Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Spectre (2015)

[Warning: Major spoilers abound. Swim at your own risk.]

There are two” James Bonds, a character notes in the 2015 film, Spectre. This trenchant observation is likely as good a place as any to commence a review of the latest film in a cherished line that goes back to Dr. No in 1962. 

Spectre is the fourth entry to star Daniel Craig-- a direct follow-on from Skyfall (2012) --  and it is a film that is simultaneously not all I hoped it would be, and yet nonetheless of a better quality than many online reviews suggest.

It’s not a bad Bond film (like Diamonds are Forever [1971], A View to A Kill [1985], or Die Another Day [2002]), for certain.

But nor does Spectre ascend to the top tier of 007 cinema, which by my estimation includes From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Licence to Kill (1989) and Casino Royale (2006).

Instead, this 2015 007 installment falls somewhere in the middle of the two-dozen strong pack. It lands, perhaps, twelve or so films down from the top. 

It’s not bad, yet Spectre is still a disappointment, especially given the success of the Bond films in the Craig Era.

Thematically, Spectre revolves around the idea of the two James Bonds; the man that 007 is now (a determined, grim assassin), versus the man he could be (one who takes a chance on life and love, and thus leaves MI6 behind).

Or perhaps the 'two James Bonds' are the man that Bond turned out to be (loyal to queen and country) versus the man he could have been -- Ernst Stavro Blofeld -- one loyal only to himself and his personal ambitions. One scene certainly seems to suggest this latter possibility when Blofeld’s face is reflected or superimposed over Bond’s visage.

The men share a common history, so how did they turn out to be such polar opposites?

Lacking your strong sense of duty, Mr. Bond, you would have been the villain in this particular story, not the hero…

The leitmotif of the “two” James Bonds co-existing in one man is intriguing, for certain, yet is not quite enough to recommend Spectre as an unqualified success. 

Although Craig is again excellent as our 007 in the age of serialized Bond movies, overall Spectre feels like it might be missing a reel or two.

Specifically -- and despite its two-and-half-hour running time -- Spectre seems bound and determined to rush through all its best, most compelling moments, and dwell instead, inside its weakest, most uninspiring ones.

Production values remain impressive, and some moments in Spectre practically pulsate with a sense of the diabolical or sinister. There is real tension in this film, and that quality is worth noting.

Yet when it’s all through, one feels that opportunities have missed, especially since this is the first Bond film of the modern age to put all the pieces -- heroes, supporting characters, and a familiar villain -- in place.

“If you go there, you will cross into a place where there is no mercy.”

On an unauthorized mission to Mexico City, James Bond -- 007 (Daniel Craig) -- assassinates a man named Sciarra. He learns that Sciarra was a member of a secret organization of criminals and terrorists called Spectre.

While M (Ralph Fiennes) grapples with an unctuous underling named C (Andrew Scott) who wishes to scuttle the 00 program and replace it with a vast surveillance state, Bond attempts to infiltrate Spectre in Rome and learn the truth about it

The leader of Spectre, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), turns out to be someone from Bond’s past, and this revelation sends Bond one of the most dangerous and personal missions of his career.

 “The dead are alive.”

Spectre opens with a dazzling and highly effective pre-title sequence.

In this case, I’m not referring specifically to the looping helicopter stunts, but rather to the background detail. We watch as Daniel Craig (no stunt doubles, thank you…) strides out on a high hotel ledge, and approaches a target in Mexico City. 

All around him (or rather far, far below him…) are the revelers at the Day of the Dead celebration. The execution of this composition is absolutely exhilarating. In all the Bond catalog, there has rarely been as persuasive or truly spectacular a shot. 

As Spectre opens, we see our hero in the foreground of the frame, moving over a veritable tide of humanity, and at a very dangerous altitude to boot. There’s no trickery or gimmickry involved, just the authentic thrill of seeing our man, 007 on a mission in the (very) real world.  The tide of movie history is to make the theatrical more naturalistic, the artificial more real, or gritty. This shot -- of Craig in real environs -- takes James Bond quite far down that path way. 007 is no longer a superhero or comic book hero living in a rarefied fantasy world (think: Moonraker), but a man in reality as we understand it.

The successful (and jaw-dropping) imagery of this pre-title sequence is, however, quickly undercut by the opening credits montage and song, “The Writing’s on the Wall.”  

Standing independently of one another, both the montage and the song would qualify as uniformly dreadful, as series low-points. As a combo, they veritably drive Spectre into a brick wall. The images and sounds, the movement and the lyrics, simply don’t blend together well at all, and in conjunction this melange represent the audience’s first recognition that something is amiss, that something has gone wrong from an artistic standpoint.  Our sense are shaken, not stirred, by a creative misstep.

Alas, again and again Spectre seems to repeat this pattern; hopping from victory to defeat and back again. 

For instance, a mobster widow (Monica Bellucci) is introduced in an impressive early scene. She is smoldering, gorgeous, and in desperate need of…rescue. James Bond obliges, and the sparks fly between the two characters.  

The implication is that this character -- Lucia Sciarra -- is a match for Bond in terms of wit and cunning. Like him, she lacks idealism. Like him, she knows exactly what their encounter signifies.

Yet Sciarra appears in the movie for precisely two scenes and then is never mentioned or seen again. She doesn't even get a death scene so she could qualify as the film's sacrificial lamb. This is a criminal, inexcusable waste of a remarkable actress, and a fascinating character.

The new Bond girl, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) looks like a callow child after we've met the widow. And this vapid youngster -- we are asked to believe -- is special enough to make Bond quit the service. 

If there were no other compelling love interests in the film, that might be a plausible outcome. But after the delectable Bellucci’s glorified cameo, the invidious comparisons are inescapable. Sciarra is not only in Bond’s age group, but also, clearly, someone who, like him, has lived life and sees it in a similar fashion.

What's the case for Swann being someone that Bond leaves the service for? 

Why is she more a match for him than, say, Octopussy ("we're two of a kind"), or Melina Havelock, or Solitaire, or any other lover he has taken over the years?

Spectre doesn't make an affirmative case that Swann is "The One" that could change Bond. Oppositely, it makes a case that Sciarra is far more intriguing a personality.  

Still, I liked the plot twist near the end of the film. Swann realizes that Bond will never change and walks away from him, and the relationship.  That's a new wrinkle in the series, the Bond Girl seeing 007 with open eyes, and choosing not to have a fling with him.

As I wrote above, Spectre keeps making the same sort of mistake: introducing a fascinating person or location, and then dropping it like a hot potato. 

After much intrigue, for example, it is discovered that Blofeld has erected a magnificent headquarters in the African desert. From there, he can see the world!  Bond and Swann make a trek there, but after just two or three scenes, Bond blows up the whole installation with a few well-placed shots…the whole bloomin’ thing.

Now imagine if 007 had found Blofeld’s volcano in You Only Live Twice, and instead of exploring that location for awhile, he just destroyed it after about ten minutes.

That wouldn’t feel very satisfying would it? 

Indeed, the destruction of Blofeld’s headquarters in Spectre feels cursory, like an after-thought.  It’s as if the film’s writers have given absolutely no thought, whatsoever, to this location, and how it could be used in the plot.  Instead, it is introduced only to be destroyed, moments later.  

What a waste of some impressive sets. 

What a waste of a villainous headquarters.

By contrast, I should point out, Spectre absolutely features some effective moments.  

After the Widow Sciarra incident, Bond infiltrates a meeting of Spectre in Rome, a very old city.  The architecture suggests age, antiquity, and the idea that such predators upon society have always existed, historically-speaking.  

Then we are introduced to Blofeld, and for his first several moments on camera, he sits with a shroud of darkness obscuring his face.  He is only a silhouette, a shadow, a...spectre.  This sequence feels legitimately suspenseful, and dangerous.  Bond is privy to a world with “no mercy,” a world that few have witnessed, and Blofeld is built up as a real threat; one who draws his powers from the very sinister world he inhabits. 

Later we see Waltz in the role, and the (impressive) actors plays the role far too lightly for my taste. Once Blofeld comes out of the shadows, the fear and terror subsides, and we are left watching an effeminate man wearing loafers and no socks.  He is too much Charles Gray, and not enough Donald Pleasence for my taste.

Later, of course, there is a revelation that ties Bond and Blofeld together. 

They aren’t genetically related (thank goodness…) but they did live together under the same roof for a spell.  

I have read exaggerated reviews which suggest this new origin for Blofeld destroys the entire Craig Era.  

I disagree, but by the same token, I feel that no such “personal” connection is necessary to establish the animosity or, even, really, the link between the two characters. It’s a genuine weakness of storytelling -- a short-cut to thinking -- that Blofeld needs, on his first encounter, to already hate and despise James Bond. 

No, this plot doesn’t ruin the Craig Era. But it sure feels like a blatant and cheap way to manipulate audience emotions. Blofeld and Bond should be alike because they both traffic in the same world.  And because they both kill to achieve their ends. Bond’s ends, however, are not personal, and, in some way, pro-social.  Blofeld is quite the opposite. 

These facts could have been established without the film’s screenplay making them foster brothers, essentially, and their conflict one of filial resentment.

I suspect that Spectre is the pinnacle and final chapter of the Craig Era.  


For one thing, there are numerous call-backs to the earlier films. The villains of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall are all seen momentarily, and name-checked at least once. There is mention of Vesper, too, and we even see her in the opening credits montage.

The debate over 21st century espionage techniques -- raised in Skyfall (2012) -- is also continued here.  Finally, all the supporting characters -- Q (Ben Whislaw, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and M (Ralph Fiennes) are fully integrated as useful team members. Blofeld is introduced too, and gets his scar (and his pussy).

So a new lead actor could come in, with all these ingredients in place, and take over as 007.  There’s part of me that hopes that’s the case. After nearly a decade of “serialized” Bonds, I would love someone to make a  one-off, lounge-lizard, Roger Moore-style stand-alone Bond film; one light and goofy just for the heck of it, but with the supporting team in place.

The other way it could go, and I would appreciate this too: sign Craig for two more Bonds (bringing his total up to six).  

Then, next up, remake On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so that we see Craig's Bond falling in love, marrying, and clashing with Blofeld one more time before the tragic ending. Then, in his last film, the filmmakers could have Craig wreaking unholy vengeance on the murderer of his wife, and slip into the role of the cruel, callous, unemotional Bond. 

Craig should only stay in the role if he is willing to take that two-film journey, I feel, since Spectre has offered his Bond closure. 

In the original continuity, we lost the Bond we had identified with, Sean Connery's, just as the filmmakers depicted his most important adventure (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Now that audiences have a powerful connection with Craig, and serialized story-telling is in vogue, let’s get the gang back together to vet the story of Bond’s marriage, and bloody aftermath.

Will that happen?  I don’t know. But the series needs refreshing after this entry. I will confess that the unstable, inconsistent nature of Spectre -- vacillating from good to bad and back again -- has shaken my confidence in the Bond filmmakers. 

The ‘two James Bonds’ is an intriguing conceit, but it shouldn’t be deployed to express a schizophrenic approach to storytelling, right?


  1. It would seem impossible to discuss Spectre free from the shadow cast by its predecessor.

    Skyfall was simpler in form, its three acts distinct. And while its action set-pieces were fewer, they were also more structural to the larger story movements, more the accumulation of dramatic buildup, amorphous extensions of the individual settings, in turn rendering them near-expressionistic gestures of the story itself: think visually Bond fighting the sniper, summoning rescue choppers, dodging a subway train or running on ice through the darkness, with Skyfall Manor ablaze in the distant background. The whole movie in fact is a very clear work of a single movement shifting in response to the storied fates, or vice versa. It's like a mural.

    Spectre by comparison is, eh, not. It's more of a catchall, maybe even convoluted. It's narrative isn't exactly aimless but the multiple venues do have about them a certain random-play effect. Bond just sorta shows up at all these different places at the whim of whatever the immediate plot-point; the plot itself at once vague and heavily stacked. Much of the action as a result feels ancillary, like rocks thrown crudely into a Zen garden pond. Spectre isn't harmonious.

    And that's what I like about it.

    It's unexpected, indiscriminate, reckless and even downright odd, especially once things start Waltzing. Skyfall may have been of a piece but, honestly, it's only the third act that makes the movie shine for me; everything leading up to that point, while poised, is also a little too preparatory. Spectre makes for a more curious outing from one scene to the next.

    I suspect maybe the casting of Monica Bellucci may have given too much emphasis as to the intent of her character. The world of deadly intrigue does not revolve around Bond but merely hosts him among countless others, each with their own movie-sized trajectories. I took his and Sciarra's interlude as the proverbial 'ships passing in the night' and was happy to see a good thing remain brief, with the weight of Bellucci's femme fatale presence allowing enough counterbalance to suggest that, for a change, Bond is as much a fleeting encounter as she is. Conversely, the draw of Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann is that she's not another Vesper Lynd investment for Bond but rather a clean slate opportunity. Her significance to 007 lies in their mutual circumstance, as both are, in a weird way, abused/estranged bastard children of Spectre. That they come together so casually in the end represents a kind of personal victory over said oppressor.

    This moreover is what adds an interesting quirk to the relationship between Bond and Blofeld—the latter proves a day late and dollar short.

    "It was me, James. The author of all your pain."

    One movie prior, such a revelation might've been for a then still angst-driven Bond a shattering of forms equivalent to Luke Skywalker learning in horror the truth of his father. Yet a resurrection from KIA status followed by the death of M settled a great many things for Bond, and in Spectre he is no longer quite the corporeal being who suffered so much in the previous Craig films; he's even introduced this time around as a skeletal phantom (the real specter) on cruise control, going about clandestine matters more coolly detached than ever before. Blofeld's authorship over Bond rings hollow because it only reveals him as the stepbrother -- the alternate universe Bond -- still chained to the past. This leaves for 007 only the immediate physical predicament wherein he finds himself come the end of the 2nd act, and further cements his disposition with a traditional bit of mockery, wryly motioning for extreme physical torture over another minute of super-villain monologuing.

  2. This I wager is, in essence, the underlying purpose of Spectre, as the above scene in the film marks a turning point where Craig's James Bond truly does, once and for all, become the James Bond of old, the Connery era Bond seemingly impervious to psychological assault because, if for no other way of putting it, he simply no longer gives a shit about Greek tragedies. And what better way to announce this transition then for Bond to gain the upper hand on the situation with a classic exploding Q gadget via one of the simplest and most classic guises, the Double-O wristwatch?

    Ditto for the entire Spectre base going up in incidental fireball with Bond giving little more than a bemused shrug. Maybe it doesn't quite get the super-secret volcano lair treatment one would hope for, but maybe it doesn't deserve as much either. The Blofeld of You Only Live Twice launched rockets into space in attempt to trigger Cold War destruction between nation superpowers. What begins here as an eerily Eyes Wide Shut-esque introduction to Spectre's conference later gives way to a bunch of pervy voyeurs and eavesdroppers of global information gathering headed by a swanky Eurocrat eccentric enough not only wax poetic about the destiny of giant space rocks, but to house one in a specifically designed showroom adjacent to his hidden base in the middle of bumfuck North Africa. Bond blowing it all to shit 14 minutes later is sort of a slap in the face of pretentiousness. There's a slight subversion to Spectre, methinks. A playfulness, but also a meaningfulness. Blofeld is there to show audiences that restitution no longer has any pull over Bond. This is evident enough during their final scene together on the bridge in London.

    I think the cast is good overall. I dig the Bond girls and the supporting MI6 team. While perhaps a hair too familiar for a Bond villain, Waltz nonetheless spun his performance with enough entertaining soliloquy and gave the Craig series it's first genuine fantastical arch nemesis. His sinister plot was on one hand technically nondescript but I also admire the filmmakers for opting to tie together the whole series under a near operatic scheme of evil.

    I've always appreciated Craig as Bond but in this fourth installment I think I enjoy him the most. He's looser here than ever before. Still alert when necessary but also more comfortable, and more open to indulging the offbeat details of the 007 world akin to throwaway moments from Connery and Moore. Early on he falls from a crumbling third story building and lands on a couch; later, during a downtime scene, aims a silencer at a mouse: "Who sent you?"

    I'll definitely agree on the opening song and title sequence. I get that Sam Smith has his particular style but his 'Writing's On The Wall' no doubt comes off a tad man-bitchy, while the credits montage is ostentatious at level that only the Brosnan era could support, and thus spills over into a bit of unintentional camp. That's really my only lasting criticism. The rest of the film has a jazz riff to it that, for whatever reason, just worked for me.

    "Here goes nothing," quips Bond seconds before ejecting himself from a car chase. And I can't help but feel that both the line and the stunt encapsulate Spectre as the likely closer of the Craig era.