This latest instalment is certainly a film of mixed quality. Just when you start to think the excitement and tension are building at last, a flimsy plot device kills the anticipation. Not a cold-dead head shot; more of a wound in the side, preserving some chance of recovery but ultimately weakening the journey.
So Bond’s past is the subject once again, but where Skyfall allowed a tangible connection with his childhood, Spectre only skims the edge. This supposedly tumultuous ‘backstory’ is neither tumultuous nor a story, providing mere fodder for the new villain’s weakly lit canon. Following a lead from M’s posthumous message, 007 is sent on a world-spanning journey of assassination. After finding an octopus-embellished ring, he discovers Spectre, a secret and rather dark organisation led by the fittingly mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). He travels to Austria to find Mr White, an associate of Spectre, and agrees to protect his daughter, psychologist Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) in return for her guidance to Oberhauser’s hidden base.
The shiny opening titles pretty much sum up the remainder of the viewing experience: disjointed. Characters appear and leave without explanation or conclusion, problems are solved with minimal fuss and tension, locations are stepped in and out of like the rooms of a house. In short, the whole thing feels rushed, not planned out, throwing every idea into the mixing pot without editing out the bad ones. Not to say all the ideas are bad as such, there are just too many happening all at once. Take Monica Bellucci’s ‘older Bond woman’. A brilliant performance, a potentially interesting sub-plot as the widow of an assassin living in constant fear for her safety. But once the clothes are off, it seems her purpose has been adequately served, and we never hear from her again. Then there’s Mr Hinx, the Jaws-esque, non-speaking henchman employed by Oberhauser, violently butchering a be-suited man with his bare hands in the austere Spectre meeting room. He’s an intriguing enough bloke, that raw strength a weirdly pleasing contrast to the gun-saturated world of this stylised version of British intelligence; but he’s there, and then he’s gone. And why he is there, or why anyone cares, is always a bit uncertain.
But just to confuse matters, there are some great set pieces. The opening minutes, a lingering tracking shot walking and flying through the aesthetically perfect Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, crescendoing in a helicopter battle over the city’s main square (filled to the brim with innocent members of the public, naturally) throws us into the lovable Bond universe we have become so accustomed to, complete with ropey CGI. The stolen car chase – to Q’s comic dismay – through the unnaturally empty streets of Rome pulls a good thrill. It seems the appeal of this Bond compared to the Bond of, say, Casino Royale is we don’t know whether he will make it. Whether he will survive the next shot or crash or explosion. Whether Craig will continue through to another film.
But then we’re back to the faults, the unfortunate stumblings of Sam Mendes’ final waltz at the helm. Mr Franz I-Am-The-Author-Of-All-Your-Pain Oberhauser, so the trailers and adverts proudly declare, has an inexcusably paper-thin backstory. If we are going to delve into Bond’s past once again there could have at least been a flashback. A rose-tinted slow-motion running hug in a garden peppered with Autumn leaves? Alright then, at least some sort of explanation to the specifics of his repressed jealous anger. Or if not that a genuine elucidation of how he managed to pull off all this bloodshed and ‘pain’. Yes, he lives in a chin-deep surveillance facility with a team of robot-like, no-questions-asked computer workers, but I’m not certain a couple of monitors and wires can influence the madness and intelligence of Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, Silva? And a couple of A4 printouts on a wall still aren’t convincing enough, even if Christoph Waltz gave it his best shot, sockless loafers and all.
Lea Seydoux’s Swann is an endearing blend of intelligence, clout and fear. She feels human, an outlier in Bond’s world and perhaps the reason he falls for her. She isn’t a one-night-stand filler to satisfy James’ womanising habit, but a genuine love and counterpart. She is undeniably strong, but she has the capacity to be frightened, and to express it, and that’s what makes her different. Their relationship holds the third act together – the glue to Q’s lacklustre computer fumblings (not a flaw of Ben Whishaw, I must add, but of the anticlimactic writing once again) and Ralph Fiennes’ new M’s grappling with Andrew Scott’s comically abbreviated ‘C’.
The film would perhaps hold up stronger succeeding 2008’s disappointing Quantum of Solace and not the grand spectacular that is Skyfall. But it is certainly entertaining, and the two hours and thirty minutes pass by, for the most past, unnoticed. It’s only after, when you consider what you have actually witnessed, that the plot seems to fall apart in your now tear-damp hands.