The Pitch: You only live, er, six times. Possibly seven.
The Review: Here we are again, then. For the twenty-fourth time in fifty-three years, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions unveil their latest film version of the escapades of the characters created by Ian Fleming in his series of novels. If you don’t know which characters those are, especially the one who has JB monograms on his towels, then this is probably the wrong review for you. It’s a difficult balancing act: hoping to attract in the ten people in the world who’ve never seen a James Bond film before while trying to satisfy the demands of three generations of Bond fans, each brought up on a different interpretation of the character and each longing for what they perceive to be Bond’s quintessential qualities. The pressure on Bond, and indeed on Eon and the production team, to deliver has never been higher and you only have to look at Skyfall’s box office in the context of the overall series to see why (worldwide, adjusted for inflation, in case you were wondering):
While first Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig had begun to turn around Bond’s box office fortunes, Skyfall exceeded even the previous peak of the golden Sean Connery era. Now Bond is established in the modern era as a global brand, how do you go about replicating that incredible success with another satisfying adventure for the world’s least secret agent?
The first thing you do, if you’re the current heads of Eon (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli), is that you do whatever you can to get Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes to come back again. You also ensure that the writing team of John Logan, Neal Purves and Robert Wade return to work out the next direction for the Bond franchise. The third and final significant step you take is to resolve all of the fuss and nonsense over rights to the most evil characters in the Bond universe – a rights battle that dates back to the fourth film, Thunderball and a wrangle that lasted nearly fifty years – and having reacquired the ability to use SPECTRE in your films you waste no time in making your next film the modern relaunch of Bond’s most nefarious nemeses. Thankfully you still have Bond’s MVP, Daniel Craig under contract, so it’s just a matter of filling out the cast, pitching Bond against SPECTRE and watching the fireworks fly. Or at least, it should be. But given the intensely personal nature of Skyfall, with Bond exploring his heritage and with the most prominent role for M of the entire series, the writers also feel the need to load Bond with further baggage, so we also get a return to the roots of the SPECTRE substitute organisation Quantum (set up in the first two Craig Bonds). We also get, somewhat unnecessarily and for the first time in the cinematic history of Bond, an exploration of Bond’s upbringing after his parents’ death with details lifted directly from the Fleming short story Octopussy.
All of this means that there’s a fair amount of exposition to get through and a large cast to navigate; as well as the returning characters of Bond, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner from MI6, we see Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and his daughter (Lea Seydoux), the standard verbally challenged henchman (Dave Bautista), a couple of other obligatory Bond women (Monica Bellucci and Stephanie Sigman), another oily British station chief C (Andrew Scott), and the mysterious link to Bond’s past in the form of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man apparently doing rather well for himself at the evil organisation Bond finds himself investigating. For a secret agent, Bond’s spent surprisingly little of his time doing actual spying over the years, preferring instead to focus on causing women to fall swooning into his arms at the drop of a hat and getting steadily drunk to remind everyone he’s not perfect.
You might need a stiff drink if you think about the plot of this Bond for too long: it manages to achieve the double whammy of not only bloating the film out to a record two and a half hour running time, but it singularly fails to blend its disparate elements into anything resembling a coherent story in that time. Not only performing a little retconning on the last few Bond films but also on Bond’s previous history, what the plot actually does is see Bond globetrot around the world in his usual casual fashion, almost waiting for the plot to come to him. When it does, sometimes after interminable amounts of simply hanging around that didn’t need to be seen on screen, it fails to be either surprising or interesting. It’s pretty much the origin story again for SPECTRE and their leader, but in a story that could probably have been condensed into the first hour of a sharper film before we got on with the real business of SPECTRE’s plan. The attempts at making the threat personal fail to resonate in anything close to the same way as Skyfall, and the big third act reveals are thrown away so clumsily as to be almost risible. (You may also benefit from giving yourself a Daniel Craig Bond marathon before setting out for this one as all three of Craig’s previous outings are regularly referenced.)
Normally Bond films can get away with a half-baked plot if everything else is at the top of its game, but that’s where SPECTRE’s inadequacies truly become apparent. There’s no denying that the opening credits sequence is up there with the very best of Bond, a single tracking shot through thousands of extras capped off with toppling buildings and spinning helicopters. It’s a shame that no other sequence comes close to matching it, with a car chase which has Bond on the phone for most of it, ignoring the peril completely, being a particular example: set reports indicate that seven of the new Aston Martin DB10s designed and produced especially for the film were written off during filming, but the results of that carnage don’t seem to have ended up on screen. The finale is a particular damp squib, with an almost apologetic lack of action and a dilemma that feels overly familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the major comic book movies of the last twenty years (*cough Spider-Man *cough* The Dark Knight *cough*)
The performances are also a very mixed bag, and it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if SPECTRE’s continued attempts to trade on nostalgia weren’t constantly throwing the film’s failings into sharp relief. Take, for example, a train sequence which is reminiscent of both Eva Green’s first confrontation with Bond in Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s bust up with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love; they’re both decent enough callbacks but all they do is remind you of how short they fall in comparison to the originals that they’re referencing. The writing for the female characters also borders on disastrous; Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci’s characters seem to be slipping back to being subjected to the sort of casual misogyny that Goldeneye was mocking eight films ago and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is made to look even more stupid here than she was clumsy in Skyfall (example dialogue: “You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone.”). Christoph Waltz does his best with an underwritten role, but of the support it’s only Ben Whishaw, building delightfully on his role as Q that comes away with any real credit.
It’s a curiously empty film; seemingly the extras budget was used up in Mexico City as Rome seems to be virtually uninhabited and SPECTRE’s lair has around 1% of the staff of your average volcano lair, staffed mainly by people in black sweaters who look like they’re queuing for interviews for jobs at the nearest Apple Store. (I mentioned the five main roles for the 00 division earlier, and the film also does a cracking job of convincing you that no-one else works there.) I can’t even say good words about the music, Thomas Newman’s score inexcusably missing at least two open goals to throw in the Bond theme which would have elevated the brief moments when the action scenes work; when Goldeneye was rescored to put the theme back into the tank chase, you have to wonder why Newman and Mendes’ handling is so sacrosanct. Sam Mendes’ direction only really comes to life in the pre-credits sequence and in a couple of well-framed hero shots later on, and Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography is serviceable without ever hitting the heights of Roger Deakins’ impressive digital lensing of Skyfall, yet another high bar from a film which wasn’t perfect but outperforms this follow up in almost every regard.
The one thing that saves it from being totally abject is its star: Daniel Craig has looked comfortable in the role from day 1, but now he fully inhabits it and feels as comfortable with the quips as with the moments of genuine emotion. We can only hope that this isn’t his swansong, as there’s plenty that could be done to improve matters for his next outing. When Goldeneye and Casino Royale launched the Brosnan and Craig eras respectively, they gave the series fresh momentum while capturing what made the series great; SPECTRE is absolutely content to replicate what it thinks made Skyfall a box office champion and as a result makes a film that’s overlong, languid and often listless and crucially missing the energy that made all of the aforementioned films work so well. This is mid-table Bond at best and would be lower but for Craig’s rock solid performance that at least anchors the film, but it failed to leave me either shaken or even stirred.
Why see it at the cinema: Much of the later action will be a complete washout by the time it gets to DVD or TV, so do catch it on the big screen. The big screen and sound system will also allow you to appreciate Sam Smith’s not-actually-bad theme song all the more.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Moderate, sadly, is the operative word; no-one would have faulted the BBFC for calling it “undercooked” or “a bit limp” instead.
My cinema experience: VIP seats at the Vue in Cambridge had plenty of legroom and the sound and projection were very reasonable; just a shame that the film’s middle stretch was so unengaging that someone two rows behind me fell asleep, judging by their rather prominent snoring. The lethargy of the audience in getting up to leave at the end told its own story.
The Score: 6/10
Box office figures courtesy of www.007james.com