Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale was so unexpectedly moving and well-acted, so much better than any James Bond film had been in, well, ever, as to earn the subsequent entries in the Daniel Craig-headlined cycle a preemptive pass of gratitude. Which is fortuitous, as Quantum of Solace and Skyfall failed to ignite the grandiose sparks casually emitted by their predecessor, succumbing to an urge to contextualize every one of their ridiculous narrative turns at length—a literal-minded neurosis that also plagues Spectre. Watching this film, one has to wonder, for instance, if anyone involved in the production attempted to inform the aggressively serious Sam Mendes that the final tortured act is essentially a straight-faced quotation of Austin Powers in Goldmember, an irreverent parody of, among other things, James Bond films.
In the tradition of Skyfall and many other contemporary action extravaganzas, Spectre anal-retentively maps out the hero and villain’s family trees, insisting that their opposition is rooted in a convoluted generational squabble. In the Craig cycle, Bond can’t merely be a secret agent chasing an assortment of bad guys. As of Spectre, the villains are all retrospectively revealed to fall under the umbrella of a master honcho, iconic Bond-universe nemesis, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who must, for some reason, be Bond’s adopted brother. A madman can’t merely yearn to control the world anymore, as he must be burdened with a backstory tailor-made for a guest appearance on a very special episode of Dr. Oz. The staleness of this turn of events is exacerbated by the casting of Waltz, a specialist in Euro-baddies who couldn’t be less surprising in the role, constituting a steep decline in master villainy from the characters played by Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, and Javier Bardem in the previous Craig-headlined Bond films.
Yet Spectre is still the most enjoyable Bond film since Casino Royale. After the handwringing of the previous Craig outings over the “relevance” of Bond in the 21st century, Spectre is the first entry of this cycle to simply be a Bond film, unapologetically reveling in the tropes of the series at large, without much irony, including the utterance of “Bond, James Bond,” the flirtations with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), the bickering with Q (Ben Whishaw) and M (Ralph Fiennes), the introduction and quick dispatching of a huge henchman (Dave Bautista), and the fetishistic reverie accorded to priceless cars, designer suits and gowns, luscious cocktails, and male and female forms.
Even with the botched final act, Spectre’s self-consciousness is less stifling than Skyfall’s. Mendes is still trying to laboriously inform this series with torment, but that ambition has been subsumed primarily into the fabric of Hoyte van Hoytema’s incredible cinematography, which emphasizes a lusty, dusty, alternately lush and over-exposed realm of pleasure and old-world rot. The epic images—particularly in the crackerjack Day of the Dead sequence that opens the film, or in the haunting tableaus featuring a gutted intelligence building or a train heading straight into a desert oblivion—are often gorgeous and terrifying, suggesting a nightmare world with a free-associative logic that’s unintentionally intensified by the shambles of a screenplay.
The film’s various wild strands are tied together by Craig, who grows more confidently, magnetically, likeably unlikeable with every outing, resurrecting Sean Connery’s meanness in the role, wedding it with a steely Steve McQueen-y cucumber-coolness that modernizes Bond precisely by grounding him so firmly in the past. We want our franchises to take us home again, after all, allowing us to flee to fantasies that incessantly pull at us, regardless of their disreputability.
Blacks are spectacular. Watch the subtle variations and interplays of shadow as Bond navigates back alleys, or as his nemesis, Blofeld, enters a secret conference room, seen only as a menacing silhouette. Whites are also carefully differentiated, particularly in the desert vistas, which feature a variety of hues that realistically approximate the reflection of light off of sand, rather than a flat, hasty cinematic facsimile thereof. Reds, blues, and oranges shimmer with hot, heightened intensity. The cinematography is distinctively lush and harsh at once, and this delicacy is fantastically preserved on this disc. All the soundtracks are excellent, but the 7.1 mix boasts a sterling sense of immersive bass, most obviously in the Day of the Dead sequence, but also throughout the film. The tracks aren’t merely loud and deep, but precise, subtly emphasizing fleeting effects on various spectrums, complementing the specificity of the images.
"Spectre: Bond’s Biggest Opening Sequence" briefly covers the making of the Day of the Dead sequence, offering a few bits of illuminating behind-the-scenes footage that are eclipsed by the usual talking-heads filler. The video blogs, meanwhile, are entirely composed of promotional fluff. Theatrical trailers and a photo gallery round out a slim, obligatory supplements package.
A beautiful presentation of a weird, sporadically exciting film that merges the tropes of the James Bond series with a startlingly expressive aesthetic.