Spectre – Britain’s Got Talent

As is common British civic duty, every couple of years the British people flock to their nearest cinema to watch their favourite super spy sell them a plethora of high quality goods whilst killing legions of bad guys in various scenic locales. How we laugh and cry before returning home to our repressed British lifestyles, where we sleep in completely separate beds from our romantic partners and queue for hours to pray to images of our beloved Royal Family. All the while, safe in the knowledge that any desire to commit violence or fornicate freely whenever we want has been well and truly exorcised by the fabulous motion picture adventures of a one Mr. James Bond.

turtleneck
X factor. Can you feel it?

In an age of endless reboots, the world’s longest running movie franchise has always looked to the past to reinvent itself. Over the last two decades, James Bond has been a throwback to a simpler more direct time. A time in which Britain still had memories of a colonial empire and lofty ambitions of a global superpower. A time where Britain played some small part in the world as it hung on the precipice of nuclear annihilation in the battle between East and West. Bond thrived in this time.  

Throughout his revival in the nineties and the millennium, Bond has struggled to stay relevant in a post Cold War world. After the short lived Timothy Dalton years left the series in the doldrums, the plot of Goldeneye was tenuously linked to the old struggle with Bond battling ghosts of the cold war among the discarded relics of the Soviet union. In Goldeneye, the conflict between 006 and 007 felt personal and somewhat detached from the modern state of the world.

The movie introduced Judi Dench as Bond’s superior M who famously defined Bond as a misogynist dinosaur and relic of the cold war. These have been the problems faced by Bond over the last twenty years, and whilst addressing them is one thing, combating them is another. Brosnan’s 007 certainly looked the part as he went on to fight a Rupert Murdoch styled media mogul in Tommorrow Never Dies and terrorist oil barons in The World Is Not Enough. As Die Another Day proved, not even 9/11 could provide a shakeup to the formula, with it’s invisible cars and ice palaces, a Bond movie that may as well have been conceived by a child overdosing on lemonade.

I still remember the disappointment after seeing Die Another Day around the time of Bond’s 40th anniversary in 2002. Between Madonna’s awful autotuned theme song, an invisible car and the woeful shot of a poorly rendered Pierce Brosnan parasailing over rolling waves. The character may as well have been taken out behind the shed and shot. Happy 40th indeed. All the while, the likes of Bourne and Tom Crusie took the spy flick in new and interesting ways.   

Fortunately, fast forward to the 50th anniversary in 2012 and the release of Skyfall things could not be more different.

Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond has been the shot of adrenaline to the heart that the series has been lacking for years. His introduction in Casino Royale showed a version of Bond who actually lost more battles than he won. As with Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman, Bond was broken down and built back up again into a more interesting character. No less ruthless or misogynistic but for once, these quirks had some form of explanation and grounding. They lingered uneasily as plot and character developments progressed. Sidestepping 2009’s Quantum of Solace (an unfortunate victim of the 2008 writer’s strike), 2012’s Skyfall managed to make Bond relevant once again in a fashion that both celebrated him as a character and a cinematic legacy with a glamourous back to basics approach.

I’ve already expressed my delight over the scene in which Judi Dench’s M gives a statement at the public inquest on the nature of espionage in our times, as the very enemies she describes advance towards her as Bond struggles to keep up to save the day. It is probably one of my favourite scenes in any film of recent memory. As the attackers knock down the door and shoot out the place. Bond strides out defiantly in front of them as a wall of smoke rises behind him. Espionage is returned to the shadows, where it should be. The attackers flee in panic. Rule Britannia!     

Any movie following Skyfall was going to be a difficult one to make, but Sam Mendes has seen fit to return back to the director’s chair for Spectre. The 24th official Bond movie and fourth outing for Daniel Craig as Ian Flemming’s iconic superspy. Visually speaking, it’s a bold return and there is an air of extreme confidence in what plays out as a very traditional Bond movie, sampling the best bits of the 60s and 70s into something that feels very traditional.  

Bond-helicopter-corkscrew
What other vehicles could they flip?

After a very public incident over Mexico City, Bond is grounded by MI6 until further notice. Ralph Fiennes has replaced Judy Dench as M and is facing a new era for MI6, as British intelligence is merged with a new NSA styled data surveillance organisation headed by Andrew Scott’s C. Having gone to school with the home secretary, C’s plan is to shut down the double-O division and focus entirely upon the all seeing eye of widespread data surveillance. Bond has other ideas, on the hunt of a nefarious organisation led by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) that is somehow connected to the events of Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall and all of Bond’s woes.

From there, Spectre is a globe hopping adventure, visiting all your favourite holiday destinations and basically blowing them all up in all manner of masterfully executed set pieces. Whilst these sequences are thrilling to watch and are beautifully choreographed, the substance and subversions of Casino Royale and Skyfall are missing.   

Spectre would have been a greater movie for Bond’s 50 anniversary because it is, quintessentially, a Bond movie proud and true.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar:

  •         A pre-opening credits opening scene which plays out over a very public event, involving a vehicle going upside down that simply isn’t designed to go upside down in the first place.
  •         Bond’s first romantic encounter with a woman with a somewhat tragic background.
  •         Dr Evil styled meeting of evil minds.
  •         A mute henchman, physically more imposing than Bond.
  •         Car chase optimised with various Q-branch amplifications.  
  •         An On Her Majesty’s Secret Service snowy mountain top base and resulting action sequence down the side of said mountain.
  •         The big bad villain, physically no match for Bond but possessing an array of abnormal quirks (SOCKLESS LOAFERS! IS HE MAD!?), a penchant for torture and a big base built within a crater patrolled by his own immaculately dressed security force and cocktail waiters.
  •         A brutal Russia With Love styled train-board fisticuffs.
  •         The scene in which the villain reveals his entire plan as Bond is strapped helplessly to a chair. Helpless at least to the point in which he wriggles his way out with some Q branch styled Deus Ex machina.
  •         Massive explosions.
  •         Speedboats!

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that unlike Skyfall and Casino Royale, Spectre is the Bond movie made the way your grandma and grandad likes them. For some, this will be disappointing, when you consider the tonal shift of Craig’s previous movies. For the rest, it won’t matter as much. 

Spectre-Dave-Bautista-as-Hinx
double barrelled pistol? Clearly compensating for something…

Casino Royale subverted many of the trappings that come pre-packaged with the character and the Bond movie as a genre all of its own. In many ways, Daniel Craig’s Bond has been in a state of chrysalis for the last three movies. Casino Royale showed the agent struggle with his first kill under his double-0 license, it also saw him have a minor breakdown during the recess of a high stakes poker game. He is brutally tortured by the villain and doesn’t even get to put the bad guy down for good with some witty quip. He loses the girl and his trust in people, he develops a drinking habit. He’s a mess! The entire movie breaks down Bond before building him up to say actual “the name’s Bond. James Bond” line.

Meanwhile, the title Skyfall implied some kind of orbital super weapon holding the world to ransom, but in actual fact turned out to be the name of Bond’s homestead, a monument of a sad and dismal childhood. It depicted Bond being killed in action and MI6 moving on without him. It was a movie where Bond couldn’t even shoot straight let alone fulfil his mission by protecting his superior. These things challenged Bond as a character and explored the very conservative British values we cling to so dearly through the character. Yes there was no speedboat chases, but there have been so many speedboat chases in previous movies.

Even before Casino Royale came out, the actor had to face up to the ‘Bond not Blonde’ naysayers who didn’t think he was up to the task. Most of Craig’s movies have ended with the feeling of – “next time, next time he’ll be Bond”. Thusly, it was only a matter of time before Craig made a ‘proper’ Bond movie of course. One with car chases and nefarious installations contained within craters. It was the only thing they could do after demolishing and subverting the character through the last three movies. He’s ready now.  

There is still a coherent theme running through Spectre, there is still that great magnifying glass held over Bond at various points. Bond is depicted as an unstoppable and outlandish object, hurtling through space at high speed, destined to make huge impact wherever he lands. The critics have been all over over Spectre’s opening shot, a single five minute tracking shot through Mexico’s Day of the Dead carnival, in which we follow a masked character through the crowds who is then revealed to be Bond. Who again, strides out above the masses on a rooftop in a well tailored suit on his way to put down the bad guys as they meet for lunch. It sets the tone extremely well.

If Skyfall was all about misguided perception or how the era of digital transparency actually creates more threats in the shadows than it exposes, Spectre is about the necessity of meeting these shadows face to face, bringing them out in front of the light for all to see. From there, to paraphrase Ralph Fiennes’s newly appointed M, it’s about knowing when to pull the trigger, and when to not. There is a directness to it, which works in favour of the movie’s tone and its disregard for fancy computer tech.

This gives Spectre a license to thrill (sorry) with BIG spectacle and action sequences in the way that only cinema can do justice. It also makes the movie a little more sillier in places in convention of the camper Bond movie tradition. Of course Bond spends most of the movie sporting the very best clothes Tom Ford could muster. He’s supposed to look cool and perform crazy stunts out in the open without a care in the world. He’s going to expose the hacker shadow people in front of everybody, and he’s going to look fabulous doing it! That’s the point! It’s a better excuse than any for Bond to engage in explosions and high speed chases.

James-Bond-film-Spectre
Incidentally, the make of Tom Ford sunglasses especially made for Daniel Craig to be worn in the movie are called the ‘Snowdon’s’. Fight the power and all that.

Daniel Craig may just be the greatest Bond of all time. He’s a man of few words, brash and capable in a tightly tailored suit. Similarly, the rest of the cast at MI6 is all of a top standard, to the point in once thinks they could almost be setting up the group as a kind of Mission Impossible styled ensemble.

Before Judy Dench, M was barely a character, but Ralph Fiennes injects a layer of humility into Bond’s superior. Ben Wishaw as Q gets a slightly larger role than he did in Skyfall as the resident computer genius. Only Naomie Harris as Moneypenny feels left out of the equation, with little or nothing much to do. Her introduction in Skyfall was a great twist, but now that she has been relegated to the office. So too has she been relegated to the sidelines, but at least she gets to have her own mini adventure in a phone ad!

Elsewhere, Lea Seydoux is largely uninteresting as the token Bond girl. A third act development literally has her tap out of proceedings leaving her open to get kidnapped by the villain so that Bond can save her heroically at the end. Dave Bautista as Mr Hinx is a threatening presence and is effective as that mute Bond henchman who must play cat and mouse with 007 throughout the middle of the movie. Andrew Scott channels his inner sleaze ball to play C, a role he is becoming increasingly typecast in and of course he’s going to fall through the middle of the spiral staircase of his gaudy NSA styled headquarters!  

Last of all, you have Christoph Waltz who is perfectly cast as a Bond villain. After Quentin Tarantino introduced the German actor to English speaking cinemagoers with Inglorious Basterds, it was only a matter of time before he was cast as a Bond villain. Waltz has adopted his trademark style of mild mannered villainy in various roles and applies it here with effective aplomb. Funnily enough, it was Tarantino who originally wanted to revisit Casino Royale during the late 90s with Pierce Brosnan and you have to wonder about the indirect effect he had over the Daniel Craig era. At this current moment it certainly feels as if the producers have taken alot of his ideas!  

The biggest problem with Spectre, is that it isn’t doing anything new. Merely telling the same old story with a different filter. We know what Spectre is from the Connery/Lazenby era and thusly, anyone perceived at the head of Spectre is going to hold some kind of expectations in terms of identity. The worst kept secret of the year, involves the revelation that Christoph Waltz’s Franz Obenhauser is none other than Blofeld, Bond’s classic arch nemesis. The film makers are merely going back to the well to bring back the old enemy. It feels like how Doctor Who will always inevitably have to face the Daleks as the old enemy. You may create all new villains or more relevant villains but the old enemy will always resurface.  

blofeld

Though they try to make Blofeld a better fit for contemporary times, the shadowy puppetmaster who can control the media and access any kind of data, ultimately Blofeld just isn’t as compelling a villain as previous characters in Bond’s rogue’s gallery. Blofeld does that annoying thing that happens in all franchise TV shows and movies, where he has to admit he has been behind everything all along. The fact that he is the author of all Bond’s woes never really sinks in. There is no real hook that truly cements him as this all-seeing villain apart from the “well.. computers and surveillance” motif that is the antithesis of who and what Bond is. Added to the fact that Spectre feels it necessary to add in a ropey backstory of Blofeld and Bond having a history going back to their respected childhoods, Blofeld just isn’t the dastardly villain he could’ve been. He’s Christoph Waltz doing his thing again…   

Javier Bardem was a much better villain in Skyfall as Silva. He had all the freakish quirk of the Bond villain yet at the same time seemed to be in on the joke of being in a Bond movie. Similarly Mads Mikkelson in Casino Royale had a deeper nuance, a man embedded in all kinds of trouble. Indeed, having a rookie Bond on his case was the least of his trouble.

Though Spectre does stand on its own as a movie, it is ultimately trying to build a franchise and lead on to the next instalment. Whilst Blofeld has finally been introduced, the film makers are not going to just let the villain lie, he will return for the next movie, they can milk the old enemy for at least another movie. The way Spectre ends, clearly sets up Blofeld getting revenge on Bond, meaning Daniel Craig must come back bigger and more brutal than ever before.

In some ways this is to be expected, as franchise building can be seen everywhere in modern movies and Bond is the oldest running series of them all. James Bond will return once more, as he has for over 50 years, as he will continue doing for the next 50 years. In the end, Spectre is a safe Bond movie. It has been made by a safe set of hands and has gone after the traditional way of doing things. Though this doesn’t stop it being entertaining and witty, with some of the best action set pieces of the year, it’s just a shame the film makers decided not to push the character into more challenging areas. Ultimately, the only real problem with the Spectre is that it is a perfectly decent Bond movie following the best Bond movie of recent memory.         

Glamorous, outlandish, silly and camp. For many, Spectre is the movie in which Daniel Craig fully adopts the persona of James Bond in a ‘proper’ old styled crowd pleasing Bond movie with lots of stunts and exotic globe trotting locales. Whilst it sports the beautiful neo-classical aesthetic of Skyfall and more than delivers in the action stakes, some may be left disappointed in the uninspired way it wraps up all the threads of the previous three movies and makes the big reveal of its villain, whose big evil plan (and hair loss) will presumably be the focus of the next movie. Whilst Bond is back doing what he does best it unfortunately isn’t as interesting as where Craig and Mendes have already taken the character. Fortunately or unfortunately with Bond, depending on which way you look at it, there is always next time.        

But hey! Maybe we’ll get sharks in swimming pools next time?

tactalneckMy Top 5 Bond movies

From Russia with Love [1963]

The only man to beat up Sean Connery is Robert Shaw

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [1969]

The first Bond movie in which he actually lost something.

 Goldeneye [1995]

The only man to beat up Pierce Brosnan is Sean Bean.

Skyfall [2012]

Let us just watch this scene one more tie.

 

Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me [1999]

Because the only man to beat up James Bond is Mike Myers.

 

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