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Film Review: Spectre

Spectre (2015; Directed by Sam Mendes)

A strangely underwhelming payoff to the first real sustained multi-film narrative arc in the James Bond movie franchise, Spectre dramatically shows its hand after three films of hints and clues about a shadowy criminal organization headed by an ultimate antagonist to Brit superspy Bond (Daniel Craig) and reveals… well, not much at all. The Craig-led Bond Saga inaugurated by series reboot Casino Royale seemed to be building to a grand and maybe even compelling crescendo following Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, with its revenge-driven muscular relentlessness and undercurrent of progressive political outrage, and Sam Mendes’s spectacularly gorgeous and surprisingly emotionally consistent Skyfall. But while Mendes – the first Bond director to helm two franchise entries in a row since John Glen completed a five-title run with Timothy Dalton’s last Bond entry, Licence to Kill, in 1989 – delivers some killer action sequences as well as one of the most extravagantly huge explosions ever committed to celluloid, his Spectre falls short of the comparatively lofty thematic and character arc targets set for Bond by recent installments.

This failure, perhaps, lies not at the directorial level but at the screenwriting one. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, consistent scripters through the Craig-era Bond movies, are credited along with Skyfall co-writer John Logan, with polishes by Jez Butterworth. This team effectively advances the continuing plotline concerning the changing nature of intelligence and national security in Britain and the world and the hands-on (in more ways than one) 007’s initially creeping but increasingly headlong-rushing obsolescence in a milieu of international mass data collection and totalizing digital surveillance. The craggy Craig, his stony features at once betraying nothing and revealing everything, has proven a good match to a treatment of the character that is allowed to subtly betray formative past traumas, lasting emotional attachments, and persistent internal doubts about his physical, mental, and moral fitness to continue as an international assassin and espionage agent in an age of hackers, drones, and highly-motivated but motivation-less mass-murdering terrorists. This conflict over the future of the intelligence world is played out predominantly in subplot in Spectre as a mostly-bureaucratic political deathmatch between Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes, fully succeeding Judi Dench’s version of the character, who met her end in Skyfall) and Max Denbigh or “C” (Andrew Scott, underused and too reined-in), who leverages government connections and private donor funds to erect a globe-spanning G9-type organization of intelligence data collection and analysis to replace tired old MI6.

What Spectre‘s script does not accomplish effectively is the combining of this incrementally-building (potential) critique of mass government surveillance and security-state overreach with the climactic unmasking of the titular shadow-conspiracy organization, headed by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (if that is his real name, and it isn’t), who could only be played by the current master of old-fashioned, self-aware, menacingly elegant Eurovillainy, Christoph Waltz.  Where Quantum of Solace semi-audaciously suggested that intelligence agencies like Bond’s MI6 were complicit in the cycle of exploitation and deprivation maintained by brutal developing-world authoritarians and profit-hungry transnational corporations, Skyfall explicitly made the cynical neoconservative point that those agencies’ immoral and illegal actions in the shadows were really the bulwark of democratic freedoms. Spectre‘s only point is that mass surveillance and digital data collection is here to stay, cannot and ought not to be dislodged, and need only be kept out of the wrong hands.

Those wrong hands belong to Spectre, its insidious, tentacular reach into all facets of the world symbolized by its octopus logo. This organization and its megalomaniacal leader occupies a central place in Ian Fleming’s Bond mythos (and in successful spoofs of that mythos), and Spectre‘s creative team is so giddily eager to pull back the curtain on them with just the right clever flourish that their hands slip on the tug-rope. The reveal of Oberhauser’s true identity is meant to be a shock, but it carries no meaning to James Bond himself (who despite being tortured when it is dropped still manages a wry quip at its expense) and is little more than a nostalgic intertextual easter egg to the audience. Furthermore, Bond escapes Spectre’s clutches and lays waste to the master plans of his supposed arch-nemesis with such relative ease (and such a very big boom) that it renders the last act of the film, built up as the conclusion of a four-film mega-arc, oddly perfunctory, anticlimactic, and disappointing.

Much of Spectre‘s early stages are fortunately less deflating. It cold-opens with a bravura tracking, explosion, chase, and precarious helicopter fight sequence set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead (Bond first appears disguised as a death’s-head skeleton figure, the most on-the-nose reference to his angel-of-death role yet in these movies). It’s impressively staged and shot by Mendes (the first sustained tracking shot is a stealth homage to the opening shot of Touch of Evil, one fancies) and his capable director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema (Christopher Nolan’s resident cinematographer, he crafts some lovely and epic images here but is simply not an artist of the calibre of Skyfall DoP Roger Deakins, not that many living or dead cinematographers are), and looks to have been dumbfoundingly expensive. Bond then tantalizingly romances the Italian widow (Monica Bellucci, who has always seemed purpose-built for a Bond woman role, in what is unfortunately no more than a cameo) of the man he tossed from the chopper to gain access to a secret Spectre meeting in Rome. He is exposed, and then pursued by the organization’s formidable hitman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, who can do much more than these imposing thug roles even if he does them this well).

A hybrid species of Bond’s two most memorable wordless assassin opponents, the impeccably dressed Oddjob from Goldfinger and the sizable Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Mr. Hinx is 007’s foil in Spectre‘s three most rousing action sequences. First, a luxury sports car chase through the Roman streets and along the banks of the Tiber (they pull skidding donuts in St. Peter’s Square; I wished in vain for a cut to the disapproving reaction of the Pope in his palace window). Second, a spectacular plane-and-SUV chase through the snowy Austrian alps. Third and most visceral, a brutal hand-to-hand fight to the end in a train rumbling across the North African desert. More than Oberhauser, Mr. Hinx’s is Bond’s true equal as an adversary, and after his defeat, subsequent challenges simply seem less daunting.

Spectre demonstrates how far James Bond films have come in this relatively open and ambitious new cycle, but also how far they have yet to go. Its willingness to check off franchise requirements (there’s a primary Bond girl here, played by accomplished French actress Léa Seydoux, but she doesn’t make a strong impression and is reduced to damsel-in-distress stuff at key junctures) is often prioritized at the expense of pushings its themes, the meatiest in the long-running series, into brave new areas. That there is now an expectation of thematic resonance in a Bond movie is quite another thing. No longer is a franchise entry a mere competent frame for a clutch of chases and fights, explosions and smashed vehicles, pretty women and outlandish villains, dry quips and drier martinis. Damn it, James Bond now has to mean something.

Does he, though? Bond has always been a male power fantasy on overdrive, and the Daniel Craig films have complicated and politically situated his avatar status in that regard without meaningfully challenging it. The Bond mythos has, to as much an extent as it feels it can, gotten real over the past decade. Maybe taking steps to break down the core male power fantasy is the only place it has left to go that can really surprise and challenge its audience. Or maybe, as Spectre tends to suggest, it’s comfortable enough returning to the essentially familiar with only minor gestures towards challenge.

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