The Bond franchise’s high water marks tend to be followed by grave disappointments. So, Skyfall, meet Spectre.
If based solely on the non-inflation-adjusted box office, the franchise had never gone any higher than Skyfall. Sam Mendes – a new director to the franchise but longtime fan – had arrived just in time for Bond’s 50th anniversary and was gifted with a cracking script, instant-classic villain, and a killer Adele song. By the film’s end, Daniel Craig’s Bond finally had his own M (Ralph Fiennes as the boss), Q (Ben Whishaw as the gadgets expert), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris as the Gal Friday) and seemed set to launch into a classic 007 adventure.
As such, why not bring back Bond’s own Moriarty? After decades of legal fights, Eon finally owned the rights to the franchise’s most iconic villain (Blofeld) and evil spy agency, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion (SPECTRE). So, a plan was set into motion to, well, first twist Mendes’ arm into returning. Once that was done, the screenwriters got to plotting a Skyfall follow-up in which Bond goes rogue – his new usual – and follows the trail of an assassin from Mexico City to Rome where he infiltrates an evil organization no one had ever heard of and eventually falls in love with the daughter (Lea Seydoux) of one of his old enemies – Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, last seen in Quantum of Solace).
Oh, also, spoiler – Blofeld has been behind everything this entire time, and he’s actually Bond’s older foster brother!
More on that later.
Somewhat ironic for a franchise all about government secrets, Spectre’s script leaked online when North Korea hacked Sony’s emails. Suddenly, behind the scenes arguments were public, the script’s Star Trek Into Darkness-style reveal about the villain’s identity was spoiled, and no one seemed happy. It was tough sledding from there. But that didn’t stop them from delivering an all-time great opener.
What an Opening!
It has been said that James Bond fans don’t really remember individual movies – they remember moments. Long after the exact rigmarole of who betrayed who and what exactly Bond was after fades from memory, you happily recall that hilarious quip, insane stunt, crazy gadget, stunning girl, or particularly eye-rolling double entendre. Moonraker, for example, is an extreme exercise in late 70s camp, but it’s opening aerial sequence still possesses the how’d-they-do-that power to astound today. Similarly, if you were to put together a ranking of best individual scenes in James Bond history Spectre’s opening sequence would have to be high up there.
Filmed in Mexico City with 1,500 extras and coordination from the government police and local army, the opening finds Bond in the middle of a Day of the Dead ceremony, hidden under a skull mask and escorted off the streets up to a lush hotel room by a stunning Stephanie Sigman, all presented in one unbroken take. When the costume falls away, Bond – sporting his signature tuxedo and gun combo – leaves poor Sigman hanging and exits out the window, allowing Mendes the kind of invisible cut he would later use so judiciously in 1917.
Once outside the hotel room, Bond methodically hops from rooftop to rooftop as he hunts an assassin. A 50-foot crane allowed them to stretch a camera track system across four different buildings to maintain the illusion of the continuous take.
By the time the climactic hotel explosion arrives and forces Bond to Nathan Drake his way down an imploding building before landing on a conveniently placed couch on the ground, the transition from on-location Mexico City photography to a specially built Pinewood Studios stage is completely seamless and entirely thrilling.
Better yet, that’s only the halfway point of the opening! There’s 6 more minutes of Bond chasing his prey through the middle of the Day of the Dead parade and ultimately engaging in a fistfight in a helicopter directly across from Mexico City’s Presidential palace.
If the goal was to top Skyfall, Spectre certainly makes a compelling opening argument. As longtime Bond producer Michael G. Wilson said, “Though we have worked on the James Bond films for more than 35 years, Barbara [Broccoli] and I both felt that the opening sequence to Spectre was something magnificent to behold.”
“Working on the Day of the Dead section of the film was one of the most exciting things I have done in my career, ever,” shared production designer Dennis Gassner, a 1991 Oscar winner for Bugsy and veteran of big-budget spectacles like The Golden Compass, Blade Runner: 2049, and all three Craig Bond movies post-Casino Royale. Even with all that experience, Spectre’s opening was the coolest thing he’d ever done. Cosign.
Small problem with that: once the Day of the Dead sequence ends and Sam Smith’s strained vocals kick into “Writing’s on the Wall,” the film has another 135 minutes of time to fill. What could possibly top that opening? Oh, nothing, just the first official appearance of Bond’s most iconic nemesis since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, and this time around he’s played by Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz thing. That’ll keep the fans happy, right?
No, it won’t. It really, really won’t.
The Fans See a License Revoked
“They’d already brought in something new with Quantum. So what were they saying, ‘You know this Quantum secret organization we’re doing? We’ve actually been calling it Spectre amongst ourselves, but we couldn’t tell you, because we didn’t own the rights. But now we do, so just forget Quantum and go with Spectre.” – Fred Dekker, Monster Squad director and longtime Bond fan
“There is that moment where Blofeld tells Bond, ‘I’m the author of your pain,’ and I’m like, ‘This is not the Marvel Cinematic Universe where you planned four films and everything connects. Marvel takes you with breadcrumbs and you’re like, ‘I get how everything connects.’ In this case, it’s like an afterthought of trying to put things together.” – Lisa Funnell, author of For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond
“Although ‘disaster’ is probably too strong a word for Spectre, the picture certainly ranks as one of the more misguided and under-baked 007 movies yet made.” – Glen Oliver, film critic
“Some projects are just misconceived, and that definitely seems to have been the case from the get-go with Spectre.” – Ray Morton, editor of Script Magazine
“At the end of the day, I was a little disappointed in the film. Marvelous opening sequence, brilliant, I loved all that, but I felt the second half of the movie just went downhill. It all starts with the script. One or two good action sequences and a great punch-up on the train and so forth, but the story was disappointing.” – Martin Campbell, the guy who directed Goldeneye AND Casino Royale.
“I’d rather slit my wrists than do another one.” – Daniel Craig
Craig has since walked back that now notorious comment. No Time to Die’s mere existence is all the clarification needed since he clearly did come back with his wrists fully intact – and bank account presumably fattened.
One of the grand experiments of the Daniel Craig era is to pull Bond away from being a character whose life resets with every new film and turn him into someone on a continuing journey, just like any other modern franchise character. They’ve been plagued, however, by bad lack and an obvious lack of planning. The mysteries of Casino Royale were supposed to be solved in Quantum of Solace, but then the Writer’s Struck hit and left them with a rushed, supremely confusing script. Skyfall largely turned inward and exhumed Bond’s skeletons and that of the British government, operating closer to standalone territory. For Spectre, they returned to searching for the answers to the long-standing mysteries, but the script leak forced through a hasty rewrite and the leaked emails revealed a creative team not entirely on the same page.
It’s such a shame because at first blush Spectre certainly has the shape of a classic Bond adventure, with 007 hopping around the world in pursuit of a lead, quickly bedding women, uncovering a conspiracy both abroad and at home, and narrowly avoiding death at every turn. A larger than life villain (Waltz) and sniveling underling (Andrew Scott) plot world domination in a 21st century, electronic surveillance kind of way, and it’s up to Bond and the latest love of his life to stop them.
Sounds like fun, but somehow the film never totally comes together.
Spectre is half a perfectly watchable 007 adventure and another half a regrettable trend-chaser, with an ill-conceived attempt at an MCU-like cinematic universe and bland stab at “the tech nanny state will kill us all” villainy from an underused Andrew Scott and over-used Ralph Fiennes. Waltz’s grand reveal falls flat, offering up a name that means nothing to the characters but everything to the fans, and the added soap opera of “secret evil brother” doesn’t work as a lazy “and this is why he’s so evil – it’s personal!” explainer. By comparison, Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation – released the same year – is far more successful at pitting its central spy against a supervillain mastermind and giving him a Bond girl entirely his equal.
Spectre’s pre-title sequence, however, is fantastic, as are most of the stunts throughout the film. There’s a car chase in the snow during which Bond pursues the bad guys in a small airplane. It’s entirely the right kind of crazy for a Bond flick. Still, they brought back Bond’s Khan and tried to create a love interest worth retiring for, and here I am talking about that airplane scene. Not a good sign for what is ultimately a rather wobbly, bloated blockbuster with a lot of money on screen but few good ideas. Craig, compelling as ever, and the stunt team make it a mildly enjoyable watch, but you want more than that from the film that followed Skyfall.
Given a wide, multi-year window to recover and recuperate from Spectre’s grueling shoot – 6 months, 5 countries, one torn meniscus – Craig sparked to the idea of coming back to finish what they started in Casino Royale. “We started talking about it and I went, ‘There might be a story we need to finish here. Something to do with Vesper [Lynd, his doomed Casino Royale love interest], and Spectre, and something that was connected, in a way.’”
Hold on. Wasn’t Spectre supposed to do that? Wasn’t this supposed to be the film that tied it all together and closed the circle on Craig’s somewhat convoluted dance with a villain who had been secretly pulling the strings this entire time? If they’re going to that well again for No Time to Die, does that mean Craig’s swan song is just a giant mulligan?
Maybe. They’d prefer to call it a continuation of the grand curtain pulling they started in Spectre as well as the emotional end of Bond’s 14-year journey from newly minted 007 in Casino Royale to a fresh retiree in No Time to Die. Whatever helped them get through because, really, Spectre can’t be it for Daniel Craig.
The Marathon Notes
- Thoughts on the Bond Girls: Monica Belluci goes straight into the history books as the oldest actress to play a Bond girl and is as gorgeous as ever. Sadly, her character is a mere exposition machine who disappears from the film as quickly as she arrives. With Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, there’s no real chemistry and the inevitable “I love you, James” feels as rushed and unconvincing as ever. It’s through no fault of either Belluci or Seydoux’s performances, though. The script just isn’t up to par. Swann’s “I can’t go with you” objection prior to the climax, for example, feels less rooted in character and more in the script’s need for her to be left behind so she can be captured and rescued. There’s far too much of “A = C but where’s B?” in Spectre.
- Felix Leiter Counter: 0. Bond’s CIA compatriot Felix Leiter has been played by 8 actors since Jack Lord originated the role in 1962. (Michael Pate played someone named “Clarence Leiter” in the little-seen 1954 American TV adaptation of Casino Royale.) He pops up more than you’d expect. In fact, his near-death in License to Kill sends Timothy Dalton on an unhinged revenge quest. In the Daniel Craig era, Leiter is played by Jeffrey Wright. In Spectre, he’s referenced as a contact for Belluci to turn to for help but he never appears on the screen. Based on the trailer, he returns in No Time to Die to pull Bond back into the game.
- Bond Song Ranking: #1, but only because this is the start of the marathon. I doubt I’ll even remember what “Writing’s On the Wall” sounds like by the time I get to Madonna’s “Die Another Die” or Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill.” Not a fan.
- Coolest Scene: The Mexico City opening.
- Favorite line: Madeleine Swann: Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin? / Bond: Well, it was that or the priesthood.
- Biggest regret: That Dave Bautista can’t get a mulligan of his own, maybe get a second shot at playing a henchman more tailored to his charisma instead of just his obvious size.
Sources: The oral history book Nobody Does it Better, Total Film’s April 2020 No Time to Die cover story