Movie Review: Spectre (2015)

SPECTREThere’s no denying that the chapters of the James Bond canon, featuring the narrow-faced, steely-blue-eyed Daniel Craig, have been a drastic deviation from the tone, themes, and portrait of the Bond of yore. While previous Bonds—embodied with varying degrees of charm in Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan—have come fully formed with casual bravado and convincing chauvinism, Craig’s Bond has been a melancholic, post-modern deconstruction of the infamous spy’s tragic psyche. In the revisionist roots of the sly gamesmanship of Casino Royale (2006) Bond loses a true love; in the deplorable Quantum of Solace (2008) he turns his inward pain into outer vengeance; and in the last chapter Skyfall (2012) he succumbs to his license-to-kill coldness after the death of a mentor. It’s a pathology ventured with the mistake that darkness equates depth, as each step brings the tortured, compassionate spy with unnecessary baggage closer to the legend originally conceived by Ian Flemming. And with Spectre—the latest and probably last of the Craig driven Bond series—the transformation is complete, there’s no more explored catharsis, and we’re given the most traditional of the Bond films since the later Brosnan years for better and for worse. There’s a modicum of entertainment to be found in the intended escapism, but the film is marred by convoluted storylines, an unnecessary continuation of Bond’s personal history, and a failure to bring a romantic cohesiveness to each sequence rendering the final product ultimately unfulfilling. Though Spectre will certainly entertain general audience goers and thrill the inner Bond nerd with references, it’s still a film guided by annoyingly overt homage, an uninspired formulaic structure, and missed opportunities to find genuine character depth in its supposed (but likely) final chapter.

A devout fanboyism and self-conscious franchise awareness for James Bond has been the creative force behind the Craig years. Whether it’s been the screenwriting originators Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, or the additions of John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) for Skyfall (2012) and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) for Spectre, there’s always been a consistent dialogue with Bond’s past films, personalities, and dynamics. Even throughout Spectre there are notable allusions to previous chapters: an international crime syndicate of global terror from Diamonds are Forever (1971); a brutish, mono-syllabic, and almost indestructible henchman from the likes of Goldfinger (1964) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) (including an homage to an infamous train fight); and a flagrant mimicry of the character personalities that have defined recurring Bond characters, including Q’s (Ben Wishaw) loyal yet lecturing persona and Moneypenny’s (Naomie Harris) stern flirtations. However, Spectre is unfortunately plagued with an odd continuation of a story that already struck a note of finality in Skyfall (2012) as the previous trilogy of films uncovered Bond’s secretive, traumatic past, explained his misogynistic womanizing through the resentment of lost love, and his mentor had been replaced by a new M (Ralph Fiennes), a full-circle embodiment of the early Bond films. Because there’s nothing left within Bond to expose and no character depth to be explored, Spectre comes off as exhausted for ideas—embracing creative mimicry over creative originality. There might be some charm ingrained in its cold-open, mission brief, then mission traditionalism, but it’s a departure from what has made this revisionist series so interesting to experience. Predictability drains a palpable sense of danger from the proceedings, and unfortunately Spectre simply navigates a familiar, even though relatively entertaining landscape, never finding its own distinctive flair or sinister attitude.

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It doesn’t help that the entire film is structured around faulty plot mechanics and a predisposition for convoluted additions; an aspect surely contributed by the fact that there were four screenwriters involved in the film’s creation. Spectre contains enough plot, storyline deviations, and notable villains to fill numerous Bond chapters to the brim, whether it’s Bond going rogue to begin an international incident, a new bureaucratic boss who seeks to dissolve MI6, or even the discovery of a global terror network with clichéd aspirations for world domination. Add on even more details (not insights) into Bond’s past and repetitive, simplistic lectures on the surveillance state and drones, and Spectre begins to weigh heavy on the viewers endurance as expository information takes precedent over character depth, dramatic revelation, and thrilling action. It’s all an exercise in excess, both of the plot and visual kind, that is a good indicator of the series’ exhaustion and inevitably gives evidence to the decree that you can have too much of a good thing. Craig’s own exhaustion and disdain for the franchise has been made quite clear in recent interviews, and through his never changing gaze that tiredness begins to show within a performance that’s emotionally uninvolved and increasingly stale. The addition of Blue is the Warmest Color’s (2013) Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann might give a bit of energetic charge to the affair, but the supposed chemistry that ignites between Bond and Swann is never convincing and is insultingly assumed. But a film can only be as good as its villains, and though the towering Dave Bautista makes for a convincing thug, it’s the lacking toned down performance of Christoph Waltz as the classic Connery era villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld that removes all sinister pertinence to the film. Instead of an imposing, megalomaniac of the Dr. No and Goldfinger variety we are instead given a vengeful tech-geek with severe daddy issues. James Bond, his villains, and the storylines should be made with more mythic aspirations.

For director Same Mendes, there might have been immense pressure to match or even surpass the existential provocation and visual extravagance of his earlier effort Skyfall (2012); a thought that could give us some insight on the unevenness of Spectre. But however irregular the final product of Spectre might be, there’s still a great attention to detail Mendes applies to his work, which saves his second Bond feature from becoming a disastrous affair. From the Touch of Evil (1950) inspired tracking shot opening during Mexico City’s celebration of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) to the superb fight sequence on the train somewhere in North Africa, Mendes applies a visual language to Bond that is vividly lush and immensely exciting. With the help of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) the multitude of exotic locales—including the golden tint of Morocco, the marbled grays of Rome, the white purity of the Austrian alps, and the prismatic Mexico City—are gorgeously captured in a classic adventurous appeal. Also every action sequence is meticulously staged and then beautifully edited by Lee Smith (Inception, Ender’s Game) while given a kinetic undercurrent through Thomas Newman’s (Wall-E, American Beauty) score. But even though each separate sequence is carefully constructed and pristinely executed—with notable examples that include the train sequence, the budding relationship between Bond and Q, and the exceptional assassination cold-open in Mexico City—there’s no presence of connecting majesty or inspired grace that weaves the entire film together as fulfilling entertainment. Mendes’ Spectre is so inelegantly constructed with apprehensive backstory, unclear character motivations, and layers of convoluted scheming that the splendor of the production inevitably falls flat when paralleled with the script’s ineptitude. It’s a desperate addition to a trilogy that never convinces us of its credible existence, and never really expounds upon its already established foundation.

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Spectre adds nothing to the post-modern, revisionist foundation of the previous three Craig driven films; a trilogy of vivid, potent, and brooding exploration into the psyche of the beloved spy that modernized, humanized, and expanded upon the basic elements of previous Bonds. Mendes’ second Bond feature contains all the essentials for a classic, traditional, and familiar Bond film adventure: exciting action sequences, villainous scheming, exotic locations, character repartees, and an array of cars, gadgets, and weapons. However, it simply doesn’t increase our understanding of Bond as Casino Royale through Skyfall have done, giving us at best a second-tier addition of Bond’s cinematic legacy. Perhaps the intention was to continue Bond as we have always known him from the franchises of the past and to recognize that his arc had been complete and he could, as M stated at the end of Skyfall, “Get back to work.” Still, Spectre is haunted by its previous trilogy’s deepening of character and clarity of plot (minus Quantum of Solace) attempting to bridge itself to the revisionist creation while also trying to break free from it in a traditional approach. If this latest chapter of Bond is indeed Craig’s last encounter it’s certainly an unfitting and unfulfilling end to a series that was created with the intention of deconstructing a pop-culture icon. Though the action sustains a valued energy and the delicacy of the production makes it beautiful to look upon, Spectre simply doesn’t convince us of being a valuable chapter in exposing the deep characteristics that define James Bond.

Grade: C+

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