Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review - Spectre

March 31, 2016

Spectre – UK, 2015

Sam Mendes is a talented director. This is not in dispute. Daniel Craig, to his credit, has breathed new life into the Bond character, moving him past the jokes and intended silliness of the earlier films and allowing the series to move in a slightly edgier direction. Apparently, however, neither one of them has the clout in Hollywood to prevent the monstrosity that is Spectre. Either that, or they looked at the script and smiled, thinking to themselves, “Well, I’ve always wanted to remake On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” And a remake is essentially what Spectre is.

After a confounding opening scene which has Bond in Mexico City intent on assassinating a terrorist instead of trying to question him, we’re treated to one of the worst opening credits ever to introduce a Bond film. This one features people in shadowy silhouettes engaged in acts of intimacy while tentacles from a hefty octopus slip around them, a disturbing image in more ways than one. That it is accompanied by one of the worst Bond theme songs ever recorded, Sam Spade’s Oscar-winning “Writing on the Wall,” seems somehow appropriate. Years from now, people will watch this scene and wonder just what the Academy was thinking. It may have been wiser just to re-use Louise Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World.”

From there, the film begins to run to automatic. Bond is once again going rouge – in truth, when isn’t he? – and his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), is once again trying to keep him in check because, as previous Ms can attest, they’ve always been able to in the past (sarcasm intended). Bond enlists Moneypenny and Q in his endeavor to investigate a stealth organization that may and may not exist and that may or may not be coordinating attacks all around the world. At one point, M even utters the predictable sentiment that Ethan Hunt is on his own. Oops. Wrong movie. Same plot, though.

Where was I? Oh yes, Bond is on his own. From there, we’re reintroduced to an old nemesis, Mr. White from Quantum of Solace of all pictures. He has a daughter whom Bond vows to protect in exchange for information, and soon the two of them – Mr. White is long gone by then – are racing against time to find the location of a clandestine organization known as Spectre. Yes, you heard that right. The organization whose members for six films sat around long rectangular tables and plotted to take over the world during the Cold War. The organization that built lair after underground lair and always seemed to be led by people whose first response to Bond was to invite him to dine with them. The organization whose leader had his henchmen sit on chairs above flaming furnaces so that with a touch of a button he could send them to their deaths. Yes, that Spectre. At this point, it is appropriate to ask, “What in the world were they thinking?” 

Of course, this is not that Spectre, per se. There are no sharks with lasers or assassins that throw hats. However, it is still a Spectre that plots world domination through terror and technology, it is still run by a man with a fluffy white cat, and, during one of the more frustrating moments, its leader still invites Bond to dinner. He even arranges for him to be offered champagne before their meeting. Thankfully, there is a slightly plausible back story that explains his cordial treatment of a man intent on destroying his organization, but it still doesn’t make up for its corniness.

There are parts of Spectre that are meant to touch on modern-day issues, in particular drones, data mining, and government surveillance. In the film, a system has been created to monitor everyone everywhere at any time, and this is being heralded as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism and evil in general. With the still-festering controversy over the NSA, the increasing number of security cameras recording the movements of average citizens, and the current argument over whether governments should be able to access and monitor smart phones, the film could have had a lot to say about modern defenses, civil liberties, and the ability of criminals to use well-intended technology against us. However, the film limits its arguments to the impact the technology will have on traditional spies. In addition, it presents the new head of this organization as such an insensitive and conceited jerk that it is obvious from his first appearance that he’s one of the villains.

Alas, Spectre is one of those films in which every plot twist is telegraphed well in advance, and I suspect that even viewers who have not seen George Lazenby’s only Bond film will not have any difficulty predicting what eventually occurs. Perhaps this can be said of the spy genre in general. More egregious, however, is the film’s lack of a competent villain. To be fair, the film makes two stabs at it – the first with Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a great actor, but he too is a victim of the film’s poor script, for at no point is the character even remotely menacing. Perhaps the character never was, not even when he was eluding Sean Connery’s Bond.

This version of Blofeld speaks well, delivers a long monologue on a piece of meteorite, and uses a slow, methodical delivery to give the appearance of a man capable of exploding at any moment – and I didn’t buy a moment of it. Perhaps worse is the film’s attempts to depict him as a master at psychological warfare. To accomplish this in a key scene, the following has apparently occurred off screen in surprisingly little time: someone has been kidnapped, bound, and hidden in a rundown building, arrows have been scribbled on the sides of walls telling Bond which direction to go, a row of cells has been lined with bullseyes of Bond’s face, and in other areas black and white photos of people from Bond’s past have been placed on the wall to remind him of his past adventures. Finally, Blofeld has been positioned at the end of a long corridor behind a long strip of bullet-proof glass a la Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Put that way, the scene is downright ridiculous.

The second character is Hinx, played by Dave Bautista, formerly of the WWE and more recently of the box office smash Guardians of the Galaxy. Bautista was a bit of a revelation in that film, which showcased his action pedigree and revealed his excellent comic timing. Here, he’s reduced to playing a personality-less henchmen. His scenes consist of just action and violence. In fact, calling the character Jaws without the humor would not be that far of a stretch, and after such a promising start to his post-wrestling career, it’s disappointing to see him used in this way.

And that is the word I would use to describe Spectre as a whole, disappointing. Its lack of originality is disappointing, its cliché-laden script and the uninspired laziness that it took to write it are disappointing, and the confidence with which someone felt a film like this deserved a running time as long as this one has is disappointing. Spectre is Bond at its worst. It is not Moonraker-bad, yet in a way, what Spectre does is even more egregious. Moonraker, while clearly trying to cash in on the popularity that space adventures had at that time, at least told a story that was an original Bond experience. The makers of Spectre, like JJ Abrams and his recent Star Trek reboot, felt so little of Bond fans as to give them something they’d already seen and expect them to be grateful for the little effort that went into it. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. Clearly, many millions of dollars went into making the film. It just didn’t all go where it should have.

In my review of Casino Royale, I said that Daniel Craig’s James Bond was not the one from previous films, and I listed a number of things that this Bond had never done. That list now has one less item, and the Bond universe is a little worse because of it. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

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