Sunday, December 06, 2015

Spectres and Apparitions

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond, Spectre (2015, directed by Sam Mendes), has a valedictory quality to it, as if it intends to sum up the previous three films and tie them up in a tidy bow. This is a film haunted by the ghosts of past Bond films, both in the text of the film's action set-pieces and in the way it establishes a continuity with its predecessors. I don't know if Craig is planning to make a fifth Bond film, but if he isn't, this is a film where he can exit the franchise and not look back. Craig has his transcendent Bond film, something the last three Bonds never managed. If his last turn in the role (if it IS his last turn in the role) is less than transcendent, well, there's no shame in that.

Note: here there be spoylers.

The film opens with Bond pursuing an off the books assassination in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration. It goes spectacularly awry when the building where his target is meeting with his contacts explodes and the target hoofs it to a waiting helicopter, prompting an aerial hand to hand fight to the death. When he arrives back in London, Bond is called on the carpet by M, who is feeling pressure from the new combined intelligence agency to close the double-oh program. Surveillance is the new watchword, and Britain's new universal surveillance capacity is being overseen by "C", who disdains boots on the ground. Bond doesn't care. He's following his own agenda, one given to him by M's predecessor, and one that leads him into dangerous territory. He's stumbled upon a shadowy organization that's behind seemingly every bad thing happening in the world. There's a pattern to it. It leads Bond to Italy, where the wife of the man he killed in Mexico lives in fear of her life. She knows too much, and she gives that knowledge to Bond, who attends a meeting of this secret cabal, only to be identified and flushed into the open by a figure from his own past. Bond escapes to Austria, where the next thread is the daughter of Mr. White, a man associated with Quantum. Quantum, to whom Bond dealt a blow two movies ago, turns out to be a shell group for the real enemy. Bond is tracked there by the silent and brutal Mr. Hinx, the new number two man replacing the man Bond killed. He's met there by Q, who has an encounter with assassins of his own. Bond manages to extricate himself, but now he's roped Q into his circle of confidantes, as well as Madeleine Swann, White's daughter, who identifies the enemy as Spectre. Meanwhile, M and C attend a summit on security where a combined surveillance accord is vetoed by the South Africans, much to C's consternation. Subsequently, there is a terrorist attack in Johannesburg, nudging South Africa into ratifying the accord. Bond smells a rat, but his hands are full. Spectre has a secret base where nothing appears on the map. Bond and Madeleine travel there and are entertained by Hans Oberhauser, a man Bond thought long dead. Oberhauser was his adopted brother. Oberhauser is using another name now--Ernst Stavro Blofeld--and he's the author of all of Bond's misery...

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

One of the things that bothers me about this James Bond film and the last one is the diagramatic way its screenwriters have constructed its plot. I had enough issues with Skyfall mimicking the plot of The Dark Knight and The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness. If you're mimicking Into Darkness, arguably the worst of the Star Trek movies, you've got a problem. Like Into Darkness, Spectre does the "let's conceal the identity of an iconic villain as a gimmick" dance, even though everyone in the audience knows who that villain is. The movie is named "Spectre" for fuck's sake, so why be coy? This among the most generic of Bond films, with bits and pieces assembled from other movies, and which is very much of its moment in time when it comes to the conventions of making film product. And that's what it feels like. Product.

Oh, this has a veneer of professionalism. Sam Mendes is a more than competent director so it would be a real surprise if he rendered this as an unwatchable film. Purely on the basis of filmaking moxie--to say nothing of its capacity to take its subject matter seriously--it's better than all of the Brosnan and Dalton films and most of the Moore films. But that's not where the bar of excellence is set for the Craig films. That bar was set by Casino Royale and the subsequent films have struggled to match that film's excellence.

Daniel Craig and Ben Whishaw in Spectre

The main attractions here are Craig's surly version of James Bond and the set-pieces for which the series is famous. In this regard, Spectre starts with a doozy: a long-take shot that follows Bond through a Day of the Dead celebration and into the apartment of a paramour and out onto the rooftops to his mark for the assassination he's been tasked with carrying out. It's a bravura piece of filmmaking even if it's digitally edited and not a pure long take. This is as pure a distillation of Craig's Bond as the series has ever offered. The subsequent helicopter scene is almost a comedown given that it's composed in a more rough and tumble chaos cinema fashion. The snow chase in Austria mid-film is a classic Bond sequence that manages to echo past films--particularly On Her Majesty's Secret Service--without directly aping them. This isn't true of Bond's fight with Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx aboard a train, which is deliberately constructed to echo the fight between Bond and Grant in From Russia With Love. It's a sequence that intrudes on the narrative with its allusion.

Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, and Léa Seydoux in Spectre

The main plot, concerning a worldwide web of surveillance lacks something when it comes to getting the juices flowing. It's not Goldfinger trying to irradiate Fort Knox or Alex Trevalyan taking control of an orbital EMP weapon or even Lex Luthor trying to sink California. There's a distinct lack of imagination involved with this plot, even if it does have a real-world resonance. This is the Bond film as reflection of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. In theory, this should ground the film in the kind of gritty realism that Casino Royale promised in its opening passages. Instead, it renders the Bond film mundane, even if it does present an international terrorist organization run by Bond's archenemy. This plot also resurrects the plot thread of the double-oh program under threat that was first introduced way back in GoldenEye, when Judi Dench's first scene as M directed withering scorn at Bond as a dinosaur. This time, that scorn comes from Andrew Scott's "C", which would carry more weight from another actor. Scott is fine, I guess, but when you put Professor Moriarty in charge of a branch of the secret service, you set off alarm bells with the audience. I'm also less sanguine about the introduction of a personal connection between Bond and Blofeld. This is a flaw with a lot of contemporary arch enemies. It's not enough that Blofeld is evil. The film has to make him specifically related to Bond. This is something that Skyfall did, too, when when it gave Silva a personal vendetta against M. This goes back to GoldenEye, too, as it so happens. I'm sure that super spies make personal enemies, but when you have a lot of these kinds of plots, it becomes less and less plausible.

Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Craig in Spectre

The returning supporting characters are one of the film's strengths. I'm very happy with what these films have done with Moneypenny, who is shown to have a life--a sex life, no less--without Bond. Ralph Fiennes is good, too, as Mallory, the new M, and the film gives him a more active role than is usual for the part. Q is more active, too, and Ben Whishaw mostly nails the nerdiness and steely faith in his technology. And yet, this film still dwells in the shadow of Judi Dench, who departed in the last film. She's still pulling Bond's strings here from beyond the grave, and the movie doesn't give the new supporting cast the benefit of forging a new path except for what she has already laid out. I guess this will be left to the next film, assuming Fiennes, Whishaw, Naomi Harris, and even Daniel Craig himself return. The film remains haunted, too by the ghost of Vesper Lynd, and to a lesser extent by all those men that Bond has killed in the line of duty. Blofeld makes a point of reminding Bond of the body count he's amassed. Bond has never been a particularly noble character and this film seems intent on exploring that ignoble nature while trying to redeem him, at least in part.

Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig in Spectre

Léa Seydoux in Spectre

The two "Bond girl" guest stars this time out are Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux, who are both better actors and more substantial movie stars than is usual for their roles. Bellucci made headlines as the oldest actress ever to play one of Bond's paramours, which is ridiculous. She's only four years older than Daniel Craig, after all, and as this film demonstrates, she still looks fantastic in a corset. More to the point, though, she brings a certain amount of gravitas to her (brief) role, and manages the not-inconsiderable feat of not being killed as the initial female co-star of the film (see Skyfall for an egregious example otherwise). Léa Seydoux is just as fierce a presence, particularly given that her first reaction to Bond is contempt. She's an antidote to the women of past Bond films who have fallen into bed with Bond after no acquaintance at all. The relationship between Bond and Madeleine Swann is one of the film's best qualities: it's not the same kind of men's magazine fantasy the series has indulged in in the past. There seems to be a real connection between the two of them. The film's last scenes suggest that the relationship might last and that the relationship actually has meaning for a Bond still scarred by the treachery of Vesper Lynd.

Christoph Waltz in Spectre

I want to like Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. On paper, the pairing of actor and role seems perfect. The movie certainly goes out of its way to give Waltz the props for the role: collarless jacket, cat, eventually the scar on his face. Waltz tends to underplay the part, which is a defensible choice I suppose. The film itself undoes him. The lackluster evil plot is not compensated by its villain, unfortunately. If ever there were a part where the actor should chew the scenery, this is it. It needs it. And it doesn't get it.  This, combined with the ill-advised personal link between Bond and Blofeld tends to undermine Blofeld as a memorable supervillain. As a result, Spectre is less terrifying than real-world terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda or Boco Haram, and a cartoon villain should at least inspire fear. This film's villains inspire a shrug.

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Unknown said...

Great summation of the film's pluses and minuses. I can always count on you to get it right.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Now I'm blushing.