgets and weapons in a lab. That’s not to say that Spectre keeps those characters in those limited minor roles, like the old Bond films. On the contrary, Spectre eventually puts M, Moneypenny, and Q in the middle of the action in unconventional situations, especially in relation to a side storyline involving a proposal to close the Double-O section for good in favor of a newer intelligence organization.
Basically, there’s plenty of new and original content in this spy movie that is still recognizable enough as a James Bond movie. The movie also follows a nicely written plot, in which Bond’s retrieval of something in Mexico City leads him to follow a trail spanning several locations, with each location providing a vital clue to the next one. On the way, Bond seduces the widowed Lucia Sciarra (Monica Belucci) as well as a psychiatrist named Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the latter of whom is the daughter of the villainous Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who was previously seen in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Also, Bond is tracked by Hinx (Dave Bautista), a big muscular henchman for the international terrorist organization Spectre.
Now is the time to discuss the title. Yes, Spectre is a reimagining of the evil organization of the same name that appeared in six of the first seven James Bond movies. One key difference is that the old Spectre was an acronym that stood for the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. The new Spectre is not abbreviation for anything, but simply a one-word name that invokes connotations of spirits and death. Other than that, the new Spectre is definitely fitting for modern times, with use of computers and surveillance technology and members reflecting an even more international mix than the old Spectre.
As for the leader of Spectre, he is a mysterious man named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). You can definitely sense this in the character’s first on-screen appearance. In the scene where Bond infiltrates a secret Spectre meeting, Oberhauser enters the room and sits down, while his face is hidden in shadow almost the entire time. When he speaks, he does so calmly and in a way that could send chills down people’s spines. Overall, Oberhauser is another great Bond villain, and it’s even better that Christoph Waltz is an Academy Award-winning actor assuming the role (just as Academy Award winner Javier Bardem played the villain in Skyfall).
So that should cover the main things about this movie. The only other thing I didn’t mention yet is the title song, “Writing’s on the Wall” performed by Sam Smith. To be honest, this song is OK in my opinion. It features lyrics sung in slow high-pitched vocals, but at least the mood fits the movie. Also, the visuals during the title sequence are nicely done, featuring images related to fire, death, and a black octopus. Even after more than five decades, the opening credits of a James Bond movie are wonderful to look at.
I’m rather surprised that some critics have disliked the movie because the movie goes back to the traditional Bond formula. For one thing, you need the Bond formula to identify this spy movie as a Bond movie. Also, a relatively small portion of this movie has the familiar Bond formula feel, but there’s still a lot of room for original material to keep the Bond series very fresh. So don’t be misled by people who say that Spectre reverts back to the pre-Daniel Craig Bond movies. The film makes a small move in that direction, but still has its feet firmly planted in the new direction the Bond series will take.
With that, I’m giving high marks for Spectre. It’s a step down from Skyfall, but not far below it. I still found this Bond movie, officially the 24th entry in the series, to be very exciting and thrilling without a dull moment. As always, James Bond will return. And since death is sort of a motif in this movie, I should add, as an intended pun, that the James Bond series is not dead. If anything, Spectre proves that the series is still alive and well.
(Review originally published at AntFilmReview.com)