Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Back To Basics: SPECTRE

Daniel Craig as James Bond in SPECTRE.

This review contains spoilers for SPECTRE.
SPECTRE is not a great Bond film. It’s a decent standalone spy thriller, but that’s too charitable, as no Bond film exists in a vacuum. As the newest and “freshest” installment in Daniel Craig’s run as 007, it’s strangely discordant and slow. It discards nearly all of the audience goodwill and story momentum generated by Craig’s energetic reboot of the character, content to hit all the expected notes and attempt nothing new or challenging with the character or his world. It feels regressive, rather than classic – the most like an Old Bond movie of any of the Craig entries, but in all the worst ways.

Craig’s Bond films – especially Skyfall – set the stage for SPECTRE to come out of the gate hard and fast as the new incarnation of the classic Bond formula: we have a new M (Ralph Fiennes), a new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Whishaw), and a new Bond, whose perpetual bachelorhood and reckless behaviour is now motivated and established. The table had been set for SPECTRE, which I expected to find a way to synthesize the tropes of Old Bond with the pathos and energy of New Bond – but which instead hits a bizarrely humdrum middle ground, satisfying neither category and existing in its own strangely mediocre universe.

A lot in the marketing campaign led me and many others to believe that this was the Craig-era reimagining of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, one of my favourite Bond films (which features an unfairly maligned performance by George Lazenby as 007, in his only appearance in the role). Shots of glassy facilities sitting atop snow-capped mountains seemed to suggest a similar locale to OHMSS, and Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann was positioned in a role reminiscent of Diana Rigg’s Tracy Di Vicenzo. And then, of course, there’s Blofeld: a role originated by Donald Pleasance, later played by a sonorous Telly Savalas in OHMSS, and now reimagined by Christoph Waltz in SPECTRE, although this time the studio elected to use the “mystery box” marketing strategy coined by J.J. Abrams, disguising the true identity of this iconic villain in all the trailers and TV spots. The similarities that SPECTRE bears to OHMSS serve only to underline this already painfully obvious truth, and in the grand tradition of Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness, when Franz Oberhauser’s “true” name is finally uttered, it’s to a room full of characters who don’t have any reason to know who that is. There are so many ways that Blofeld could have been reintroduced into the Bond canon that would have been punchy, scary, and effective, and SPECTRE uses none of them, positioning this new character as the one person who was “behind it all along,” sending the baddies of the previous films after Bond as part of a hackneyed revenge plot.

Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux in SPECTRE.

Do you need the details? Bond is hot on the trail of a man marked for elimination by a posthumous message from Judi Dench’s M, and this a) gets him in hot water with the new M, who is contending with a weasel-faced intelligence minister named C (Andrew Scott), and b) leads him to a shadowy organization called SPECTRE headed by a man who seems to know Bond intimately. This, of course, is Bond’s adoptive brother Franz, who was jealous of Bond’s intrusion into his life when his father took the orphaned 007 in, and has vowed world-spanning, megalomaniacal revenge by using his patsy C to control global information exchange. It’s simple, dumb, eminently predictable, and utterly Bond.

The absurd convenience of the plot and the groan-worthy one liners didn't bother me – I wasn't so well trained by the dour “realism” of Craig's other films to expect anything more – but the flat interactions between characters and the laconic, lazy editing of the action sequences sure did. Who would have thought that a scene between powerhouse actors like Craig, Fiennes, Waltz and Seydoux could be boring, or that a chase sequence down a mountain involving a plane and three cars could be dull? Who decided that Craig, easily the most vulnerable and human Bond, would suddenly be an invincible superman, who shrugs off explosions, vehicle crashes, and (inexplicably ineffective) neurosurgery with ease? There is one action scene that truly works in the film – when Dave Bautista’s henchman Hinx catches up with Bond and Swann on a passenger train and assaults them in the dining car – and even then, it’s got a cheesy button ending (“What do we do now?” asks a panting Swann, before the film cuts to her tearing Bond’s clothes off) and doesn’t even make sense anyway (Is there nobody else on this train? Nobody heard those gunshots, screams, and shattering wood and glass?). It’s as though the filmmakers wanted to place New Bond in Old Bond scenarios, forgetting that they spent three films establishing him as a real person whose actions have measurable consequences.

Ralph Fiennes as M in SPECTRE.
Craig himself, by the way, was among the least likeable parts of the film for me. His Bond seemed kind of tired, and didn't radiate charm or intensity the way he used to, when he still had something to prove. As with all the actors with a double-oh designation who have stayed on for more than three films, Craig is beginning to feel disconnected in the role; he’s getting too comfortable or too bored or both. His physicality is still impressive, but his commitment seems perfunctory, not personally motivated. He gives me the distinct impression of a man stepping up and acting like a professional in the face of a job he doesn’t want to do anymore. Nearly all the other performers were wonderful though, especially Ralph Fiennes, who I found myself drawn to like a stranded man swimming for a lifeboat – a beacon of warmth and charisma in a film full of oddballs like Q, Blofeld, and the squirrely C. The script has time for some fun character banter, but these exchanges are few and far between. I did like the final “will he or won’t he” moment, in which Blofeld is saved from point-blank execution merely because Bond runs out of bullets. The scene is pulled out so that you think Bond is having a crisis of conscience, and when he turns the barrel away from Blofeld’s head it feels like an unforgivable cop out – but then, whoops, he just happened to have emptied his whole Beretta clip trying to take down Blofeld’s chopper. Close one, Blofeld! You won’t be so lucky next time! That wacky 007, always up to his antics!

So, after all that, why did I still enjoy SPECTRE? Why is it only in retrospect that I think to question its highly questionable elements? It probably has something to do with the same suspension of disbelief that allows us to have fun watching Goldfinger, even though its sexual politics are revolting by contemporary standards. I can recognize the problems of SPECTRE’s prehistoric ethos and oddly slack filmmaking while still enjoying it as a kind of misguided throwback. It’s not correct, in 2015, for Bond to kill Monica Belluci’s husband, attend the funeral, talk to her there, and then follow her home to fuck her. But Craig’s chemistry with her was palpable, even in the brief scenes they shared, and I enjoyed seeing Craig’s Bond coldly use his sexuality as a tool. It fits with my understanding of this Bond as, the way Judi Dench’s M put it, a blunt instrument. I loved Bautista’s Hinx, who steals scenes without speaking and is like a less-distinctive but far more watchable Jaws (remember him?). I liked the makeup effects that recreated Blofeld’s iconic scar and milky eye. The film was rife with clichéd scenarios and corny dialogue, but I liked the return to that comfortable style. Though the plot was predictable as hell, it was far from the convoluted mess I was expecting, and is the clearest and most easily comprehensible of the Craig-era films. I, like many people, love many of the older Bond films (mostly of the Connery era) for their languid pacing and patient cinematography. SPECTRE calls back to that era, nearly as slow-burning as the novels upon which its main character is based, and while it was a horrible choice for this film, I kind of liked how boring it was. So sue me, I like my spy stories boring. (SPECTRE wasn’t trying to be boring, so I won’t give it points for that.) While its mistakes overwhelm it and ultimately ruin the film, I couldn’t hate it. But if your taste is more aligned with the modern Bond we’ve come to expect, I think you probably will.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

No comments:

Post a Comment