Release Date(s)2015 (February 9, 2016)
Studio(s)EON/UA/MGM/Columbia (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
[Editor’s Note: This review contains major spoilers for the film. Reader beware.]
One of the many frustrating things about this the twenty-fourth installment of the James Bond franchise is that it should be a thrilling chapter, a rewarding payoff of the entire Daniel Craig era. But it’s not.
Craig’s run as 007 started damn near perfectly with 2006’s Casino Royale, but each subsequent entry has been a bit of a letdown. Breaking with tradition, the powers that be at EON Productions have chosen to serialize the Craig films, with key characters and story points connecting directly from one film to the next. Each of the films’ villains – Le Chiffre, Mr. White, Dominic Greene, Quantum, Raoul Silva – have thus been tied to a deeper mystery all along. Every trial and tribulation Bond has faced since the death of Vesper Lynd, we’ve learned, had been masterminded by the most sinister foe of all… who, until SPECTRE, had yet to be revealed. Naturally, the moment this film’s title was announced, every Bond fan worth their salt knew immediately who that foe was: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The fans’ certainty and enthusiasm only grew with word of the casting of Christoph Waltz. So really, all that remained was for director Sam Mendes and his writers to deliver Waltz’s Blofeld in a manner befitting the character’s history and reputation. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where SPECTRE goes wrong. Badly wrong.
Since Quantum of Solace, we’ve wanted to believe that the caretakers of Bond franchise have been carefully planning for this moment, and that the revelation of Blofeld would be worth the long wait. It turns out not so much. You see, after all the layers of their villainous onion have finally been peeled away, what they’ve revealed to us is an emotionally-stunted dandy with abandonment issues. SPECTRE’s Blofeld is the übermeister of the world’s ultimate Genius Bar, who blames all of the problems in his life on the quasi step-brother his father liked better... a step-brother that, as it turns out, was Bond. So everything that’s happened over the last four films has all been a personal vendetta. Quantum, SPECTRE, ruling the world, destroying the planet, causing chaos, none of it matters to this Blofeld so much as getting revenge upon his boyhood nemesis. Does that count as a satisfying reveal for the greatest villain/criminal mastermind in Bond history? I think not.
SPECTRE starts in a promising way, with an opening set amid Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebration that aspires to give Welles’ Touch of Evil a run for its money. Bond has been sent there to kill an assassin named Marco Sciarra by a final message from the former M (Judy Dench), delivered after her death. She’s also asked Bond to attend Sciarra’s funeral in Rome, which eventually leads him back to the now-reclusive Mr. White and White’s estranged daughter, Madeline Swann, both of whom are hiding in the Austrian Alps. From there, the trail of clues leads Bond and Madeline to North Africa and finally to Blofeld. Meanwhile, back in Her Majesty’s Kingdom, the new M (Ralph Finnes), Q, Moneypenny, and Tanner must contend with the planned obsolescence of MI6 at the hands of Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), alias “C”, who believes that electronic surveillance and drones can replace the “Double O” section entirely. Eventually, these two story threads converge, and all hell breaks loose.
The word that comes to mind again and again for me about SPECTRE is disappointing. I give the film points for its opening sequence and for its effort to recapture some of the glory of classic Bond through its choice of action set pieces and filming locations. Ultimately, though, it all feels like a paint-by-numbers exercise because those pieces don’t really add up to anything – it’s all just window dressing. For one thing, this script has no heart. Craig’s Bond has become far too cold and detached here. That’s always been an aspect of the character, certainly, but only part of him. Yet Craig plays 007 almost humorlessly now, with a dour ruthlessness it’s hard to empathize with. Connery, Moore, Brosnan – no matter how dark things got, they always managed to make it seem like their Bonds were at least enjoying themselves. Not so here. There’s a telling moment in this film when, after discovering one of Mr. White’s old hideouts, Bond finds a VHS tape labeled “Vesper Lynd – Interrogation”. This woman was the love of his life, someone he nearly gave up everything for. Yet Bond simply tosses the tape away.
SPECTRE’s supporting cast members are good, bit they’re woefully underused. Q, Moneypenny and the rest appear only occasionally and then seldom feel integral to the story until the final act. Remember all that to-do about how Monica Bellucci was the oldest woman ever to be cast as a Bond girl? Well, it turns out she’s barely in the film. SPECTRE’s real belle of the ball is Léa Seydoux, who’s nearly twenty years younger than Craig. Because of course she is. Such is the nature of Hollywood these days. But Seydoux’s Swann doesn’t get nearly enough screen time for you to really care about her, or buy that Bond’s fallen in love with her. She’s just a pretty face – she could be anyone. The casting of Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx (a throwback to classic Bond henchmen like Oddjob) would have served the film better if he’d had more to do. Meanwhile, casting Andrew Scott as Denbigh was completely misguided. The moment he walks into the frame, you’re thinking, “Oh, that’s Moriarty from Sherlock. I bet he’s a bad guy.” (He is.) The filmmakers’ pointless effort to hide the fact that Waltz was playing Blofeld (he was long referred to simply as ‘Oberhauser’) recalls the similarly ill-advised ‘John Harrison’ debacle from Star Trek Into Darkness. By the way, how the hell did Blofeld and SPECTRE manage to fly under the radar for so long? Their secret base is a bunch of white domes in a crater in the middle the most terrorist-filled and satellite-surveilled region of the planet. I have to believe the greenest image analyst for the Boy Scouts of America would take one look at the place and say, “Hey, this kinda looks like a super-villain lair. Maybe we should send a couple guys to check it out.” Even the film’s requisite Aston Martin car chase lacks luster, winding as it does through the seemingly empty streets of Rome. Add to all this a weak-kneed theme song by Sam Smith, set to creepy visuals more appropriate to a hentai video than a Bond film opening, and SPECTRE is an almost complete misfire from start to finish.
I’ll say this much, though… SPECTRE looks and sounds terrific, as released on Blu-ray by MGM and 20th Century Fox. Presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, the video image is subtle, richly detailed, and features excellent contrast and clarity. The color palette is carefully tuned to each new location in the film, lending a stylish and glamorous touch to the proceedings. English audio is included in an expansive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that completely immerses the viewer in the film’s soundscape. Richly atmospheric cues surround you as Bond makes his way through the streets of Mexico City, as he battles Hinx on the train from Tangier, and as he’s drawn ever deeper into Blofeld’s lair. Additional audio flavors are available in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English Descriptive Audio, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. On the A/V score at least, SPECTRE delivers to an almost reference quality level.
Sadly, the Blu-ray special features are lacking in both quantity and substance. What you get includes the SPECTRE: Bond’s Biggest Opening Sequence featurette (20:12), 6 short Video Blogs including Director: Sam Mendes (1:29), Supercars (1:41), Introducing Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci (1:42), Action (1:37), Music (1:50), and Guinness World Record (1:18), a Gallery of images (1:33), and 3 trailers for the film. If you’re underwhelmed by that list, you’re not alone. The Opening Sequence piece is good, but that should just be the start of a feature-length documentary covering all aspects of the production. The rest of this material is glossy EPK marketing fluff that offers exactly zero insights into the making of this film. The only other item of note is a paper insert with a code for a digital copy. Naturally, there’s an exclusive Bonus Disc available only at Target stores with 20 more minutes of content (including 2 featurettes – From Title Song to Title Sequence and The Shadow of SPECTRE – plus Sam Smith’s Writing’s on the Wall music video). Best Buy has an exclusive too, but it’s just Steelbook packaging. Recent Bond Blu-rays have delivered so much more bonus material than this. I must say, the lack of studio effort on display here is rather remarkable.
Compared to the recent Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (see our Blu-ray review here), which against all odds was a thrilling and inventive example of the modern spy film genre, SPECTRE falls short in almost every respect. It was recently announced that Waltz will return as Blofeld in two more Bond films. That should be welcome news, but SPECTRE has been so badly bungled that I’m not sure how the filmmakers could possibly right this franchise short of another reset. The odd thing is, we live in a time when the world’s intelligence agencies are doing more spying than ever, even more so than back during the Cold War. On top of this, there’s the threat of religious terrorism, the turmoil of countless failed states, the unrest in Eastern Europe. Yet the producers of the Bond franchise seemingly want nothing to do with these things. How might SPECTRE tie into these threats? Who knows? In any case, one desperately hopes there’s more to Waltz’s Blofeld than just “Thank you, Cuckoo!”
As you’d expect, SPECTRE’s closing credits promise that “James Bond will return.” At this point though, I’m no longer sure I care.
- Bill Hunt