On the virtues and numerous failings of ‘SPECTRE’

Spectre-2

After Skyfall set up all the pieces of James Bond lore for the 21st century, the franchise returns to the conventionality of yesteryear in Spectre—a gargantuan blockbuster that ambitiously attempts to be the culmination of the entire Daniel Craig Bond era. And you know what? For a good chunk of it, director Sam Mendes and company almost succeed. During its first two acts, Spectre has everything a long-time Bond fan could hope for: exotic locations, gorgeous women, towering henchmen, opulent villain lairs and elaborately-choreographed action sequences—a couple that are among the very best of the franchise. It’s a fun, well-acted and stylish James Bond adventure teeming with atmosphere and even a bit of mystery… that is, until the whole thing careens off a cliff in its last act.

Picking up shortly after the events of its predecessor, Spectre kicks off with a fire cracker of a pre-title sequence. Set during the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, it opens with a stylish five-minute take in which cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s fluid camera stalks Daniel Craig’s Bond from a crowded street all the way to a building rooftop as he hunts a white-suited terrorist. The sequence, which is among the most exhilarating openers in Bond history, then continues with a thrilling chase through the streets of Mexico and concludes with a brutal fight to the death in an out-of-control helicopter doing 360° barrel rolls over a heavily populated plaza.

Once we’re done with Daniel Kleinmann’s surprisingly awful octopus-laden opening credits sequence (over which Sam Smith’s wails his tone-deaf theme song), the action shifts to London. We learn that Bond’s Mexico shenanigans were the last orders of Judi Dench’s M. Unfortunately, 007’s stunt comes at a time when Bond and his trusty MI6 team (Ralph Fiennes’ stern M, Ben Wishaw’s fantastic Q, and Naomi Harris’ cheeky Moneypenny) are on the verge of being rendered obsolete by a smarmy intelligence chief (Andrew Scott) who plans on replacing the “00” program with a drone-operated global surveillance network.

Because Bond couldn’t care less about the consequences, he embarks on *yet* another rogue mission that takes him from the sodium-lit cobblestone streets of Rome to the snow-covered Alps of Austria to the sun-baked sands of Morocco, all in search of the shadowy organization called SPECTRE. Along the way, he partners up with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of an old enemy, and eventually realizes that every adversary he’s gone up against ties back to one man: Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).

Although the Daniel Craig era has been largely credited with bringing class and gravitas to the Bond franchise, they aren’t immune to the series’ long history of blatantly borrowing elements from popular fads of the day (See Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker). Casino Royale was heavily inspired by Batman Begins while Quantum of Solace was an imitation of the Bourne movies. Even Skyfall, which many critics praised as a game-changer, shamelessly borrowed a chunk of its plot from The Dark Knight.

With Spectre, Mendes (plus screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) attempt to ape the Marvel franchise model by tying the plots of all three Craig movies into a single “everything-is-connected” narrative. Unfortunately, the connections are strenuous at best, making you wonder why they even bothered to tie the films in the first place. The theme of government surveillance and privacy is a topical issue – but it too isn’t taken explored after being introduced in the first act. More frustrating is the mystery at the heart of the story which after all that build-up leads to nowhere, leaving you asking, “Wait, that’s it?”

Although I was apathetic towards the casting of Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain (talk about obvious casting!), the Oscar winner makes a fine villain, bringing a sinister edge every time he doles out one of those big wide grins. But again, Mendes and company stifle him with minimal screen time and by giving the character a laughably bad motivation. By the time the film limps to a conclusion, many of the developments that have transpired in the last act feel rushed and unearned. You could argue that stupidity and glaring plot holes have always been staples of this series. But while that’s true, the grit, class and emotional gravitas that the Craig Bonds, in particular Casino Royale and Skyfall, brought to the series, have primed audiences to treat them as more than your average action movie.

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I could continue critiquing Spectre for all its flaws and missteps but truth be told, I had a damn good time watching it. It’s possible that watching all 24 films in the franchise this year may have played a part in adjusting my expectations. Nevertheless, for all its glaring story problems, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The action sequences, which include the previously-discussed cold open in Mexico, a kinetic car chase through the backstreets of Rome, a destructive airplane-SUV downhill chase in the Alps, and a show-stopping brawl on a train between Bond and a towering henchman named Mr. Hinx (a wonderful Dave Bautista) are slick, meticulously-crafted and above all, fun.

Like Skyfall, Spectre is an outstanding-looking film. Topping Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated work in Skyfall was always going to be a stretch but Hoyte Van Hoytema’s warm and striking lensing prove why he’s become the new go-to guy for Christopher Nolan and Spike Jonze. Spectre may have gapping problems but at least it’s never less than gorgeous to look at.  Another aspect that serves Spectre well is its healthy dose of humor—the most in a Bond movie in at least a decade. It’s not Roger Moore or even Pierce Brosnan but the bevy of clever and well-timed deadpan jokes is evidence that Mendes and team are trying to circle back to the Connery days as much as they can. The multitude of Easter eggs and callbacks to older films certainly don’t hurt.

Having played Ian Fleming’s iconic hero in four films now, Craig has already made his mark on the series. Though his recent comments suggest an actor growing tired of the role, his steely and surprisingly funny performance demonstrates otherwise. When Craig made his debut in Casino Royale, his interpretation of the pop cultural icon was a revelation. His Bond wasn’t the fully-formed, suave, and sophisticated killing machine of previous eras but an emotionally-bruised, psychologically-complex man whose icy exterior disguised a past scarred with pain. Nine years later, the bruises may look faded but they’re still there. Craig is the fuel that keeps these movies going, even when they sputter the way this one does. If this is to be his last turn at bat, as the film tries so very hard to make it out to be, then he’ll leave with a legacy of being one of the best, even if he didn’t exactly go out on top. After all, neither did Connery.

 

B- Grade

 

 

SPECTRE

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomi Harris
Producer: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli

Editor: Lee Smith
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Music: Thomas Newman
Production Design: Dennis Gassner

Running time: 148 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, Sony Pictures, MGM
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language)

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