Up until 2012, the nature of director Sam Mendes’ filmography suggested nothing in the way of his ability to handle a blockbuster action franchise like James Bond. Even his 2005 war drama, JARHEAD, lavished more attention on the psychological underpinnings of his characters rather than the destructive violence of armed conflict. Indeed, the only thing about Mendes that seemed to position him as a suitable candidate was his British citizenship. His surprise hiring as the director of the 23rd James Bond film, SKYFALL, understandably struck many as an inspired, if not a bit odd, choice– after all, Mendes’ reputation as a masterful director of intimate chamber dramas seemed appropriate given the series’ Daniel Craig-era pivot towards a deeper exploration of Bond’s internal psyche and character, but could he also deliver where it counted: breathtaking action and adventure? After SKYFALL’s release in November 2012, it quickly became apparent to everyone that the gamble laid down by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson’s EON Productions had paid off in spades; The presence of Mendes’ guiding hand resulted in a deeply-compelling film that would go down as one of the most successful installments in a franchise that had already spanned five decades.
Broccoli and Wilson were understandably keen to replicate this particular alchemy for the inevitable 24th entry, but Mendes wasn’t so eager to jump back in, citing his responsibilities to several stage productions he had on his plate. The producers continued developing the film in the hopes he would eventually change his mind, hiring SKYFALL’s screenwriter John Logan to draft a new story that would further reveal the secrets of Bond’s murky past while bringing back his Cold War-era nemesis, S.P.E.C.T.R.E– a secretive criminal organization hellbent on world domination. Absent almost entirely from the series since the Sean Connery years, the rights to this fictional cabal of terrorists had been tied up in litigation for decades by THUNDERBALL (1964) producer Kevin McClory and his estate. However, a 2013 settlement awarded the rights back to their rightful owners, and the franchise could now integrate S.P.E.C.T.R.E back into the rebooted continuity that started with 2006’s CASINO ROYALE. With this development, Mendes found himself once again drawn to the director’s chair, making him the first Bond filmmaker to helm two consecutive entries since John Glen. In an ironic twist, Logan’s script would be rewritten by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade– the longtime Bond scribes that Logan had replaced on SKYFALL— before undergoing an additional pass by Jez Butterworth. The story proved difficult to tack down, but Mendes and company nonetheless pushed forward with their massive operation. The script problems compounded into real production woes and an ever-ballooning budget during a grueling six month shoot across such disparate locations as Tangiers, Austria, Mexico City, and Rome. When all was said and done, the 24th James Bond film– SPECTRE (2015)– wound up with a reported final cost of $350 million, making it not just one of the most expensive Bond films ever made, but one of the most expensive films ever made.
A chief reason for the outsized expense is the film’s sprawling story, which in addition to traveling the far reaches of the globe and staging elaborate set pieces, attempts to retcon the events of the three previous Bond films into a unified conspiracy against our iconic hero. As Bond attempts to shine a light on the titular shadowy organization (streamlined from the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. acronym that identified the group’s Cold War incarnation), he finds himself personally entangled with its enigmatic leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz)– a ghost from Bond’s past who ultimately reveals himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the iconic 007 nemesis from the Connery years. Bond’s attempts to reveal the truth behind the conspiracy and its personal machinations against him will take him from the alpine peaks of Austria, to the arid desert of Tangiers, and finally to the rain-slicked streets of his London for a final confrontation within the bombed-out husk of M16’s former headquarters. On top of all this, he finds himself falling in love with a fierce woman named Madeline (Lea Seydoux) who appeals to Bond’s humanity and might just heal the wounds left behind by the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. SPECTRE has a lot of story to tell, making for the longest-running entry in the series. However, longer doesn’t necessarily equal better– the filmmakers’ attempts to retroactively incorporate Spectre into the fabric of the previous Bond films feels a little too forced, shoehorning in extraneous story that only causes the truly great moments to space themselves out even further between each other. However, it is the first of the Craig Bonds to feel like one of the old-fashioned 007 adventures– Bond’s struggle throughout the previous three films to establish himself as the secret agent we all know and love makes the return of beloved Bond institutions (like M’s mahogany office, the gadget-laden Aston Martin, or the classic gun-barrel opening) feel earned.
After three punishing missions, Bond is finally comfortable in his own skin– and so is Daniel Craig, who also receives a co-producing credit here as a testament to his enormous influence on the character as well as the franchise. Craig’s Bond has always been a bit of a brooding bulldog, or a loyal grump, but he is also a man who is profoundly haunted by loss– the loss of his parents, of Vesper Lynd, of his beloved M (Judi Dench). The events of SKYFALL seemingly cleansed Craig’s Bond of his original sins and emotional baggage while renewing his commitment to MI6. With SPECTRE, Bond is marked by an unrelenting focus that Mendes has compared to a hunter, but it appears he still has some skeletons in his closet yet. At nearly fifty years old, Craig proves he’s still a physical powerhouse with plenty of fight left in him. His previous collaboration with Mendes, in SKYFALL as well as a supporting role in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, allows for the presence of trust and vulnerability in their working relationship, the effects of which are immediately tangible–even visceral– on the screen. It remains to be seen if he’ll return for a fifth outing– indeed, press interviews during SPECTRE’s release cited him as wanting to “slit his wrists” instead of playing the character again anytime soon– but even if he doesn’t, Craig will have left behind one of the most enduring and definitive portrayals of the iconic superspy the world has ever seen.
Oscar-winning character actor Christoph Waltz puts a new spin on a hallowed Bond nemesis as Oberhauser / Blofeld, affecting a peculiar physical eccentricity that’s at once both taunting and devious. In assuming a role previously played by the likes of Donald Pleasence, Waltz has the unenviable task of paying homage to the classical hallmarks of the character– the band-style collar, the Persian lap cat, the disfiguring scar that runs down the side of his face– but he effortlessly incorporates them into his updated version of Bond’s archenemy, making for a formidable and inherently unpredictable adversary who can counter Bond’s brawn with a brilliant brain. French arthouse star Lea Seydoux is the latest in a long line of Bond Girls, but her performance as Madeline– the confident and elegant daughter of recurring Quantum operative, Mr. White– allows her to immediately differentiate herself from her predecessors. She’s as fearless as she is brilliant, proving herself every bit Craig’s equal without resorting to the “kickass fighter chick” cliche. A considerable factor of Bond’s emotional trajectory throughout the Craig era has been his love for Vesper Lynd (played brilliantly in CASINO ROYALE by Eva Green) and the wounds incurred by her betrayal and death, but Seydoux’s Madeline is uniquely suited by the end of SPECTRE to become a healing force in Bond’s life, and the one who can help him find love once again.
Bond films are understandably huge in scope, necessitating a large supporting cast of capable character actors. The involvement of a director as widely-respected and esteemed as Mendes has the added benefit of attracting prestigious actors to even the smallest of roles. SKYFALL evidenced Mendes’ desire to extend the roles of perennial favorites like M, Q, and Moneypenny beyond an expositional capacity by making them active participants in the story. Towards that end, he cast Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris, and proved there were entirely new ways to depict a suite of iconic characters who had been around for fifty years. Fiennes has a tough act to follow as the new M, and Judi Dench’s successor, but his classical training helps him pull it off beautifully. He’s at once both a throwback to the gravely serious and dignified M16 bosses of old, and an entirely new animal who can hold his own in a firefight. SPECTRE finds Fiennes further finessing the role, now comfortably installed as the head of M16. The fresh-faced Whishaw quickly proved he could fill the shoes of the inimitable Desmond Llewelyn as M16’s Quartermaster (or Q, for short), and SPECTRE also provides him with a fair degree of autonomy and mobility, thanks to the advancement of digital and wireless technology. Harris made series history with her SKYFALL debut as the first Moneypenny of color, and she continues to further distinguish herself here from her predecessors– the matronly Lois Maxwell and the poised Samantha Bond– by imbuing an assertive, independent, and challenging charge into her otherwise-flirtatious repartee with Bond. Also returning is Jesper Christensen as Mr. White, the enigmatic agent for Quantum– a similarly conspiratorial cabal of elite power players initially intended to be the Craig-era answer to S.P.E.C.T.R.E, only to be retconned as a subdivision within SPECTRE’s eponymous organization once EON Productions won the film rights back. Christensen’s third appearance within the rebooted continuity finds his character a broken, reclusive shadow of his former self– hiding out from the world even as he awaits the inevitable retribution of his former employers.
Of the new faces, Monica Belluci, Andrew Scott, and Dave Bautista are the standouts. Holding a distinction as the oldest Bond girl to date, Belluci smolders as an aloof Roman widow of a Spectre assassin that naturally falls into bed with the very man who killed her husband. As a smug bureaucrat / double agent for Spectre, Scott’s character (patronizingly referred to by Craig as “C”) makes for a formidable adversary to Fienne’s M by being his antithesis. Where the middle-aged M prizes old-fashioned field work to gather intelligence, the much younger C prefers to utilize all-seeing and borderline-unethical surveillance technology as both a cost-cutting and a life-saving measure. Bautista plays Blofeld’s bodyguard, Hinx– a silent brute in the grand tradition of Jaws or Oddjob, but with a fraction of the memorability.
As Mendes’ first big-budget action picture, SKYFALL put forth a particular tone and aesthetic that was clearly inspired by the work of a fellow Brit– Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). SPECTRE similarly takes its cues from Nolan, hiring INTERSTELLAR’s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema to replace SKYFALL’s Roger Deakins (who also shot JARHEAD and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD for Mendes). SKYFALL marked the first time that a Bond film was shot digitally, but SPECTRE finds Mendes and Hoytema returning to the organic texture of 35mm film, with a distinctively shallow depth of field gained from using anamorphic lenses– the first time Mendes had done so in his career. The film is stuffed with Mendes’ impeccable compositions, with each locale given a subtle, yet distinct look: Mexico boasts dusty amber tones; London’s slick streets are rendered in a cool, stony palette; Italy’s vibrant colors are muted and cloaked in sepia and shadow; the starkness of Austria’s frigid landscape closely resemble the monochromatic nature of black-and-white films; and the ancient warmth of Tangiers is slightly overbaked and arid. SPECTRE also continues the classical, epic approach to camerawork that Mendes employed in SKYFALL, utilizing cranes, dollies, and handheld cameras to exhilarating effect. From a dizzying car chase through the nocturnal Roman cityscape to the destruction of Blofeld’s secret hideout in a huge crater via one of the largest practical explosions ever caught on film, Mendes’ ambition to create an exciting action film on par with Nolan’s caliber is evident throughout. He signals his intentions from the first shot– a virtuoso opening that tracks Bond in a single shot as he weaves through a Mexican Day of the Dead parade, walks up into a hotel, ditches his date by exiting through a window, and then stalks the rooftops high above the street as he makes his way to surveill a clandestine meeting next door. Despite its surface simplicity, the shot is an exceedingly complex one from a technical perspective, and Mendes and company pull it off with effortless grace, immersing the audience within the sprawling scene far better than trendier techniques like 3-D ever could.
For other aspects of SPECTRE’s visuals, Mendes draws inspiration from other directors– the Coen Brother’s regular production designer Dennis Gassner replicates his duties from SKYFALL, and the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) is heavily felt throughout the centerpiece “secret society meeting” sequence, from the shadowy, baroque environs right down to the elevated levels of interaction between trespasser and attendee. (Mendes switches Kubrick’s orientation however, placing Blofeld down on the floor while Bond watches from a balcony high above.). Mendes’ longtime composer Thomas Newman reprises several of the key themes and ideas he developed with SKYFALL’s original score, injecting modern electronic elements into an old-school orchestral approach. Newman came aboard the series as part of the Mendes package, unceremoniously dumping the previous composer David Arnold after five functional– if undistinctive– scores. Newman once again proves an inspired choice for Bond, supplying the series with a suite of memorable supplementary themes that inject a substantial degree of gravitas and intrigue. Of course, it wouldn’t be a new Bond film without its own lavish theme song, which SPECTRE provides in the form of Sam Smith’s darkly beautiful “The Writing’s On The Wall”. An alternate version was commissioned and performed by Radiohead, but was famously rejected for being too dark. Perhaps unfairly criticized upon its release (“it doesn’t even have the title of the movie in its name, man!”), Smith’s ballad would go on to win the Oscar for Best Song, the series’ second consecutive win in this category after Adele took home gold for her efforts on SKYFALL. If SPECTRE does indeed mark Craig’s last outing as 007, the track stands to serve as a melancholic counterpoint to the aggressive machismo of Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” featured in CASINO ROYALE— an intriguing bookend that echoes the emotional trajectory of Craig’s Bond himself.
Throughout the course of six features, Mendes has proven himself more of a cerebral auteur than an aesthete. Unlike the great deal of directors who tend to impose their thematic fascinations on the story at hand, he seems to harvest the themes already lying within the narrative he’s chosen. His aesthetic is marked not by recurring stylistic conceits, but rather a kind of classical dramaturgy that no doubt stems from his background as a stage director. Previous films like AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD benefitted greatly from this approach, but it also elevates the genre material seen in both SKYFALL and SPECTRE. He crafts both films’ action sequences with a visceral brilliance, but his artistic instincts make for dialogue and character moments that are just as, if not more, memorable. It’s not a coincidence that Mendes’ involvement with the Bond series has overlapped with an increased presence at the Academy Awards beyond the usual below-the-line craft categories.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, SPECTRE was a monster hit when it was released in November of 2015. Grossing nearly a billion dollars domestically, the film’s performance is second only to SKYFALL. For all his ambition and effort, however, Mendes couldn’t escape the law of diminishing returns– reviews were decidedly mixed, with many lavishing praise on Mendes’ classy style and approach to action while taking the script to task for its extra bloat and a tendency to fall back on uninspired formula. There’s a case to be made that, considering the majestic excellence of SKYFALL, Mendes is simply the victim of unrealistic expectations. SPECTRE is far from a bad film, but it cannot extricate itself from the shadow of its superior predecessor. It pales in comparison, and yet it can’t distance itself to avoid comparison. Mendes’ direction is as on-point as its ever been, but its effectiveness is hobbled by an unwieldy screenplay stretched thinly over a misshapen conspiracy plot.
As of this writing, the 51 year-old director is attached to direct film adaptations of VOYEUR’S MOTEL and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll return for a third Bond outing (indeed, that probably depends on whether Craig himself will return). Considering his initial reluctance to reprise his role for the second time, it’s probably a fair bet that Mendes’ involvement with the Bond series is done. Even despite SPECTRE’s disappointing reception, Mendes has fulfilled the promise put forth with Craig’s casting in CASINO ROYALE by elevating well-trod material and redefining a 20th century icon for a new generation. In the process, he’s undergone immense personal growth as a filmmaker and broadened his audience considerably– thus installing himself as one of the premiere directors of impeccably-made and narratively-nuanced prestige blockbusters.
SPECTRE is currently available on high definition Blu ray via 20th Century Fox
Produced by: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production Design by: Dennis Gassner
Edited by: Lee Smith
Music by: Thomas Newman