SPECTACULAR. BOND MOVIES have always delivered on the exotic, as does this one; where “Spectre” dramatically ups the ante is the level of sheer spectacle director Sam Mendes delivers. The movie begins in Mexico City during one of its Day of the Dead celebrations. Mendes’ camera follows a masked Bond through a thronging carnival of stunningly costumed revelers. The camera snakes past voodoo-esque drummers and vast skull-shaped floats. After Bond’s almost balletic leaps across rooftops, the opening sequence culminates with a woozy helicopter ride that spins and somersaults over tens of thousands of innocent masqueraders below, packed into the city’s ancient centre in one of the many bone crushing close encounter fights of the movie.
And from that moment on, this more introspective of Bond’s (we’re introduced to more of his personal life) never really lets up.
The Day of the Dead was no empty spectacle. Death is at the heart of the action. Indeed the first words on the screen refer to the idea that “the dead are alive”. The story has 007 following a lead initiated by two dead people: a recorded message from Judy Dench’s M and the dying words of his past nemesis, a disheveled reclusive Mr. White (he was the ultimate baddie in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace”). Bond, a man of the shadows as he is described, is driven by the shadows of his past. This is no longer the brightly lit world of “Skyfall”; we’re now in a darker place.
Indeed, much of the action takes place at night… in the shadows. Even the look of the film is grimmer (Mendes changed his cinematographer from Roger Deakins to Hoyte van Hoytema, possibly to capture the look he gave to “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy”)
The plot also nicely links the multiple (recent) villains – Mr. White and Le Chiffre from “Casino Royale” and Silva from “Skyfall” -to the hydra-headed Spectre, magisterially presided over by the oozingly evil Ernst Stavro -“I am the author of all your pain Mr. Bond”- Blofeld (a nasty Christoph Waltz reprising the menace he delivered in “Inglorious Basterds”).
It also introduces us to a proper henchman: Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista – a full time wrestler come action star last seen in “Guardians of the Galaxy”).
We’re accustomed to the Bond villain, but henchmen are thin on the ground: there was Grant (Robert Shaw) from “From Russia with Love”, Jaws (Richard Kiel) from “Moonraker” and of course Oddjob (Harold Sakata) of “Goldfinger”. To this noble lineage comes Hinx, a sneering brute of a man, who, in a wonderfully choreographed fight with Bond, pretty much destroys an entire train (and thereby upping the ante on 007’s last great train fight in “From Russia With Love”). It’s a brilliant fight. Indeed, what’s with Bond and trains? I’d suggest he stay well away from them.
But it’s on a train that he begins his long (and generally unconvincing) courtship with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Colour” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), who happens to be the daughter of Mr. White (Much has been made of the fact that Madeleine Swann, when compared with the likes of Pussy Galore, Onatop etc is a pretty ordinary name for a Bond girl. Less theatrical maybe, but no less referential: remember it was in Proust’s “Swann’s Way” that he discovered the medeleine that sets his enormous work on memory in play)
What makes “Spectre” especially fascinating is that underneath the mayhem and the car chases and the gadgets (all the Bond formula is here beautifully shaken not stirred, even what looks like Goldfinger’s Rolls), there’s an underlying seriousness: the movie explores the spectre of the Edward Snowden world where government surveillance is shifty and unchecked. We’re introduced to a Mr. Denbigh (Andrew Scott…Moriarty of the new “Sherlock Holmes” series), a cocky civil servant in charge of a new snooping agency, the Centre of National Security (Bond insists on calling him “C”). Denbigh is forcing through a world body of security agencies, all sharing secrets in the name of enhanced security. He has also cancelled the double O program (something that was looming since “Skyfall”), having repositioned it as inefficient when compared with the easier omni-surveillance of the state listening in to our conversations and reading our private emails.
But he is no bureaucratic naïf. And, as even M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) eventually find themselves on the wrong side of the new status quo, there are darker forces massing in the shadows.
So, is it better than the high bar of “Skyfall”?
Yes, because Mendes and Daniel Craig (who is credited as a co-producer) weave in this more interesting and somber theme of freedom v surveillance. And yes, because of the heightened spectacle and some moments of genuine hair bristling tension.
But no, because, despite these pluses some of the set piece action scenes…in particular the climatic showdown with Blofeld, isn’t as gargantuan, despite Thomas Newman’s tremendous score (when compared with the climax of “Skyfall”). Bond’s relationships with his two leading ladies also feel artificial and fake: the stunning Monica Bellucci, who plays the widow of a recently executed gangster has a too brief walk-on part and a seduction that is casual even by Bond’s standards.
Léa Seydoux lacks the spunky toughness of Eva Green; she feels lightweight and little more than irrelevant eye candy. And even Christopher Waltz’ Blofeld is no match for the seedy, deranged, Hannibal Lecter- like evil of Javier Badim’s Silva. The arc of the story is certainly better and more intriguing than “Skyfall”, but the writing’s not as clever (even though M’s given a zinger of a line that had the entire cinema laughing).
But who’s really complaining?
Daniel Craig is a magnificent Bond: weathered, athletic, ruthless and sexy. The entire thing is lushly enjoyable, especially at a second viewing (which I heartlly recommend)…cinematic comfort food at its best
But it is of course all just fantasy; and as Ralph Fiennes said recently in an interview’ “best not to be taken too seriously”
So, is “Spectre” just another disposable action flick?
Mendez and Craig had a lot more to live up to than ‘topping Skyfall’. For Bond is more than a successful movie franchise (now in its fifty second year). The Bond figure is part of the mythos of Western culture. He has become through the arc of his adventures from the subterranean Hades of Dr. No, forever defying the dark side of the psyche, to the jungles of Africa, the modern Odysseus, the man of “twists and turns”
“Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, / many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,/ fighting to save his life…” (from the Robert Fagles translation of “The Odyssey”). Bond’s journeys have gripped our collective unconscious like none other in Hollywood myth making. Always the journey is one that leads him away from the order of M, the technology of Q, the fidelity of Moneypenny into a chaos, a heart of darkness, that he must defeat.
And, like every mythic hero, in the annihilation of chaos, Bond remains the focal center of our reassurance. In a world collapsing in on itself through insider malfeasance and outsider threat, Bond is the one dragon slayer in whom we can forever be sure. But where Bond and not say Superman, is the mythic hero, lies in his fallibility, his imperfections, his ability to ‘die’ (as Bond does in “Casino Royale” and, more so, in “Skyfall” and “Spectre”) and be reborn transformed into a stronger life force. Christopher Nolan’s Batman recognized this, and the ultimate triumph of Craig’s Bond is that he manages to invest his death-transcending hero with the wounds and character that give the impression of flesh and blood mortality.
What the mythology Bond offers is that, even in these troubled times, here at least is one hero, armed with the moral certitude we need to rescue us all… from the abstract evil of a Spectre to the more prosaic evil within us all.
SPECTRE. With Daniel Craig; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Mobical Belucci; Lea Sedoux; Naomi Harris. Dir: Sam Mendes. Writers: John Logan; Neil Purvis; Tobert Wade; Jez Butterworth. Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composer: Thomas Newman