Review: Spectre

As promised, I went to see Spectre in a town just outside Marbella, about 300 miles west of where I live. The cinema was cold, the food appalling, the screen faded and the chairs about as comfortable as an iron maiden. I did not hide my disdain. Having lived for so long in a largely pocketed part of Spain, being thrust into a crowd of 200 people, all of whom spoke English, was like someone opening the morning blinds after a particularly heavy evening.

Nevertheless, after three years of anticipating and guesswork, there was James Bond back on the big screen.

2012 will always be remembered for the Queen’s Jubilee, the London Olympic Games and of course, Skyfall. It got everything right. It was sentimental, but never melancholic or melodramatic, and celebrated the franchise with a good yarn rather than the plodding series of vignettes that the 20th film, Die Another Day insisted on doing.

So Spectre had a lot to live up to. The returning Daniel Craig in his fourth outing was accompanied by director Sam Mendes, the man widely credited with adding a multilayered emotional intelligence to the Bond formula with Skyfall. Throw into the mix a score by the returning Thomas Newman, whose Skyfall soundtrack struck the right balance between action and pathos and the returning Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomi Harris and you should have the ingredients for a hit film. Add Christoph Waltz in there for good measure and it really should be one of the greatest Bond films ever made.

But this a confused film, suffering from the curse of the sequels as well as it’s from its own flawed narrative.

Traditionally, appreciating a Bond film was a simple matter of measuring how strong the martini was and how good the stunts were. Since Casino Royale, there has been an evolving sense of Bond trying to be more than the mere sum of its well-known and now very clichéd parts. Royale offered more to Bond, but Skyfall gave the series an unknown emotional intelligence with a solid plot by going into the elemental background of a character we all recognise but didn’t, and still don’t, truly know.

So to this Spectre is the sequel to the new trend. Mendes is joined by returning writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade so it is a sequel and suffers, as most do, from never hitting the nerve of the original. Both plot and theme struggle to remain true to the newfound thoughtfulness of the series while trying to be more Bond-like and the two are incompatible.

Skyfall worked precisely because it was unexpected. It had a simple theme, revenge and, focused on relationships with relevant action sequences with the obligatory exotic locations or the cold moors of Scotland. It was aesthetically assured, polished in emerald green and was neither homage nor cliché but a more respectful nod to the reigning zeitgeist before doing its own thing.

Spectre always feels held back, struggling to balance the right focus on spectacular action sequences and moments of serene characterization of Bond. It attempts to deliberately build on the successful indulgence of Bond’s childhood in Skyfall but quickly hits the bum note of cliché. It feels like large lumps of the Bond formula and Skyfall have been mixed together and the two have not melted into one.

Every Bond, bar George Lazenby, caught a second wind: Sean Connery’s realism descended into face with Diamonds are Forever; Roger Moore’s farce peaked into the gritty For Your Eyes Only; Timothy Dalton’s classic Bond broke away from the mold with the brutal revenge thriller Licence to Kill and the promise of Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye, unfortunately, concluded with the techno trope fest that was Die Another Day.

Craig is in the curious position that both of his second winds have been connected by plot, but are remarkably inconsistent. Bond films have been episodic for most of the franchise’s history, and if Casino Royale rebooted the franchise, Skyfall rebooted Bond as a multifaceted character.

Spectre tries to go further, and iron out the issues and turn Craig’s years into one big story arc; an ambitious project but one that creates problems that Skyfall simply didn’t have.

The latest instalment serves as a sequel to the 2012 film but also as a thread that weaves, albeit precariously, all the preceding films of the last nine years. That SPECTRE was behind Vesper’s death, that Quantum was a franchise and Raoul Silvia was on the payroll does more damage to the credibility of Spectre as it does to the previous films. It simply lacks logic and sits at odds with the sensitivity with Mendes’ reputation for adding weight and seriousness to plot details.

Unfortunately, it appears he listened more to writers Neal Wade and Robert Purvis who, while penning Skyfall, also wrote The World is Not Enough and Die Another DaySpectre feels more like a shoehorned endnote than a considered canonical chapter.

The eponymous organisation was the frequent enemy of 007 in the original Fleming novels and in the early films, last appearing in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. They made an appearance in the unofficial (non-Eon productions) Never Say Never Again and a bald, wheelchair-bound man in a Nehru suit with a white cat appeared in the opening of For Your Eyes Only. No guesses who it was, especially seeing as the opening scene was of Bond’s wife’s grave (a rare instance of the series acknowledging its own past).

The Ian Fleming books, something seldom mentioned these days with Bond films, have a developed and coordinated inclusion of the organisation SPECTRE and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The legal dispute between the Fleming and Thunderball writer Kevin McClory meant that the organisation and Blofeld belonged to the latter and the Bond studios could never use them.

Spectre should be SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence,Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). And from here on out the style over substance, convenience of the plot, all while looking slick and new and romantic is about as Bond a cliché as you can get. Not only do they never get their full acronym but the series of circumstances that have to align to bring Bond together with them is so unbelievable as to make you wonder why Mendes, a director of such standing and achievement signed off on it at all.

It’s all visually stunning of course, the opening helicopter vignette over Mexico is genuinely tense but falls down flat with it’s over reliance on CGI to make it look like Daniel Craig is in certain derring-do scenes. No, I have no false belief that Daniel Craig is hanging out of a helicopter, but then again the best of Bond has always been about real stunts with a casual disregard of the stunt double looking 20 years younger than Roger Moore or having a full head of hair to Connery’s toupee. It’s a letdown, and altogether an unnecessary one.

The rest of the film locations are wonderful and the Austrian alps shots and the locations in Italy and Morocco are the few instances of this feeling like a Bond film.

But let’s come to the most offensive cuckoo. Blofeld was always going to make an appearance. As soon as the name of the film was announced it was guaranteed. It was an unexpected joy to the cat and the scar all come together and Waltz is quietly malicious and rises above the Dr Evil pastiches in the public consciousness.

What lets him and the movie down was the unnecessary link to Bond’s past with Mendes and writing team trying too hard to mimic the subtle exploration of Bond’s origins in Skyfall (which never overstepped the line of Fleming’s original story).

This, on the other hand, is an utter absurdity which ruins the film. Making Blofeld Bond’s de facto step brother is the worst trope of them all, and even if it is overlooked is entirely illogical to the plot. Craig is approaching 50, Waltz is 60 and the former’s character is orphaned at 12 and earns the ire of his older sibling who then dispatches his father and Bond’s guardian. Is the film really asking the audience to believe that for the next 35 years Blofeld, rather than flat out killing Bond, plays with his life, tortures him twice, murders the women he loves, without ever approaching him?

And even then, only since 2006? Blofeld is either stupid or nonplussed and it is utterly ridiculous and short of clown costumes that this is the web which links four wholly unrelated films together.

Of the torture scene, well, it wouldn’t be a true Fleming story if there wasn’t one. If not a leg crosser, it certainly gives you sympathy headaches as you cringe through it as is a perfect exploration of how twisted Blofeld is, but it’s such a waste of Waltz that the backstory is so clichéd.

But then again, this is the same maniacal genius who somehow manages to booby traps the remnants of the most secure building in the UK (no police cordons really?). He’s supported in his nefarious deeds by Mr White, who seemingly visits the secret room in his secret hotel by knocking down the wall every time he wants in.

The problems stem from subtle to huge and detract from any potential the plot might have to flush out its characters.

The subplot with ‘Nine Eyes’ was puerile in plot and Andrew Scott was annoyingly more Moriarty (TV: Sherlock) than intelligence chief. It was nice to see the others out of their usual waters and take more of a prominent role but it can’t last and it is a distracting, unnecessarily unrealistic aside in the film series that normally walks the thin line between what’s real and fictitious anyway.

There are moments of gold. Ben Wishaw’s Q was funny and it was lovely to see just a little more humour injected into the usually sullen Bond (the Aston Marin scene and 009’s soundtrack were laugh out loud). Fiennes and Harris, returning as M and Moneypenny, have left their traditional prison of an office and, while getting a more prominent, active and political role suffer again from absurd political machinations.

They are not the only ones let down. Monica Belushi is criminally underused and seems set-up only to tick the box that women over 25 can be a lover of Bond. A lost opportunity to indulge the maturity of the plot but it is lost to a cameo that wants to do no more than showcase a famous face.

Léa Seydoux is a frustrating companion to our leading man. Stunning yes, but she draws his affections and offers him love having known him for the better part of a few days. It’s a rushed conclusion and not worthy of the talent of Seydoux or of a modern ‘Bond girl’.

Indeed, given the rushed romance and an ending that strongly implies Bond has given up the service, there is a strong likelihood the next film is going to see her murdered in revenge by Blofeld.

It could very well be the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service we’ve all been waiting for. The orchestral suite used in the trailer, the alpine hideaway, Blofeld himself and of course Bond leaving for a new life with her and the series’ love of weaving films together gives strong hints of this.

Opening the next film with her murder and an explosively vengeful film would be a wonderful finale for Craig if he does indeed return and does no more thereafter. Quantum of Solace never gave us the revenge for Vesper that we deserved and Diamonds Are Forever never gave us the revenge for Tracy Bond’s murder that audiences deserved to see. It was almost retconned entirely; Blofeld was played by a different actor and Connery was back. Aside from an angry exchange at the beginning, his murdered wife has never been mentioned again.

Other homages are not short either. The rest of the film it is a riddled with references to its predecessors, but not knowingly. The opening helicopter skit was first done in For Your Eyes only, another Blofeld and Tracy reference and Belushi’s widow is borrowed from Thunderball. Train journey fights are nothing new, featuring in From Russia with Love and Live and Let Die and it a DB5 (with modifications) gets yet another outing.

As for the theme song, ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ by Sam Smith – it grows on you when you see it against some very impressive opening visuals and it is, after ten replays, a B-listing contribution to the Bond song collection.

Daniel Craig, despite his comments, will most likely return to the role as most likely will his co-stars even if Sam Mendes has definitely declared that this is his last Bond film. Certainly, there have been worse outings than Spectre that heralded a better a film after it (Moonraker to For Your Eyes Only, for example) and by no means has it been a box office flop.

Roger Moore does have a point when he said that Bond is fundamentally a literary character which has remained consistent over the last 50 years and, if there is hope for the next film to recover lost opportunities in Spectre, it will be by going back to the original Fleming source.

James Bond will return.

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