Sunday, November 8, 2015

In Theaters: SPECTRE (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth. Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman. (PG-13, 148 mins)

2012's SKYFALL was the best 007 adventure in decades--maybe since 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE--so SPECTRE, the 24th film in the 53-year-old franchise, wisely doesn't try to top it. Instead, it's a pastiche of the 23 that preceded it, with a wink and nod to just about every one of them, mixed with a continuation of what's become a four-film James Bond origin story since Daniel Craig took over the role with 2006's CASINO ROYALE. With Craig's quartet of films, the Bond series has demonstrated a strong influence by both the BOURNE franchise and Christoper Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy, with Craig's Bond a brooding, damaged man driven by rage, revenge, and grief. With CASINO ROYALE and SKYFALL (and to an extent, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, generally regarded as the weakest of Craig's Bonds), the continuing storyline (other than some recurring characters and a couple of later references to Bond being a widower after his brief marriage at the end of MAJESTY'S, the Bond films are typically stand-alone entries rather than direct sequels) has been an attempt to add depth and maturation to the character and to play him more like the hard-edged killer in Ian Fleming's books. It's mostly worked, brilliantly so in SKYFALL (which played more stand-alone at the time but that changes here), but it grows a little stale in SPECTRE, primarily because the payoff isn't worth the elaborate buildup. Four writers are credited with the script--there were almost certainly more who remain uncredited--and the story was said to change course during production. It shows--the first half of SPECTRE is a big, globetrotting adventure of the classic 007 variety, but the second half stumbles, first with a complex backstory for its primary villain that doesn't really serve a purpose, and then with a shift to a secondary villain whose plans just aren't that interesting. Christoph Waltz was born to play a Bond villain, but his Franz Oberhauser is little more than an extended cameo: he has two brief bits in the opening hour--once seen from behind and then again in shadow--then doesn't turn up again until the hour-and-45-minute mark. Why bring this unique, versatile, two-time Oscar-winner onboard and use him so frugally? With the possible exception of Joseph Wiseman in DR. NO,  I can't recall a lead Bond villain having this little screen time. I didn't stopwatch it, but there's no way Waltz is in this for more than 20 total minutes.

As the film opens with a lengthy and quite impressive tracking shot, Bond has gone rogue, tailing and killing a mystery man named Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) to Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival. He's suspended by M (Ralph Fiennes) and injected with a tracking chip by Q (Ben Whishaw) so MI-6 has constant knowledge of his whereabouts. Undeterred, Bond informs Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that the late, previous M send him a cryptic video message before her death (Judi Dench has an unbilled bit) to follow Sciarra, kill him, and attend his funeral. Bond seduces Sciarra's widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), who informs him of her husband's involvement with a global criminal organization called Spectre. Bond infiltrates a Spectre meeting by wearing the outfit's distinctive ring (he took it from Sciarra before killing him) and is outed by its leader Oberhauser. Bond knows Oberhauser, who has been the secret puppet master behind the events of the three previous films, and after escaping from the Spectre headquarters, heads to Austria to protect Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)--the daughter of Quantum operative Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), last seen in QUANTUM OF SOLACE--when he realizes Spectre agents, led by hulking henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista) are after her for what she knows about their global operation.

There's a secondary plot about a weaselly government operative known as C (Andrew Scott) and his attempt to banish M and the entire MI-6 division in order to rely on global surveillance and drones, deeming agents of 007's sort obsolete. Of course, British government officials have been deeming Bond obsolete since the Sean Connery era, and of course they're always proven wrong. SPECTRE wants to be a big, classic 007 adventure and for about an hour or so, it is. But what was initially an interesting exploration into the more serious side of Bond and his tortured psyche (it's interesting that Craig's grim and largely humorless portrayal of Bond has been praised for the same reasons Timothy Dalton was criticized during his underrated, two-film run back in the late '80s) just fizzles when it resurfaces in the film's second half. There's two twists involving Oberhauser and one serves no purpose whatsoever, at least in the sense of raising the stakes for Bond. It's a reveal for the sake of a big reveal, then it falls flat when the film does nothing with it. In other words, not a single thing about the outcome would've been different had that first big twist not been used. It doesn't help that Waltz's screen time is so paltry. Sure, Javier Bardem didn't appear until about 70 minutes into SKYFALL but he was at least given plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff and be an unforgettable villain. Waltz--and what the script does with Oberhauser--had the potential to be the ultimate Bond villain but instead, he's about as memorable as Michael Lonsdale's Hugo Drax in MOONRAKER and Toby Stephens' Gustav Graves in DIE ANOTHER DAY. Waltz isn't the only one ill-used in SPECTRE: the always gorgeous Bellucci, the oldest Bond girl at 51, has an even smaller role, and Bautista's silent (but for one word) hulk Hinx is gone well before the end and isn't around long enough to be more than a predictable retread of Robert Shaw's Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Harold Sakata's Oddjob in GOLDFINGER, and Richard Kiel's Jaws in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

The Craig era gives the recurring characters of M, Q, Moneypenny, and M's Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (a character who's appeared sporadically in the series going back to 1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and played in the Craig films by Rory Kinnear) a lot more to do than they did with the previous 007s (can you imagine Bernard Lee's M taking part in action sequences?), but it's at the expense of the some of the things that make the Bond movies what they are: the villains, the girls, and the gadgets. After the serious, DARK KNIGHT-ization of the character in the last three films, it's time to get over this JAMES BOND: ORIGINS mindset, and that's what SPECTRE thankfully does in its first half. It starts to have that welcome sense of fun, thrilling escapism that the Bond films had back in the day with the formulaic, workmanlike efficiency of a Guy Hamilton or a John Glen at the helm. SKYFALL director Sam Mendes returns here but can't resist the urge to go Serious with the second half, which really implodes in the home stretch (there's also no reason for this thing to be two-and-a-half hours). The action is great, the references are fun (the mountain-top health institute is a dead ringer for the Piz Gloria stronghold in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, and a really hardcore 007 nerd will smile at Q staying at a hotel called "the Pevsner," named after former series associate producer Tom Pevsner, who died in 2014), and Craig still makes a great Bond and even has a few more lighter moments than usual when he isn't still brooding about Vesper Lynd, but SPECTRE is a wildly inconsistent entry that eventually works at cross purposes. It's far from being in the basement with MOONRAKER and DIE ANOTHER DAY, but when the dust settles, it's got a home somewhere in the range of lesser 007s like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, OCTOPUSSY, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, and yes, QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  Oh, and Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall" is now the worst Bond theme ever, which is great news for Lulu's "The Man with the Golden Gun."

1 comment:

  1. Correction: Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No first appears 87 minutes into the 110-minute DR. NO and has less screen than Waltz's SPECTRE villain.