I have gone over it before in my reviews of James Bond films, but there was a fly in the ointment when it came to bringing many popular elements of Ian Fleming's books to film. That fly went by the name of Kevin McClory, who decided that he owned the character Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the concept of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and anything having to do with Thunderball since he contributed when he and Fleming did a film treatment prior to the latter novelizing the script. Because of that he got a producer mention for Thunderball and, after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, he decided that neither EON Productions nor anyone else besides him would be able to do another movie with Blofeld as the main villain. He picked up his toys and went home, intending make his own series of Bond films, and only managing to push out one: Never Say Never Again, which was a remake of Thunderball.
The current series of films starring Daniel Craig managed to start off with a story that had hung around in limbo forever, but was important as it was the first in Ian Fleming's original series of Bond novels: Casino Royale. Much had to be changed not only because it was made over 50 years after the book came out, but because many of the situations - the Cold War, for instance - were history as well. While from that movie forward S.P.E.C.T.R.E. had been hinted at, with Le Chiffre, Quantum and Silva all being parts, what brought it together was MGM purchasing the rights to McClory's estate in 2013, once again giving EON the right to use Blofeld. This was a major victory after the success of Skyfall, bringing back an important part of the Bond universe that that had been absent for 46 years - in name, at least. For Your Eyes Only, though it did not name Blofeld as such, gave Bond the chance to put things to rights.
The difference this time around is that the whole story had received a reboot. Casino Royale was the beginning of a whole new timeline for Bond, even though Judi Dench had continued on as M from the Brosnan era. Perhaps the best way to think of it was Casino Royale being his origin, the Brosnan movies his middle years and the the Craig movies from Quantum of Solace forward as the twilight of his career. Doesn't exactly fit, as any continuity other than Bond's wife and the supporting characters throughout the movies is sketchy anyway. The Craig Bonds are the closest it has come to providing a story, and even that contains some thin threads. Since it wouldn't do to retread Thunderball or any of the later movies to reintroduce Blofeld it was important to come up with a whole new scenario in which to bring the character back.
James Bond (Craig), while on leave, tracks down a man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) in Mexico City. He succeeds in getting his quarry and preventing a terrorist attack on a football stadium, but manages to destroy a few city blocks in the process. This does not sit well with the Mexican government or M (Ralph Fiennes), who is under pressure to merge MI6 with a new surveillance agency headed by a man Bond nicknames C (Andrew Scott).
Bond decides to continue his vacation and his investigation, following the clues from a ring he took off of Sciarra and information from the man's widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), which leads him to a shadowy organization that appears to be behind recent terrorist attacks as well as other major criminal enterprises. With help from Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of Bond's one-time enemy Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), he learns more about the organization and is able to hunt down the man in charge: Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), a man with whom Bond shares a past.
Although Judi Dench is gone (having been killed by Silva in Skyfall), Spectre continues to give M a larger role, although not as central this time. It also broadens the involvement of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), particularly as Bond, and in particular MI6, becomes isolated by C. In a refreshing twist, Madeleine, due to the underworld dealings of her father, is fully capable of surviving on her own rather than cowering behind Bond or getting off a lucky shot. In a not-so-refreshing way, Monica Bellucci is flat-out wasted as a someone Bond literally pumps for information.
The important question is, of course, how Christoph Waltz fares in stepping into the shoes of one of the most famous cinematic villains. The answer is not bad - but, also, not that memorable. He is no stranger to playing the bad guy (most memorably in Inglourious Basterds), and Blofeld has always been a character of quiet confidence who loves to weave his webs and practically talk his enemies to death. This is, unsurprisingly, referenced during a torture scene. Still, Waltz never reaches the level Donald Pleasance or Telly Savalas did in playing the character. This is a disappointment after having Javier Bardem do a great job as Silva in Skyfall. Instead, we're back to the old Bond standby of the henchman, this time an assassin named Hinx (Dave Baustista), getting more screen time as well as being more memorable, even if at times he comes off as a combination of Oddjob and Donald Grant - including a fight aboard a moving train in the nth reference to From Russian with Love.
The lack of Blofeld in a large portion of the film leads to problems, especially in a movie that runs as long as Spectre does. It really should have been about 45 minutes shorter, which would have given Waltz's time as Blofeld much more impact, and would not have sacrificed any of the story or taken any time away from developing M, Q or Moneypenny.
Spectre is far from being a bad film, and even further from being a bad James Bond film. In both measures it does what it is supposed to do, giving us some brilliant action scenes, exotic locations and reintroducing us to a modern update to some of the old-fashioned Bond tropes. It is once again beautifully filmed by Sam Mendes, even if I think his use of heavy yellow filters for scenes in Mexico City (which is in the middle of swampland, not desert) is ridiculous. Also, for its length, it stays on point, which is something many Bond films with shorter runtimes have had trouble doing.. It is just that the impact of Blofeld and the Spectre organization itself is lessened by the movie's bloat.
As much as a big deal has been made about "politically correcting" James Bond for Daniel Craig's upcoming swansong as the character in No Time to Die, an uncomfortable truth is that the traditional image of the womanizing spy has just about run its course. We don't get anything as uncomfortable as Severine's death from Skyfall, but the liaison with Lucia is rather cringeworthy. It's something I am willing to ignore in the Connery and Moore bonds because of when they were made, but it is a situation that Timothy Dalton wisely tried to change 30 years ago. Despite Blofeld's flawed introduction and a few other missteps Spectre is still consistent with Casino Royale and Skyfall in presenting this series to a modern audience. I am hoping to see Waltz back as Blofeld in the future, and here is hoping that he gets some better characterization and more time in which to build on. After all, that was the whole point of this movie, and, despite being a good entry in the series, ultimately disappoints in doing the one thing it was meant to.
Time: 148 minutes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes