Making a masterpiece is hard enough.
Following it up with something as good or better feels almost impossible, not just because it’s so hard to recapture the magic that brought the film to life but that there’s so much expectation for what comes next.
Sam Mendes created one of the most iconic entries in the James Bond canon with Skyfall and the weight of the world just comes right squarely onto his and Daniel Craig’s shoulders to create something on par with a film that should have been in the Best Picture conversation at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Ardent Bond fans heaped on even more pressure and expectation with the announcement of the title to the follow-up, Spectre, the alias given to the network of spies and assassins 007 has battled over decades led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the final boss so to speak in the entire franchise.
But there’s one major problem.
Spectre is not Skyfall. Not even remotely close.
They’re two very different films trying vastly diverse ideas with only the common threads of having the same characters and Spectre following the events of Skyfall.
While the first Mendes film is introspective and demure in its scope, focusing mostly on Bond’s inner demons and ability to perform his job, Spectre has a more outward gaze with Mendes bringing back more of a classic 007 tone, placing more emphasis on the pursuit of villains and world building those challenging Bond.
Here, Bond is on the hunt, with Craig becoming even more ruthless in his pursuit of everyone responsible for the death of M. It’s a colder performance than usual for the steely-eyed Craig, who is exacting with his actions and forces Bond’s emotional walls all the way back up.
While this creates a relentless, vicious Bond, leaning too hard into the colder parts of the character make it difficult for Craig to have good chemistry with most of the supporting cast and many exchanges feel transactional.
In perhaps one of the most scrutinized roles in recent Bond entries, Oscar winner Christoph Waltz does a terrific job of keeping the spirit of Blofeld’s film history alive while making the character his own, leaning into a more developed backstory to base his performance on. Again, it’s difficult to view Waltz’ Blofeld in a bubble without comparison to the perfection of Javier Bardem’s villainous work in Skyfall, but Waltz revels in the mystery of the character’s slow-burn introduction and handles the immense challenge well.
For as important of a character as Madeleine Swann becomes, there’s very little substance given to Léa Seydoux to work with beyond being an object of Bond’s desire and one of great mystery. Most of her performance is shrouded behind endless whispers in service of intrigue and her chemistry with Craig is skittish and standoffish at best, which makes their romance all the more out of left field and unlikely.
But Seydoux takes the role of Bond girl on with vigor and it doesn’t completely stop the tracks of the film, especially when taken into consideration with what’s to come for Swann in the future.
The supporting cast all do solid, yeoman’s work with Dave Bautista an especially terrific standout as a near silent hitman in the Spectre organization who relies on an imposing physical presence and brutality to strike fear into the hearts of viewers in a role that becomes a mix of classic Bond henchman Jaws and Oddjob.
This especially bares out to be true in one of the film’s most nostalgic moments, a fight scene between Bautista’s Mr. Jinx and Bond through a series of train cars that evokes the pivotal brutality of the final fight between 007 and Kronsteen in From Russia With Love.
Other action sequences in Spectre are a mixed bag with the opening sequence in Mexico City being a highlight of the entire film while the final 20 minutes of the film bounce back and forth between Bond’s pursuit of Blofeld and M’s confrontation with C, resulting in a sequence where neither plotline gains much momentum or traction with audiences and feels somewhat anticlimactic.
Mendes does a solid job navigating the world of Bond on a much larger scale, although his second foray into the Bond franchise feels far less personal given the increased stakes and doesn’t quite have the same gravitas that Skyfall did. As a pure action adventure film, however, Spectre benefits greatly from having Mendes at the helm to navigate the tonal shifts between action and exposition.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the rich visuals captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who returns to shooting on film after Roger Deakins used digital cameras for Skyfall. The result is a textured, yet sharply framed picture that elevates the robust, unique settings for Spectre as Bond jet-sets across the globe in pursuit of Spectre.
Hoytema does an exceptional job of evoking a feeling of intense heat during sequences in Mexico City and Tangier, while thrusting viewers into the brisk cold of an Austrian lake as Bond goes to confront the Pale King.
Sam Smith’s powerful ballad “Writing’s On The Wall” strives for the level of Adele’s title theme from Skyfall, even winning the same Academy Award for Best Original Song. But the whiny, nasally vibrato doesn’t really fit the overall vibe of the story, especially not in keeping with the rhythmic drum tones prevalent in the opening action sequence during Día de los Muertos in Mexico City nor the return to London that immediately follows the animated credits.
Composer Thomas Newman returns to provide Mendes with another soaring and majestic score with which to set the tone for both intense and intimate moments.
Spectre returns to the traditional action-adventure format that Bond fans were more prevalently used to prior to the Craig era films. Though it rushes through creating the villainous world of 007’s most famous adversaries, it does serve as a solid bridge between Skyfall and No Time To Die, setting the stage for a dramatic and climatic end to a two-decade long buildup.
This is the fourth in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.