“You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond…”
Even as it ostensibly seeks to promote him, the world press, particularly its internet contingent, sometimes seems in an awful rush to retire James Bond, if not bury him outright. It shares, in this odd attitude, some measure of common cause with his equally rash, often overmatched on-screen adversaries, which is ironic and also not a little apt, seeing as neither party ever seems capable of shutting up at the moment it might prove most to his advantage. In the months leading up to the release of Bond’s 24th official outing, the beleaguered but oft bedeviling Spectre, the air online has been choked with complaints and conjecture of multiple, maddening, often intertwining varieties. This is, of course, part and parcel anymore to the promotion of any “event” film existing at the rarified level of a new Bond, but all the counter-programming and cross-channel squawking this time around felt, to me, excessive and desperate, grossly and instantly. Since joining the amateur film criticism circuit, I have been pretty steadfast in my desire to avoid exposure to other points of view before sitting down to either watch or write. Four days before Spectre even hit domestic screens, however – and I was at the 12 noon Friday showing – my newsfeed was already littered with advance reviews aggressively suggesting that the film was substandard, a flood of click-baiting rankings of the series’ every minute aspect (films, songs, gadgets, girls, cars, leading men), and “think pieces” on Bond’s semi-well-documented history of sexism, classism, misogyny, misanthropy, metaphorical existence as the shadow of British colonialism, relevance (or lack thereof) to the modern world, plus speculation by the metric ton – fueled by the actor’s own exhausted, post-wrap desire to discuss absolutely anything but his future in the most physically demanding series in cinema today – on who should succeed Daniel Craig in the role he now, as of a few hours ago, was so clearly abandoning (and, now that you don’t mention it, why does Sir Roger Moore so obviously hate Idris Elba?).*
*I intend to call a full social media moratorium in the days leading up to “Star Wars Episode VII”, and I trust my will won’t fail me. Even if there wasn’t a movie to risk sullying, sight unseen, I think the time away will still do me a world of good.
Poked, prodded, and primed by such buildup, my mood upon finally entering the theater for Spectre was almost as antagonistic as it was anticipatory. I’ve been a mark for the James Bond series for as long as I can recall, and this new Craig regime, with its focus on a clipped, leaner, far more intense 007 and full embrace of continuity as its story unfolded, has represented not merely a reboot for the franchise but something more akin to a rebirth. Had this venerable series somehow grown noticeably stale, tired, or complacent overnight? I had reasonable but unfortunately dampened expectations that Spectre would, at worst, nudge Bond farther along the same solid path, balancing the series’ peerless facility with action choreography and eye-popping spectacle with all the requisite gunplay and tech-worship, obscure, overplotted intra-agency intrigue, and luxury globetrotting on a permanent loop, alternating moments of natural beauty with unexpected touches of vulnerability. What a disappointment, I guess, on some level, to find it accomplishing all that and more, expertly, with massive exertion but minimal audible creaking. It turns out that there is strange comfort in a ticking clock and an overstamped passport, in cool technical proficiency and highwire stunts executed flawlessly, in beautiful women, exotic lands, diabolical masterminds, and cold professionals forever teetering on the edge of oblivion. Spectre asserts its right to exist immediately and magnificently, with an opening sequence set during Mexico City’s “Day of the Dead” revelries – part impressively complicated overland tracking shot, part rooftop assassination attempt/improvised escape, part pitched, white-knuckle combat aboard an out of control helicopter dipping precariously just above a Zocalo still overflowing with terrified celebrants – that belongs high in the all-time pantheon of Bond thrills.** What constitutes formula in James Bond’s hands, and world, and purview, is rank cliché in any other, but there is also unexplainable, almost unassailable, comfort in those very facts. Bond’s producers understand this intrinsically. His various critics and/or detractors certainly should by now.
**Predictably, some critical complaints have manifested as little more than variations on, “too bad it couldn’t top the opening,” to which I have two responses. First, I paraphrase the late horror impresario Wes Craven, who was as good at creating memorable visual hooks as anyone in his field, ever, and whose paradigm-shifting 1996 slasher “Scream” suffered many of the same disparaging slings after it had the audacity to kill off Hollywood A-lister Drew Barrymore within its harrowing first ten minutes: “To make a really effective (horror) movie, you have to nail the audience almost immediately…but then you don’t have to hit them nearly as hard again until the end.” Simple, no? Second, even if “Spectre” was just an empty exercise in water treading for its remaining runtime – and it most assuredly is not – the Mexico City episode, in which Bond’s vertiginous duel to the death with shadowy functionary Marco Sciarra leaves him with a valuable clue (a titanium ring bearing the logo of an outreaching octopus), is worth the price of admission alone.
As has been the case in every Craig entry since the first, Spectre begins in the aftermath of its predecessor. With Dame Judi Dench’s M killed in the siege of the Skyfall country house, high-ranking MI6 bean-counter Ralph Fiennes has officially assumed her role, and finds himself and his agency under siege from internal threats that want to shut down the 00 program permanently and further neuter the British spy industry by consolidating intelligence worldwide into a consortium of partner states. These are radical notions, not least because China, historically, has hardly seemed a forthcoming or particularly cooperative potential ally, but also because it would involve snuffing out MI6’s license to kill at a moment, with nebulously connected recent terrorist attacks throwing the four corners of the globe into turmoil, that it might conceivably do the most good. James Bond, always more a smart weapon unleashed than a big picture thinker, has long been burning miles and spinning wheels in dogged pursuit of movie-worthy supervillains, only to come up recently against lieutenants rather than commanders, and the thought clearly gnaws at him. Called out by M and suspended for the Mexico City debacle, Bond dives into his new role as rogue freelancer with nary an extra breath, tracking down every loose end he can think of – Sciarra’s widow (the smoldering Monica Bellucci)***, an elusive, now terminally ill, old foe (weathered, sardonic Jesper Christensen), the foe’s independent but compromised daughter (a fiery, mysterious Lea Seydoux) – in an attempt to connect Sciarra’s octopus-emblazoned ring to the larger unrest gripping the world intelligence community. Spectre distinguishes itself in the series by providing larger, fully participatory, and, at times, critical, roles for not merely Fiennes’ newly promoted section head but also Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), allowing the actors a surprising amount of ownership and personal imprint on what, despite their ancillary natures, are still fairly iconic characters.
***A full one quarter of Bond’s romantic conquests must consist of the bedded widows of men he himself has killed.
The world Bond travels in his quest for answers – from Mexico to Austria to Rome to Morocco, with extended layovers in London between each leg and for the finale – is awash with enemies both breathing and below ground. For one, each new turn in Bond’s blunt force investigation seems to point back to the enigmatic Franz Oberholzer, an obscure Swiss mountaineer, presumed long dead in an avalanche, with whom he shares a complicated familial relationship both unlikely and powerful. Leading the MI6 takeover closer to home is slimy British thespian Andrew Scott as “C”, whose motives we’d already be inclined to question even if he wasn’t most famous to Yankee audiences as the devious Moriarty in Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent BBC Sherlock revival. While moonlighting Guardian of the Galaxy (and former pro wrestling champion) Dave Bautista cuts a ludicrously vital and imposing figure as the deadly, all-purpose henchman Mr. Hinx, Christensen’s returning Mr. White appears dressed for and openly courting the grave. Spectre takes the intriguing but ultimately under-realized tact of implying that a cumulative psychic toll has been exacted upon Bond by all the adversaries and unlucky bystanders he’s dispatched over the course of three movies, one which sees him subtly questioning his purpose and place in the world. (See, internet press? Subtlety!) The lovely, inky black opening title sequence, in which Spectre’s trademark octopus ominously crawls over and coils around various signifiers of the spy game to the tune of Sam Smith’s stratospheric falsetto, also features ghostly cameo appearances from fallen luminaries like Skyfall’s Silva (the great Javier Bardem), Casino Royale’s LeChiffre (the even greater Mads Mikkelsen****), and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, who remains the gold standard of all Bond girls post-1977. Spectre is the second straight 00-outing in which Bond’s main foil is character acting royalty so potent that his on-screen identity, not to mention his facial reveal, is hidden until the last moment possible.
****This wasn’t the first time I made a mental note of the fun it might be to revisit the LeChiffre performance now that Mads Mikkelsen has, in the interim, revitalized and, in some ways, redefined the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter through his three seasons of challenging, modulated, Emmy-worthy work on NBC’s late, lamented “Hannibal”.
Just as Casino Royale reset the greater Bond story to Year Zero, so Spectre reboots his greatest enemy, making it no great surprise (and therefore no spoiler) when the very much alive Oberholzer reveals his postmortem name as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For any student of the series, it would almost be a more impactful misdirect, albeit deeply stupid, if Oberholzer and Blofeld were not one and the same, and obviously the name will be meaningless to most all younger viewers. Director Sam Mendes nevertheless imparts a sense of occasion to the unveiling, which five-tool uber-villain Christoph Waltz handles with an understated but knowing twinkle of the eye I found strangely satisfying. Blofeld, first glimpsed presiding over an underground meeting of Spectre associates that ends with a terrifying bit of impromptu corporate downsizing, is, of course, the prototypical Bond villain now reborn – charming, polite, erudite – just the sort of megalomaniacal sociopath you’d want to bring home to mother. Waltz, who you’ll remember won his first academy award as the outwardly amiable but ruthless and calculating Nazi Jew-hunter Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, brings layer upon layer of controlled menace to his portrayal of Bond’s supreme nemesis. The character development is so terrific, in fact, that it’s a real disappointment when Blofeld’s mythical resiliency and seeming omniscience are subsumed at Spectre’s end by his pathological need to play elaborate mind games with Bond instead of eliminating him. The late Roger Ebert called this, in a far less macro sense, “The Fallacy of the Talking Killer”*****, or the pretense that a villain should always choose to flaunt his superiority and viciously taunt the hero with the facts of his predicament rather than simply killing him, thus allowing the latter enough time to engineer a daring escape against all odds. I’m certain Roger would’ve had much eloquent to say re: Blofeld’s possibly misplaced priorities.
*****I also had a moment of warm recognition early on when a car chase was held up by a plodding, oblivious local driver, meandering his way along the tight curves of a two-lane European highway and causing maddening obstructions to the flow of traffic. Ebert called this phenomenon “Fruit cart!”, after the vehicle that so often triggered the gridlock, and later created a rural variant he named “Hay wagon!”, another slow-roller that tended to play havoc with hot pursuits across mountainous terrain. Times change, as they must, and though both examples are now pretty much consigned to obsolescence, the underlying function need not be. It was truly all I could do not to yell out “Smart car!” in the moment, not that anyone would’ve been impressed by my insight. It did earn a wide, conspiratorial grin on the inside.
You remember what I said earlier about cliché? Blofeld’s behavior in the film’s final passages, and, to some degree, Bond’s, strains that particular equation/assertion to its breaking point, though it doesn’t quite sink the movie, which, by this point, has invested too much care in its various set pieces – the scourging by fire of a vast Moroccan chemical plant; a second, even more unconventional car chase, as Bond pursues fleeing Spectre agents down the slope of an Austrian mountain in a grounded, wingless, single engine plane – to flounder fully. I was struck throughout by the degree to which director Mendes endeavored to let the film breathe. Much like the superior but equally flawed (and engaging) Skyfall, Mendes’ camera here is detached but observant, stepping back to purposely allow as much scale into the frame as possible and to bask in natural beauty via gorgeous, attention-grabbing aerial shots, or pulling in to linger quietly on its characters in repose. Spectre, by necessity, hews the closest of any Craig picture to the structure of a golden age Bond adventure like Goldfinger, with which it shares spiritually the scene of the villain’s grand dissertation while at the helm of a truly disconcerting torture device (seriously, 24’s Jack Bauer would have misgivings), or From Russia With Love, with which it has in common a thrilling, highly physical, close quarters, pier-six brawl aboard a speeding passenger train. Though its classical form was held up by some as a liability, I, as a longtime viewer and fan of the series, admittedly pretty conversant in its conventions and idiosyncrasies, could not, and would not, make that same critical leap. I wanted to like Spectre even more than I did, but, in the end, I just had too much fun to discount or dismiss it.
At this point, four films into his cycle, with his modern take on Bond – as the living embodiment of M’s “blunt instrument” concept, full-blooded and fearsome but with an unexpected and inconvenient heart quotient – so well established, it’s difficult for me to see Daniel Craig as 007 as anything much less than an unqualified success, though, with so many scribes of varying motives and legitimacy scrambling to find their own fresh takes on the series, the theses inevitably begin skewing not just toward the negative or provocative but the counterintuitive. You can bet I’ve begun seeing and ignoring that brand of brazen “think piece” as well. They all matter exactly much as does my own review, and so they’re easy enough to dismiss as background noise. I just hated how bound and determined these sites and these writers seemed to be to affect, tarnish, or diminish my experience watching the new James Bond adventure, which is one I’ve traditionally loved like few others, before it’d even had a chance to happen. Spectre is just about exactly what you’d expect out of a latter-day Bond – professional, memorable, brooding, one half conventional, one half spectacular. If it is the least of the Craig cycle, that still places it rather comfortably in the upper half of the overall Bond spectrum, its fellows dotting the landscape just above. I use the word “cycle” advisedly here, because Craig, for all his breathlessly reported protestations, still has one film remaining on his contract, and, for me, the thing Spectre makes most clear is that his interpretation of the character is a five-film deal. This door, now violently thrown open, must be just as definitively closed, and, despite all the breathless contrary speculation in the world, there remains only one man for the job.
“Spectre” (2015) 3/4 stars