In the past couple of Bond films, 007 has telegraphed several signs of his very own franchise's demise.
The political subplot of Skyfall proposed that MI-6 is a quaint intelligence model, and that the 00 section is obsolete. This notion that James Bond is a hopeless relic of the Cold War initially surfaced in the film franchise's Brosnan years, but Daniel Craig's tenure has promoted this subtext to text. Bureaucrats and "visionary" politicians now scramble to shutter MI-6 in favor of drone surveillance and impersonal espionage. M spends much of Spectre struggling to justify James Bond's existence.
In Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, 007 sheds his typical lone wolf model and, due to the political marginalization of MI-6, leans on his colleagues like never before. For that reason alone, Spectre doesn't quite feel like a conventional Bond caper. This one's full of teamwork and proverbial meetings half-way. We, along with Moneypenny, enter Bond's apartment, and it feels like a truly intimate invitation from such a historically homeless, restless character.
All the proper 007 signatures endure, of course. The gorgeous opening sojourn to Mexico City. The $3,000 black ski-wear that Bond dons for the Austrian Alps. An exploding watch, a few martinis, and roadster fanservice courtesy of Rolls Royce.
In vendetta mode, James Bond pursues the four intertwined villains of Spectre to their respective corners of the earth. At the heart of all conspiracies stands Ernst Stavro Blofeld, figurehead of the Spectre organization and original master-antagonist of the Connery years. Christoph Waltz is a safe fit for the role; as Blofeld, he's never egregiously strange or verbose, but simply unsettling in his being so formal and cheerful at every turn of fortune.
As he's written, however, Blofeld's motives are incurably murky. One tense and pivotal scene, deep in the plot, devotes about twelve minutes to underscoring Blofeld's brutally surgical nature, and then Blofeld spends only about 30 seconds explaining his particular interest in James Bond. The general mismanagement of Blofeld's motives, goals, and stature are easily the biggest shortcomings of Spectre, a movie that often feels like its (many) writers are just winging it.
Where Thunderball, the fourth Bond film, released in 1965, presented Spectre as a chrome meeting of assassins and accountants, Spectre casts the organization as a hooded, obscure fraternal order of Rome. They pull strings and manipulate stock markets, oil deals, treaties, and such. The late M, played by Dame Judi Dench, warned Her Majesty's Government of these "shadows" in Skyfall; and the new M, played by Ralph Fiennes, makes a desperate last stand against Spectre's tentacular influence. M accomplishes this mostly by frowning at, and about, his general intelligence overlord, C, played by Andrew Scott, who sweats gross glimmers of arrogance.
As the sophomore blockbuster of the Bond franchise, Thunderball was a grandiose, ambitious, truly overindulgent production of a relatively simple story: Spectre has primed atomic bombs within reach of the U.K. and the U.S., and MI-6 has dispatched all of the 00 agents to neutralize the threat. Spectre is somewhat the inverse of that: a lukewarm aesthetic and too many flashes of the series now echoing itself, in service of a plot so convoluted that Mendes could've split it into three different, tidier films.
Three women rotate into the traditional role of "Bond girl" in Spectre, but only one stars in 007's heart. (Aww.) With Daniel Craig having recently disavowed the misogyny of James Bond, we might have expected the bits of feminist cheek in the characterization Dr. Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux. Dr. Swann is a shrink and marksman in her own right. And she's damn convincing as a confident survivor of much loss, who, realistically, should want nothing to do with yet another assassin running up in her life. When she and Bond talk, there's a real sense that the two of them have compassionately understood one another. That's not always been the case with "Bond girl" chemistry, which is typically a one-way slide.
In Spectre, the home team scrambles into the field to assist Bond, with M, Q, Moneypenny, and Dr. Swann all floundering as utility players. M broods. Q types. Moneypenny juggles burner phones. Dr. Swann fails several times to grab the same damn gun. None of the team proves truly indispensable, or even clever, despite their heavy incorporation into Bond's investigation of the Spectre organization. He's got so many allies, versus so many sub-villains, and the result is that really there's just too many cooks. If all of Bond's teammates are invasively helpless, then it's not really teamwork, is it?
The new Q, in particular, might be subject to the next round of layoffs. Ben Whishaw brings his wit and fashion in reprising this role that he first took to in Skyfall. In Spectre, yet again, all Q does is type-type-type, frantically, in the style of a hacker who learned his trade by watching Swordfish. A film series that was famously fluent in its dramatization of the Cold War can't yet render cyberterrorism as wildly and proficiently as, say, the Bourne series. At MI-6, the newbie, Millennial quartermaster could stand to learn a few new tricks.