Review: SPECTRE (dir. Sam Mendes, 2015)

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No time for a full review, alas, but a few quick points about the newest Bond movie.

1. I’m going to do a lot of complaining here, but I do want to say that SPECTRE starts off on a pretty strong note. For one thing, it’s the first film since the Brosnan era to begin with the classic gun-barrel sequence before any of the action takes place (previous Daniel Craig films placed the gun-barrel sequence at the end of the movie or, in Casino Royale’s case, at the end of the pre-credits sequence), so it’s as though the film begins by announcing that the franchise has regained its confidence in the old formulas. Also, the pre-credits sequence begins with a wonderfully long tracking shot that follows several characters in and out of a few buildings in Mexico City while the Day of the Dead celebrations happen in the streets, and I greatly enjoyed the extended fight scene in a helicopter that follows soon afterwards. The film has many nice character touches as well, from the way Bond stops one security guard with a simple but firm gesture to the way Moneypenny responds to a question about her birthday. I chuckled often during this film, though more frequently towards the beginning than the end.

2. The homages to the classic Bond films continue: Not only is SPECTRE back for the first time since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever (though Blofeld did have a brief, almost self-parodic cameo in the pre-credits sequence to 1981’s For Your Eyes Only), but we get a clinic of sorts up in the Alps (just like in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), a brutal fight scene on a train (just like in From Russia with Love and The Spy Who Loved Me), a character with a certain facial scar (which resembles a scar that we saw in You Only Live Twice), and probably a few other nods to the pre-Craig past that I forgot to make note of mentally.

3. And that’s before we get to the obsession with post-reboot continuity here. The ruins of the old MI6 headquarters — which were hit by a massive explosion in Skyfall not unlike the explosion that we had already seen in The World Is Not Enough — figure prominently in this film, and there are frequent references to characters from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as well. In fact, we are now told that the secretive Quantum organization was, itself, a front for the even more secretive SPECTRE. Oh, and Silva, the lone wolf (or so we thought) who was out for personal revenge in Skyfall, was also working for SPECTRE. I think. In the old days, if a Bond film didn’t make any sense or fell flat as a piece of entertainment, you could shrug it off and feel safe in the knowledge that the next film would ignore it. But now, every single film has to tie into the others — and the ties between them are growing ever more ridiculously complex. At least if you bother to think about them. Which you probably shouldn’t. All I know is that Casino Royale is the only Bond film in decades that I have genuinely loved, but it hinted at a much larger story, and the failure of the three films that followed it to deliver on that promise has diminished Casino Royale just a tad in my memory.

4. This film is a perfect example of what my friend Steven D. Greydanus likes to call “Shrinking World Syndrome” — a phenomenon whereby sequels and reboots draw ever-tighter connections between the characters we thought we knew. (A classic case of this would be The Phantom Menace’s revelation that Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was a boy.) If you’ve seen the trailers, then you already know that the big bad villain who runs SPECTRE — and has apparently been involved behind-the-scenes in all of the misery that befell Bond over the last three films (dead girlfriend, dead boss, etc.) — has some sort of connection to Bond’s childhood. And that’s just kind of ridiculous, really.

5. One remarkable feature of the Daniel Craig films is how the very premises of the franchise — and thus, it seems, the continued existence of the franchise itself — always seem to be up for grabs. The classic Bond films followed a set formula that guaranteed a certain safety within their world: M was always safe in his or her office, Moneypenny was always there to receive Bond when he visits the office, Q was always there in his lab to give Bond special gadgets for killing people, and there was never any question that the Double-O program should keep on going like it always has. But there have been no guarantees at all in any of the Daniel Craig films: the first two films eschewed mainstays like Q and Moneypenny altogether, the third film drew M into the action and killed her, and now the fourth film sees the Double-O program being shut down altogether. Dovetailing with this is the fact that Bond frequently goes rogue in the Craig films, and in two of them — Quantum of Solace and SPECTRE — he and his friend Felix Leiter are actively opposed to the policies of the very governments that they work for. (The classic Bond films never brought philosophical debates about “democracy” into the picture, and Ian Fleming’s novels openly flirted with the fact that Bond wasn’t all that different from the agents working for the other side; indeed, the Bond of the books acknowledges that he might have fought for a different set of political values if not for an accident of birth.) This, of course, ties into a larger pattern that we can trace throughout the pop culture of this millennium: Tom Cruise is on his own, more often than not, in the Mission: Impossible films, and the very premise of the Bourne films is that an assassin stops working for the government and turns against his former bosses. Come to that, SPECTRE’s central premise — the fact that the governments of the world are uniting with a criminal organization to spy on everyone everywhere — is also reminiscent of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which revealed that Hydra had been part of SHIELD from the start, and which — you guessed it — showed Captain America himself going rogue to take down the global security apparatus.

6. “Choice” is a big theme in this film. Madeleine Swann asks Bond why he became an assassin, and after joking that his only alternative was the priesthood (a continuation, perhaps, of Skyfall’s Catholicization of Bond), Bond says he had no choice, to which Madeleine replies that there is always a choice. Meanwhile, in another scene, M tells C — the official who has shut down the Double-O program in favour of surveillance cameras and drone attacks — that it is necessary to have human agents in the field who can look a person in the eyes and choose whether to kill that person. I am not so sure that the M of Casino Royale would have liked it if she had sent Bond to kill Dryden and, in the end, Bond had shrugged and decided otherwise. But the point made by the current M pays off in an interesting way at the movie’s climax. In fact — I will try to be vague — it would be interesting to read Greydanus’s essay on “how James Bond lost his soul” in Casino Royale immediately before watching SPECTRE, because SPECTRE seems, in some ways, to be an answer to some of the issues that were raised in that earlier film. It seems, in short, to be a film about how Bond gets a piece of his soul back. In fact — tying into another recent essay of Greydanus’s — it even reminded me of Witness on some level. (Side note: Apart perhaps from Vesper Lynd and Tracy Draco di Vicenzo, how many Bond girls have ever said “I love you” to Bond? How often has Bond’s connection with a woman been romantic and even loving and not just sexual?)

7. Speaking of choice, one other recurring theme throughout this film is the way agents and assassins need to choose between a life of violence and a life at home. The widow of one assassin complains that her husband was always away (which makes her keen to respond to Bond’s sexual advances). The daughter of another assassin recalls growing up without her father. Moneypenny, responding to one of Bond’s phone calls, mentions that she has a “life” (including a lover waiting in her bedroom) and tells Bond he ought to try having one too. (In another scene, Moneypenny visits Bond’s apartment and, finding it pretty bare, asks him if he just moved in. “No,” he replies, although as I recall, Bond’s previous apartment was sold by his employers when he was given up for dead in Skyfall, and this film takes place very soon after that one.) Perhaps not coincidentally, all three of these characters are women. At any rate, this theme leads to a final scene that is quite unlike anything we’ve seen in a Bond film before — and it leaves me wondering if it would even be possible for the franchise to continue without another reboot.

8. Back when Monica Bellucci was cast in the film, there was a lot of fuss over the fact that the then 50-year-old actress was a “mature woman”. (In fact, she is four years older than Craig, which I think makes her the first “Bond girl” to be older than the actor playing Bond since Diana Rigg [born in 1938] starred opposite George Lazenby [born in 1939] in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see that Bellucci is barely even in this film. She has two or three scenes, and that’s it. Meanwhile, Bond’s main squeeze is played by Léa Seydoux, who was 29 at the time of shooting and, while perhaps not quite young enough to be Bond’s daughter, is actually playing the daughter of one of the bad guys from an earlier film. Make of that what you will. But I will say that, if Seydoux’s character is supposed to help heal the wounds left by Vesper Lynd, then I don’t think Seydoux has remotely the kind of chemistry with Craig that Eva Green did in Casino Royale (and I don’t blame the actress for that, as the script for SPECTRE never really gives them the chance to develop that kind of chemistry).

So, there are my first impressions. SPECTRE has some great action scenes and is, in some ways, more “fun” than any Bond film in years. But it is also lazily written and directed in places — even in some of the scenes where Bond shoots people — and most of the best stuff is near the beginning. Which, in its own way, sums up the arc of the four Daniel Craig movies: Casino Royale was a refreshing classic, and everything since then has been a bit of a slog, to one degree or another. Alas, this newest film is no different.

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