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Spectre (2015)

spectreDIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen

REVIEW:

After taking iconic super spy James Bond back to the nitty, gritty basics in 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, the “new” rebooted 007 film series slowly worked familiar Bond ingredients (Q, Moneypenney, the Aston Martin, more liberal use of the Bond theme) back into the mix with 2012’s Skyfalland now with Spectre, director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig, reuniting from Skyfall, have brought Craig’s Bond full circle with his most “traditional” outing yet.  Of Craig’s four Bond films, Spectre has the most “classic Bond” feel, but admittedly part of the strength of Casino Royale and Skyfall was that they eschewed the conventional Bond formula, or at least used it with restraint.  Spectre is entertaining, but it lacks the freshness of Casino Royale and the emotional depth of Skyfall.  In resurrecting the shadowy global domination organization Spectre, last seen as a recurring villain in Sean Connery’s Bond films of the ’60s, the “classic Bond” pieces have nearly all clicked into place, but the movie lacks a certain spark.  There’s a by-the-numbers feel here that makes Spectre an entertaining Bond adventure but, unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall, not one that transcends the genre.

We open in the immediate aftermath of the events of Skyfall, including the bombing of MI6 and the death of the long-standing M (Judi Dench).  Spurred on by a video message M left from beyond the grave, and without the authorization of her replacement (Ralph Fiennes), Bond takes a “holiday” to Mexico City, where in the middle of the Day of the Dead festival and in typically indiscreet Bond fashion, he wreaks havoc to take out a member of a shadowy organization called Spectre.  A furious M grounds Bond, but this doesn’t stop him from promptly jetting off to Rome.  At his target’s funeral, Bond seduces his widow (Monica Bellucci), who points him in the direction of another lead, old acquaintance Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who makes a deal with Bond trading information furthering Bond’s investigation in exchange for Bond’s pledge to safeguard White’s estranged daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), a psychiatrist working at a remote clinic in the Austrian Alps.  Bond and Madeleine are soon thrown together, pursued by hulking henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), in a journey to Spectre’s desert lair and a face-to-face encounter with its mysterious leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who has a past connection to 007.  Meanwhile back in London, the new M is sparring with intelligence official Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who wants to declare MI6 obsolete and replace it with an all-pervasive surveillance program that would have George Orwell rolling in his grave.

As Bond installments go, Spectre is middle-of-the-road.  Taken as a member of the series as a whole, it’s probably above average, but it’s worth pointing out that the Bond series has included its share of duds.  Probably the biggest thing counting against Spectre is coming on the heels of Skyfall.  It’s not a bad movie, but it feels disappointing because Skyfall was so good.  Spectre does not transcend the constraints of the genre like its immediate predecessor, but in fairness, it also intentionally immerses itself in traditional Bond tropes more than any Craig 007 outing to date.  While Skyfall introduced the Aston Martin and revamped versions of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris)—both of whom reprise their roles here—Spectre resurrects Spectre (and a certain well-known Bond villain synonymous with the organization), places the classic “bloody iris” opening at the beginning for the first time in Craig’s tenure (Skyfall was the first Craig film to use it, but kept it waiting until the end), and composer Thomas Newman incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme more liberally than David Arnold, who scored five of the last seven Bond movies (however, Newman also noticeably lazily regurgitates significant chunks of Skyfall‘s score completely unaltered).  The villain even has a fluffy white cat, and by the end, a familiar scar is firmly in place.  Bond makes a narrow escape from his car via an ejector seat, and Q hooks him up with an exploding watch.  The mountaintop Alpine health clinic and some aspects of the Bond/Madeleine relationship recalls On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Spectre’s base is situated inside a crater as in You Only Live Twice, and there is a brutal hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Mr. Hinx onboard a moving train that recalls Sean Connery’s fight with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love in a probably intentional homage.  The tone has taken a noticeable shift toward something a little more lighthearted, at least in comparison to the, by Bond standards, deadly seriousness of Casino Royale and Skyfall.  Craig’s Bond is a little lighter on the icy-eyed killing (a “little” being the key word) and a little heavier on suavity and charm, and he gets a moment where a potentially deadly fall is broken by landing in a perfect sitting pose on a convenient sofa, that’s the kind of visual gag that wouldn’t be out of place with Roger Moore.  (Craig fans fear not, the shift is slight, and Craig engages in none of the over-the-top buffoonery of some of Moore’s outings).

As fun as it is to see the classic Bond ingredients clicking into place, however, Spectre lacks a certain spark.  It kicks off with a bravura opening sequence, set in the colorful Day of the Dead festival, as an unbroken tracking shot follows Bond through the crowds in the street, through a hotel, and all the way out onto the ledge where he blows up an opposite building.  Unfortunately, aside from this great opening shot, and the aforementioned Bond vs. Hinx brawl, there’s not many memorable action sequences (although there is an uncomfortable scene with Oberhauser subjecting Bond to maybe the most elaborately high-tech form of torture since Goldfinger nearly castrated Sean Connery with an industrial laser).  A car chase through Rome is flat and unexciting, even when the back of the car shoots flames at its pursuer.  Likewise, despite some over-the-top stunts, a chase pitting a convoy of cars against a plane feels flat.  The overall energy level is middling, and the action lacks the tension and crackle of the opening chase scene in Skyfall.  Bond and Madeleine’s relationship is underdeveloped for the importance it’s meant to have.  A love declaration is unearned and unconvincing.  We bought the connection between Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, partly because of the chemistry between the actors, partly because the movie took the time to develop it.  Here, it’s more a feeling of being told deep feelings exist rather than believing it.  Equally flimsy and contrived is Oberhauser’s motivation and his past connection to Bond.  Not only does it borrow a plot element from, of all things, the Austin Powers Bond spoof Goldmember, but it also attempts a flimsy retcon of Oberhauser being responsible for various previous events throughout the rebooted films in an attempt to tie it all together in a way that feels contrived and thinly-developed and lacks the effect it might have had if the concept had been properly established.  The concept of Spectre itself feels rushed and underdeveloped, and one feels its influence should have been felt before now (in fact, among shadowy global domination organizations with a fetish for octopus tentacle emblems, Captain America: The Winter Soldier did a more effective job conveying HYDRA’s insidiousness).  The subplot with M butting heads with Denbigh and touching on MI6 being “obsolete” and political commentary about government surveillance, not only recycles some plot elements from Skyfall but also feels borrowed straight out of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation earlier this year, and these scenes feel superfluous and tacked on mostly to give Ralph Fiennes something to do.  As in Casino Royale, Craig gets to have both an inconsequential fling and a more serious “romance”, and there is at least one novel factor, with the former putting a Bond actor in the unusual situation of getting a love scene with an actress who’s actually older than him (47-year-old Craig and 51-year-old Monica Bellucci).  Unsurprisingly, however, things do return to form shortly thereafter, with Craig romancing Lea Seydoux, 17 years his junior.  The movie does probably the most globe-trotting of any Craig outing thus far, with the action trekking through London, Mexico City, Rome, Austria, Tangier, and the villain’s snazzy crater headquarters, but the pace feels a bit aimless and meandering.  There’s a by-the-numbers feel that suggests perhaps this team is getting slightly tired.

spectre2Daniel Craig (despite drawing some backlash with blunt public comments indicating he may be getting tired of the role) continues to be in fine form as Bond, equally believable whether having a brutal hand-to-hand throwdown with Dave Bautista or suavely romancing Lea Seydoux.  Craig and the filmmakers seem to make a conscious effort to make his gritty Bond a little more “cool” this time around, but he’s still easy to take seriously making either love or war.  French actress Lea Seydoux (far removed from her earlier role in the controversial but critically-acclaimed Blue is the Warmest Color, in which she played a blue-haired lesbian) is an adequate Bond girl, but not up to the level of Eva Green in Casino Royale.  There’s nothing really wrong with Seydoux’s performance, but her character and her relationship with Bond is too thinly-developed for us to believe in the significance it’s supposed to have, and Seydoux and Craig don’t have the chemistry that he shared with Green.  Austrian two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is reliably fun to watch, and tones down the scenery-chewing one might expect from him, but his urbane, smoothly cruel Oberhauser is held back from his full potential by limited screentime and flimsy motives; he’s not as strong a villain as his predecessor, Javier Bardem’s Silva (again, like Seydoux, the blame lies more with the writing than the acting).  There is a “surprise twist” about Oberhauser that’s very similar to the one about Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and is even less surprising, especially to those familiar with the Connery films and the original version of Spectre (and its leader).  Dave Bautista, looking nothing like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Drax and speaking only one word the whole movie, has an imposing presence and is tough and determined enough to be a formidable henchman, although he’s not unique enough to reach the level of a Jaws or an Oddjob.  The supporting MI6 crew from Skyfall—Ralph Fiennes’ M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw’s Q—is still onboard.  Harris’ Moneypenny doesn’t get to join the action this time like she did in her intro in Skyfall, but Whishaw’s Q gets to stretch his legs and tag along for a section of the globe-trotting journey (although, however good Fiennes and the others are, it’s hard not to feel the absence of Judi Dench).  Despite being heavily featured in promotional material, Monica Bellucci’s part is brief and insubstantial.  Judi Dench’s M makes a quick cameo from beyond the grave, and Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White makes a brief return, though some casual viewers might not even remember him from his small roles in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

“James Bond will return”, promises the end credits (as always), and while Spectre falls a little short of the lofty heights set by Skyfall, there is nothing here to damage the long-running franchise.  While not meriting the critical acclaim showered on Skyfall, nor does it warrant some of the overly harsh reviews leveled at it, and suffers more by direct comparison than as a Bond entry in and of itself.  At this point, it’s a little uncertain whether Craig will return, but the climax leaves enough loose ends to call for at least one more direct sequel before the series (or at least its lead actor) is inevitably rebooted again.  In any event, Spectre is a smoothly enjoyable Bond romp, even if it doesn’t transcend what that means the way two of its direct predecessors did.

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