For you, I'll risk it all.

By Louis Balzani
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  • You’re any sort of fan of the Bond franchise.
  • You like Daniel Craig’s take on the famous super-spy.
  • You’re in the mood for some great, cinematic action.

Full disclosure before we get started: I absolutely love the James Bond franchise. I’ve seen them all, and like everyone else, I have my own thoughts and biases on the series as a whole, which admittedly made looking at Spectre objectively a bit of a challenge. I’ll primarily attempt to review this film as its own standalone experience, but due to the nature of its narrative, some comparisons will be necessary, if not inevitable.

How do you follow something like Skyfall? Like Casino Royale before it, the film struck a chord with audiences by bucking franchise conventions to help deliver one of the best action films in recent memory. Though it was a runaway success by all accounts, some longtime fans of the series felt that it and Craig’s other, more brooding Bond films brought the character too far away from its campier roots. The crew behind the franchise felt it an appropriate time to address those concerns, and so we finally arrive at Spectre. This time around, Craig and returning director Sam Mendes attempt to reconcile their darker 007 with the lighthearted touch from films past, and though they don’t always hit their mark, they’ve still crafted another very entertaining movie.

It’s never an ordinary day for Bond, is it? After causing chaos at the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City, Bond finds himself grounded by M just as he begins to uncover the secrets behind SPECTRE, a mysterious and omnipresent criminal syndicate. This happens parallel to M’s own fight with Max Denbigh, a hotshot bureaucrat looking to dismantle the 00-section and combine the intelligence capabilities of the world’s major powers into one all-encompassing system. Naturally, all is not as it seems, and as the lengthy film progresses, the true nature of SPECTRE, its shadowy leader, and many of the supporting characters become clear – or clearer, at least.spectre_1From the first frame, it becomes apparent the film operates with a focus on the past, both in terms of its characters and the franchise to which it belongs. Spectre definitively and aggressively references older Bond films; a visceral train fight immediately recalls From Russia With Love, and Bond’s arrival at a desert data center distinctly reminds me of Goldfinger. It doesn’t just pull from the older movies, though – the film liberally references Craig’s other films, bringing up Le Chiffre, Silva, and Judi Dench’s M almost too often. These obvious nods are sure to please hardcore fans, but it comes, perhaps, at the expense of Spectre‘s ability to carve out its own identity. At times, it feels too preoccupied with honoring the franchise’s legacy to push it forward; that’s not necessarily bad, and some of the lighter bits are genuinely funny, but it does create a few curious moments where the film as a whole feels a bit unfocused and tonally confused.

The film’s expanded cast deserves some detailed analysis as well. Craig turns in yet another reliably entertaining performance, balancing tongue-in-cheek observations and weathered angst in equal measure. Léa Seydoux stuns as Dr. Madeleine Swann; though she ultimately succumbs to some of the traditional “Bond girl” clichés as the film goes on, her character brings an air of poise, aggression, and weariness to the proceedings. Her inevitable romance with Bond feels forced, and no one can truly replace Vesper Lynd, but damn if those two aren’t a gorgeous couple. Dave Bautista shows up as the strong, silent henchman who trails Bond aggressively and nearly gets the better of him, but he ultimately never amounts to much of a memorable presence. Monica Bellucci’s much-hyped presence sadly amounts to little more than three short scenes early in the film. Ben Whishaw enjoys an expanded role as Q, Naomie Harris gets sidelined a bit as Moneypenny, and Ralph Fiennes mostly scowls as M. Though not without some degree of authority and coldness, Christoph Waltz never feels overly threatening as big baddie Franz Oberhauser, and he proves to be a bit shallow; I wish there was a bit more emotional depth to his character, and I suppose the same can be said of the film as a whole.spectre_2Fortunately, none of the characters’ shortcomings interfere with the film’s ability to crank out some stunning action. Every single sequence crackles with tension and beauty, from a gorgeous car chase in Rome to a seriously excellent and very thematic climax. It’s all a joy to behold, and the opening sequence in Mexico City may well set the high-water mark for the franchise’s pre-title sequences going forward. This is thanks, in part, to Hoyte van Hoytema’s striking cinematography, which gives the film a warmer feel than its predecessor; while nearly every frame looks good, the extended opening tracking shot left me with my jaw on the floor. Thomas Newman returns to provide more of the musical soundscape he established in Skyfall, and his output relies heavily on familiar cues from that film. Sam Smith’s emotional title song definitely takes some getting used to since its slower and more melancholy than themes past, but it’s grown on me significantly.

There’s more I could talk about, but let’s cut to the chase: this is a Bond film for the fans, not the critics. No matter how you slice it, it’s a noticeable step back from Skyfall, though it’s still satisfyingly entertaining in its own right. Since I’m a bit more biased toward the newer movies, I’d also say that Spectre feels like the Bond franchise regressing into comfortable old habits rather than continuing to explore new territory. For some, this will be a welcome return to form, though cheerleaders for Craig’s recent output may lament those familiar tropes taking center stage again. Ultimately, there’s only one way to figure out which camp you fall into: head over to your local theater, sit back, and see it all for yourself.