I’m not supposed to think much of SPECTRE (a friend of mine has dubbed it Sphinctre) — and I’m not about to make a case for it as a great movie — but the truth is I like it better than 2013’s Skyfall. And I like it better for the exact reasons I’m not supposed to — it’s goofier and doesn’t take itself so seriously. I might have guessed this when I read comments that it lacked characterization. It never occurred to me that James Bond movies were much about characterization — the possible exception being On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which is still the gold standard for the series for me. No, they’re about style, swagger, shameless sex, cool gadgets, in-jokes and beautifully realized, preposterous action scenes. This is where SPECTRE (which, by the way, is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) scores in ways the gloomy introspection of Skyfall didn’t — for me. I told someone else who didn’t like SPECTRE — but who was still interested in my review because, he said, I am more insightful than he is — “I’m not sure insight has anything to do with liking or not liking a Bond movie.”
Thinking back on what I liked about Bond when I was a kid, I think it came down to the cars, the gadgets, the vague sci-fi nature and that attaché case of assorted spy doo-daddery. (Whatever became of that case in the series? It seems to have vanished — just like the cheap knock-off I insisted on carrying around when I was 10.) The appeal of the scantily-clad women and the childishly provocative names like Pussy Galore came a little later, but I cannot recall ever wondering about what Bond was feeling — at least till the last scene in OHMSS. I like that SPECTRE brings some of this quality back. I’m even OK with its ridiculous Blofeld plot twist and the extended ending. The film manages what I didn’t think was possible by keeping something of the faux-serious tone of the last few of the series’ entries while bringing back some of the…well, dumb fun and cheerful amorality of the older movies.
I’m not saying SPECTRE can’t get too dumb for its own good. You have only to look at the silly ersatz-Maurice Binder opening credits with their cheesy animation and octopus tentacles wrapping around girls’ bodies like a PG-13 version of a certain kind of Japanese erotica. None of this is helped by that Sam Smith song that sounds like a couple of cats having a fit in a vat of ketchup. I’m also not claiming that the plot is anything special. In fact — and this is surely coincidental — it’s virtually the same as this year’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, but housed in a classier vehicle. Say what you will, but SPECTRE is one gorgeous-looking movie. Every scene oozes class and careful construction. Hell, the scene where Craig’s Bond meets arch-villain Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) looks like something out of Citizen Kane. And the action scenes are superb — not just in size, but in how clearly, cleanly and coherently they’re executed.
Though it doesn’t stress it, the film does have something on its mind — an almost Luddite-like concern over the dehumanizing and dangerous effect of modern technology. That’s an interesting stance for a series that was built on cutting-edge technology of 50-plus years ago, but it’s not, I think, unwarranted, and for more reasons than the threat of making Bond and the 00 program obsolete. There are other grace moments in the film — not the least of which is the subtext between Q (Ben Whishaw) and Bond — but basically, this is fun James Bond stuff. Enjoy it for what it is. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language.