Despite the smooth polish of its trailers and the flashy on-set stills teased through the Summer, Spectre has been a production mired in difficulties and put together more hastily than you’d imagine considering its mammoth budget (estimated at $300-$350 million, the second most expensive film ever made). Filming commenced in December 2014 during the height of the Sony email hack and wrapped in July, leaving only 3 precious months for post-production. Leaked emails revealed concerns amongst executives over considerable weaknesses in John Logan’s screenplay, a messy third act highlighted as a particular source of harsh criticism. The studio enlisted the services of veteran Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade to shore up the script (as well as tweaking from seasoned writer Jez Butterworth), with rewriting continuing right up until the month before shooting began.
Unfortunately these production troubles are all too evident in Spectre’s final cut, weak narrative punch and shaky character development standing out as the film’s most glaring problems. After opening on Bond running rampant through Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico (an initially striking sequence that loses its way with a generic closing), there’s an awkward period of London-based “housekeeping” as we get caught up with the supporting gang back home. MI6 has merged with MI5 and given M a forward-thinking new boss, Government official Max Denbigh. Known as C, Denbigh’s plans to modern British intelligence include the scrapping of the “00” program and the creation of the “Nine Eyes” agreement, a co-operative effort between nine countries that will widen the scope and power of international surveillance. (boy, I sure hope no-one could possibly use that power for evil, right guys?) As per usual Bond is suspended from active duty for his reckless behaviour and as per usual Bond decides to do whatever he likes, leaving for Rome on a mission posthumously set by the previous M.
Now let’s be clear: Spectre is not a bad movie, it just can’t compete with Casino Royale’s all-round excellence or Skyfall’s suave and moody style. With the exception of the cast and their strong performances across the board, there are few individual elements of Spectre that aren’t held back from greatness by certain issues. Say what you will about Quantum of Solace, when its action scenes did appear they entered with a ferocity and raw kinetic energy that dwarfs Spectre’s fights and chases; these include one of the least interesting car chases in any Bond film and an anti-climatic final set-piece. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Sam Mendes’ direction combine to create a few astonishing visual moments though the vast majority of the film falls short in comparison to Roger Deakins’ tremendous work on Skyfall. The choice to employ more of the comedic elements of “traditional” Bond movies works in parts – especially when making use of Ben Whishaw’s timing and delivery – but fails in others, confusing the tone of the film and detracting from the drama at hand. The underlying themes have all the grace and subtlety of a streaker at Wimbledon (“Surveillance! Isn’t is bad?! Isn’t this oh so very topical?”) and characters only “develop” in as much as they suddenly change and expect us to become instantly invested in their new motivations.
To Spectre’s credit, the twists and turns of the story have a compelling flow through the majority of the first and second acts, with Dave Bautista making a worthy villain in the absence of the criminally under-utilised Christoph Waltz. While the 148 minute runtime is definitely too long and may provoke uncomfortable fidgeting past the two hour mark, there are very few moments were Spectre is actually boring to watch, especially for the die-hard franchise fans; Daniel Craig is as powerful as ever, rocking shades or even a funny winter hat with effortless 007 cool, and Lea Seydoux displays similarly magnetic strength. We can only hope that this isn’t Craig’s last Bond performance, not only because it would be a shame to drop the promising story threads that could be built upon but because he deserves a far more robust finale to his time in the role.
★ ★ ★ ½
Spectre is on wide release in UK Cinemas now and hits US screens on 6th November.