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Daniel Craig returns as James Bond for the fourth time in Spectre. This time around Bond goes rogue, and is sent on a mission by an ex-colleague to infiltrate a shadowy organisation with links to his own past, while the "00" program as a whole is threatened by a new worldwide surveillance initiative.
Warning: the below contains (very mild) spoilers for Spectre.
As Daniel Craig steps into another exquisitely tailored suit for his fourth outing as the iconic British spy, it's clear that the role of Bond fits him like a comfortable pair of shoes. He inhabits the role so completely it's now hard to picture him playing any other character. Yet, for all that he's perfectly at home wearing a tuxedo, ordering vodka martinis and introducing himself with his surname first, he has undoubtedly brought something different to Bond in his four films in the role. It's a shame then, that Spectre is a regression to the mean after three mould-breaking Bond films.
Craig first donned the famous tuxedo in 2006's Casino Royale, a "soft reboot" of the franchise that did away with gadgets, sports cars and over-the-top CGI after the excesses of the late-period Pierce Brosnan films. Instead, we were introduced to an inexperienced Bond with his newly-minted licence to kill. Casino Royale was an altogether more modern, violent and edgier affair than its predecessors, heavily indebted to the likes of The Bourne Identity, which reinvented the spy thriller for modern times. The films that followed, Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall, continued with the Casino Royale template. Craig's Bond could be suave and sophisticated with the best of them, but gave hints of the vulnerable yet thuggish streetfighter underneath.
In a way, Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall represented Bond's origin story. The final scenes of Skyfall introduced us to Miss. Moneypenny and saw Bond in the familiar office of the new M (Ralph Fiennes), receiving his orders for a mission. It had a very retro feel, in line with the old school Bond films of Connery and Moore. Spectre continues in that vein and brings Craig's iteration of Bond closer to the "classic" Bond formula than ever before.
Spectre is a film that knows its historical filmography. It opens with a remarkable tracking shot at the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, and the iconography on show harks back to Live And Let Die. The camera follows Bond on an unsanctioned assassination - at the request of a familiar face - that goes wrong, culminating in a crumbling building and a tense fight in a helicopter that tips a hat to similar scenes in For Your Eyes Only and GoldenEye (as if that nostalgia was not enough, later we also see Bond fight Dave Bautista's giant henchman Mr. Hinx on a train, bringing back memories of From Russia With Love).
Back in London, M is unsurprisingly unimpressed with Bond's unauthorised work and stands him down from field work. Bond being Bond, though, doesn't let something so simple stop him, and roping in Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to help, jets off to continue his personal mission to seek out a shadowy criminal organisation called Spectre. While Bond is causing carnage overseas, M is dealing with trouble at home as a planned merger of the intelligence services will put an end to agents in the field and see the work done by non-stop surveillance and unmanned drones, much the the delight of M's would-be boss Max Denbigh, codename C (an oddly muted Andrew Scott).
The basic elements for a classic are here, but I'm sorry to say that Spectre is more Quantum Of Solace than Skyfall - an uneven follow-up to a brilliant film rather than another entry in the annals of Bond "best of" lists for Craig and co.
Part of the problem here is Daniel Craig himself. His early days as an edgy, almost nervy Bond are gone. Four films in, this version struts around confidently, smooth as silk, as unruffled by almost having a building fall on him as he is by the film's central revelation about the Spectre organisation's ties to his own personal history.
Bond treats almost every misfortune in Spectre with a slight smile and a sardonic "oh, that's lovely" aside, reminiscent of Roger Moore at his most arch. In one way it works - if Craig's first three films were Bond's origin story, in Spectre we meet the Bond we've always known; suave, experienced, unruffled - yet it's a shame to see a man who brought such freshness to the role fall back into easy, old habits. Talking of old habits, corny jokes make a reappearance too. For some that may be welcome after recent humourless outings, but I'll take seriousness over lame innuendo about Max Denbigh's "C" code name any day. That said, Ben Wishaw's comic timing means that some of Q's scene-stealing lines manage to raise a laugh.
The tried and true formulas of old just don't seem to hit the mark in Spectre. A high speed car chase through narrow Roman streets should have the heart pounding but instead it's as sleek and soulless as a car advert. A distinct lack of chemistry between the leads means Bond's romance with Leya Seydoux's Dr. Madeleine Swann falls flat.
It's not all bad though; this is no Moonraker. Spectre looks spectacular thanks to director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar) and apart from the car chase the set pieces generally hit the mark. The exotic locations Bond fans would expect are here, too: Rome, Tangiers, the Austrian Alps all get a stamp in Bond's passport.
Another positive is Christoph Waltz, the second Oscar winner in succession to take on a Bond villain role. He may not be a particularly threatening bad guy - he wears three quarter length trousers and slip-on loafers throughout - but he plays Bond's chief tormentor Franz Oberhauser with impish glee. The plot twists, such as they are, can be easily telegraphed, but as a whole Spectre's twist and turns add to the building of Bond's own mythos.
The film's final moments are open ended and there are hints that 007 has hung up his gun for good. Undoubtedly the beloved franchise will return, but will Craig renew his licence to kill? If not, he leaves his successor in a good place. Spectre may not reach the high water mark of Casino Royale or Skyfall - indeed, it sees Craig's mould-breaking Bond revert to type, with mixed results - but it's still a solid outing for our favourite not-so-secretive secret agent, and more detailed world building opens avenues for future films.
If you are a fan of old-school Bond and miss some of the more tongue-in-cheek elements of the older films then you will love the return of some humour, and will have a great time playing "spot the reference". If, however, you're a recent convert to 007's world thanks to Casino Royale then you might be a bit disappointed by Spectre's return to the light side. Whichever way you look at it, though, it's another solid outing for the best on screen Bond.