SPECTRE’s opening set-piece instantly reminded me of Orson Welles’ brilliant 3 ½ minute single-take achievement in Touch of Evil. Unlike that 1958 classic, this 4 minute sequence is only appears to be a continuous tracking shot but in fact has a couple of carefully hidden transitions. Nevertheless, it is a richly mounted, incredibly detailed and meticulously choreographed sequence, consisting of 2000+ extras, all of whom stay in character even in wide and long shots.
Sam Smith’s new theme song Writing’s on the Wall is reasonably good when paired with the title sequence, but will not challenge my Top 3 favourites – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and A-ha’s The Living Daylights; of course, Paul McCartney’s iconic Live and Let Die now probably transcends these mundane lists.
The overall story arc is simple enough to describe – Bond follows up on a tip to kill a man and then investigate the secret organization he works for. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a personal connection with the man who has been pulling the strings of globally organized crime over the years. The execution of this simple story is quite complex though and sometimes it’s tough to keep track of why exactly Bond is in a particular part of the world – Mexico, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco – except in order to set up a spectacular sequence in an exotic location!
And spectacular they are. Everything looks fabulous in this movie, including Bond in his perfectly fitting Tom Ford O’Connor suit (only about USD 4000 at Harrod’s). If indeed this is going to be his last Bond, then certainly Mr. Craig will be going out on a high, as he hardly seeming to have aged since Casino Royale nine years ago. Equally eye-catching are his co-star Léa Seydoux and his car, the Aston Martin DB10 prototype.
Product placement has been toned down, but just enough to allow the featured brands to run their own Bond-related promotions off-screen. Aston Martin and Omega are the two brands explicitly visible on-screen, but brands like Tom Ford, Sony phones and Belvedere Vodka are certainly riding on the association.
Throughout the film, there are echoes of the past for Bond loyalists to pick up on. The mountaintop Hoffler Klinik where Seydoux’ character Dr. Madeleine Swann works looked like Blofeld’s similarly placed allergy research institute in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond and Dr. Swann’s dinner date on the Oriental Desert Express is a nod to his and Vesper Lynd’s first meeting in Casino Royale.
Later on, the fight sequence between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery’s Bond and strongman Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love.
I get a bit worried with this new trend of referencing old events in franchise movies. JJ Abrams did it in Star Trek Into Darkness and it came off poorly in Terminator: Genisys. It’s a bit of a gimmick and seems like lazy writing to me. Or maybe it was just coincidence and I am looking too hard for such connections!
There is no femme fatale this time around unless you count Monica Belucci in a use-and-throw role who does not even have the good grace to get killed. I missed having a character like Famke Janssen’s unhinged Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Bérénice Marlohe’s stunning and tragic Séverine in Skyfall or even Caroline Munro’s irritating helicopter pilot Naomi from The Spy Who Loved Me (whose destruction I thoroughly enjoyed at the tender age of 9).
I should be writing more about Christoph Waltz’ performance; not only is he one of my top character actors, he is also a two-time Oscar winner and plays an iconic Bond villain – history was waiting to be made. However, he is strangely tame in the film; I actually thought he was more menacing with his shadowy presence in the trailers than he was when actually seen in the movie. I can understand that director Sam Mendes would not have wanted him to ham it up like previous Bond villains nor do a repeat of Waltz’ own tongue-in-cheek performance as SS Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Whatever the case, I felt that Javier Bardem’s Silva was far more menacing and disturbing in Skyfall.
I also missed Judi Dench. At the end of Skyfall, I very much welcomed Ralph Fiennes as the new M. His character Gareth Mallory had shown a certain spiritedness throughout the film which I thought would serve him well as the new boss of MI6. But in SPECTRE, Fiennes’ M is an emasculated leader, tagging along behind his new boss ‘C’ (played by Andrew Scott, last seen as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and mouthing pedantic phrases about democracy. Likewise, Naomie Harris, who made such an impression as field agent turned executive assistant in Skyfall, seemed to be missing her spark. I thought about this and realized that this is the truth of life in large corporations (even MI6), which is that even omni-powerful bosses have their own boss to be afraid of and the brightest of talent can eventually get ground down by the pressures of the job! Perhaps their seeming fatigue is a reflection of director Sam Mendes’ own state of mind, considering that he has been working on 2 consecutive Bond films for the better part of the last five years.
Looking back at all my comments, it may seem like I have a lot to quibble about, but it really is only quibbling. And that’s because Skyfall set up such high expectations, which were even further enhanced with that brilliant opening sequence. Thereafter, the film suffers a bit due to the long running time and a bit due to some lazy script writing and editing. But overall, it is a great-looking movie, featuring a lead actor absolutely in his element that ends with on a surprisingly noble and conventionally happy (but welcome) ending. Go see it! It may be the last time we’ll see Daniel Craig on screen as the iconic 007.