Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Spectre’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally in theaters, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: Spectre (2015)!
After course-correcting with Skyfall (2012), EON Productions seemed set on continuing to bring the Daniel Craig era of gritty, realism-based Bond adventures into the more traditional fold of the franchise; a modus-operandi which I feel was well-advised. Thus, it’s no surprise that the 24th James Bond film brings back the only truly recurring criminal organization in the franchise’s history: SPECTRE. Heck, they even went so far as to make this cabal of foes the film’s title! A decision which results in what I think is the worst title for a 007 flick simply because it’s not a traditional title for this franchise by any means. But unlike the previous installments featuring the criminal organization, this entry never explains the acronym for SPECTRE — Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. I suppose that’s because the filmmakers thought it would sound too goofy to spell that out. An odd choice considering that Spectre is the most light-hearted film of the Craig era.
With this path firmly in place, you would think Spectre would have come together quite quickly. Unsurprisingly, though — as is often the case with this iteration of Bond — there were a few bumps in the road. After Sam Mendes declined the opportunity to saddle up in the director’s chair again, Christopher Nolan (Tenant) was supposedly under serious consideration to direct this installment. A choice, which, had it come to fruition, would have made sense considering the Craig iteration emulates the auteur in many ways. But after Mendes caught a showing of Skyfall on a lazy afternoon, he decided he would indeed return to the series one final time.
For Mendes, Skyfall was not the end of a story. But instead, the beginning of a story for many characters. Thus, the director chose to return to finish what he started with the previous picture. That decision made him the first director to return to the franchise for multiple installments since John Glen, who directed five Bond entries in a row. As a condition of coming back to the series, though, Mendes needed an additional year before he could return to the helm.
Upon coming back on board, Mendes and returning co-screenwriter John Logan conceived the initial story and screenplay for Spectre. Nevertheless, the franchise’s veteran screenwriting duo, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, were brought in to do extensive rewrites on the script due to dissatisfaction with the earlier screenplay and the notorious hack into Sony’s email servers, which revealed plot details and the studio’s thoughts on the project. Jez Butterworth (of the upcoming Indiana Jones 5) also did further, uncredited, passes on the script. Of course, having all these cooks in the kitchen results in a bit of a sloppy story which has some pacing issues, but lends itself well to a vastly entertaining finished film. Moreover, despite the story problems, Spectre succeeds in being a more traditional (and fun) Bond film.
It states its direction upfront by being the first entry in the Craig era to feature the opening gun barrel sequence. Following that, though, we’re tossed a curveball as the film utilizes a title card to blatantly state its main theme upfront. We don’t have much time to think about that, though, as we find James Bond (Craig) amid an unsanctioned assassination mission in Mexico. As you might expect, M (Ralph Fiennes) places 007 on suspension, as he’s more concerned with an impending merger with MI5. Meanwhile, Bond doesn’t take any downtime as he soon receives a cryptic message related to his past and chooses to get to the bottom of it. This dangerous path soon leads our hero to discover not only the titular organization, but also the architect of all his pain: Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz)!
Frankly, Spectre is a movie that takes this iteration of the franchise two steps forward and one big step back. The filmmakers are so concerned with interconnecting Craig’s films that these connections end up forced and tenuous at best. Worse yet, character motivations and relationships seem loose and rushed to tie everything in the previous three films together. Essentially, the movie in review posits that Quantum — the titular criminal organization introduced in Quantum Of Solace (2008) — was nothing more than a shingle of the giant that is SPECTRE. Okay, alright, I can buy that. What I have trouble with, though, is SPECTRE’s head honcho and this film’s main villain, Blofeld.
Academy-Award-Winning character actor Christoph Waltz expertly brings the series’ most notable foe, and its arguable archenemy, to the screen for this new iteration — the first film to feature Blofeld as the villain since the 1980s. The character was last seen officially in For Your Eyes Only (1981) and unofficially in Never Say Never Again (1983). Waltz is a talented and endlessly entertaining thespian. But I must admit that he seems to be giving yet another of his standard villainous performances here, just in a lower key. Not that I was expecting Waltz to provide us with a spin on his Col. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, but that upbeat persona would have been more fitting for the tone Spectre is attempting to achieve. Ultimately, Waltz does a perfectly fine job despite Blofeld’s asinine personal motivations to go after 007, which are a stretch.
Luckily, though, Bond’s motivations and rushed relationship with love interest Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) works better despite its sprint. Now, I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of Seydoux in this film or in general. She is the only Bond girl to walk in both big spy-thriller franchise worlds as she’s also in Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (2011). In both instances, I find her acting style to be flatter than a day-old can of Coca-Cola. However, the on-screen chemistry between her and Craig is palpable. Even if the evolution of their romantic relationship is beyond expedited, it still works because you get the feeling Bond just found “the one” in Madeleine. Plus, I bought it when Bond fell into a serious relationship with Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), thus, there’s no reason I could not do the same here … which is precisely what the filmmakers were counting on.
Then, of course, we have this film’s secondary Bond girl, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). Unfortunately, other than serving a plot function for which she’s arguably not required, Bellucci is wasted in her role here. However, having been 51-years-old at the time, Bellucci does hold the title of the oldest Bond girl to date.
But what of Bond himself this time around? Well, Craig’s worn a bit weary of the iconic role off-screen by this point. Heck, the actor even stated a couple of times during the promotion of Spectre that he hoped it might be his final turn as Bond. You wouldn’t know that by watching his performance in this movie, though. Instead, he turns in his most comfortable and lived-in take on our hero to date. For once, not only does he show us the pain, but also the fun that comes with being 007. Of course, it probably helps that the star also serves as a co-producer on this film, which is a first in the franchise’s history, if I’m not mistaken.
Ultimately, Spectre is a well-made and incredibly entertaining mixed bag of film. Despite working with many of the same collaborators again, like composer Thomas Newman (whose score is vastly improved this time around), Mendes changes up cinematographers with Hoyte Van Hoytema (Ad Astra) taking over lightning. His rich, smoky, almost-ghostly look for the picture perfectly fits its narrative. Thus, making even the poorly paced portions of the film a joy to watch. Spectre, while flawed, ultimately draws you in from the opening tracking shot and becomes a Franchise Expansion by finding the perfect tone for the Craig era along the way. Moreover, it’s an entry that I would have been okay with being Craig’s finale. But, of course, we’ll finally get that actual swan song (no pun intended) next time!
Spectre is Available on All Home Video Formats
James Bond Will Return For Another Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with his latest adventure, No Time to Die (2021), which is finally now playing exclusively in theaters!
Read About Bond’s Past Missions:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Casino Royale (1967)
Casino Royale (2006)