After the coronation, a consolidation. First things first: Sam Smith’s SPECTRE theme isn’t greatly improved when heard in conjunction with Daniel Kleinman’s ever-imaginative opening credits, which – taking us inside Bond’s increasingly bruised and inky psyche – constitute the new film’s one shot at depth; “Writing’s On The Wall” still sounds exactly what you get when you strand a performer with minimal life experience in the middle of the Albert Hall.
The decision to employ Smith as a musical flagship could be seen as an indicator of the franchise’s renewed confidence post-Skyfall – that it believes it can now sell us on anything – or of a series that, after raising its game considerably last time out, has started to coast once more. Over 150 minutes, this is what SPECTRE seems to be doing – not unwatchably – as 007 (Daniel Craig) completes some unfinished business, first in Mexico City (home to a single-shot opener that looks too composited to impress) then everywhere else, and news lazily filters through of a threat to MI6.
After the new directions Sam Mendes pushed the last film in – finessing the performances, and thereby repositioning an indomitable hero as vulnerable flesh-and-blood – this one has the feel of the series reverting to expensive formula, and indeed rather smugly coming to reference itself. Where the last few films have done careful work in freshening up the “Bond girl” archetype, this is a boysier Bond, certainly: the conflict as stiffly institutional as Skyfall’s was familial, shifting the focus away from heart and home and back to the boardroom and briefing chamber.
You do miss what Judi Dench brought to these reboots; of the other women assembled here, Monica Bellucci has two scenes as a widow Bond literally pumps for information, Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny reverts to phone-answering duties, while the notional main attraction, Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann, proves the very model of an undeveloped Bond girl: a pouting demoiselle whose daddy issues leave her easy prey for our James. (More so than 007, I spent the entire second half mourning the loss of Eva Green as Vesper Lind, who seemed so much less of a pushover.)
It’s not that there aren’t pleasures here. You can, for one, enjoy Ben Whishaw’s enhanced participation as Q: call it the Paddington effect, or part of the New Nerdiness that has seen Simon Pegg become Tom Cruise’s sidekick-in-chief in the Mission: Impossibles. And a connoisseurial enjoyment remains to be had from seeing Craig so attentively checking his cuffs.
Yet at no point in SPECTRE do you sense Bond being tested or threatened in the manner he was throughout Skyfall: it takes nearly two hours for this perilously diffuse script to put him in the same frame as his closest adversary (Christoph Waltz, himself trading on past glories), and then it’s in the kind of faintly absurd lair Connery or Moore used to escape from in the 60s and 70s – a sterile bubble of production design, sealed off from the real world the previous film dragged this character towards.
In short, we’re back in the realms of fantasy, which will be a problem for those of us who don’t find Bond an especially compelling or aspirational figure. There are stretches where Craig appears no more real than a computer game avatar – part Hitman, part Leisure Suit Larry – passing invulnerable through a world of safety nets and soft landings (a sofa here, a Seydoux there) which perhaps only come into play when your last movie has taken a cool billion at the global box office.
Of course, if you just want to watch a relic of empire putting our somewhat confusing new world to rights, you’ll do fine: this is, as SPECTRE reminds you, a franchise that has always relied upon the innate conservatism of the British public. (Expect the Prime Minister to venture a groanworthy Bond pun at some stage over the coming weeks, and for George Osborne to announce what a tremendous boost the film has been for the British economy.)
Mendes has again completed a thoroughly professional job: investing the money available to him wisely, never embarrassing himself or the franchise in the way the directors of Die Another Day or Quantum of Solace did. Yet the risk and danger by which Skyfall extended the franchise and the fanbase has, for the moment, abated. That Sam Smith song has actually proven an apt advance party for the film: an expensive production, and a surefire chart-topper, but one without anything especially substantial or memorable at its centre.
(MovieMail, October 2015)
SPECTRE is available on DVD through Warner Home Video, and to rent via Prime Video; the latest film in the Bond franchise, No Time To Die, is now in cinemas nationwide, and will be reviewed here this week.