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Coming s007n… Bond returns: The dead are alive – and kicking? ~ Spectre (2015)/ Review

November 1, 2015

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Stephanie Sigman
and Alessandro Cremona

Screenplay by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth

Certificate: 12A; Country: UK/ US; Running time: 148 minutes; Colour

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Note: if you’re yet to see Spectre, this review is a tad spoilery; not too much, but a little…

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There’s a rule of thumb among Bond fans (well, when I say among Bond fans I really mean for this particular Bond fan; not many others tend to share it with me, but hey, their loss and all that), anyway, this ‘rule’ or, if you prefer, ‘law’ could be referred to as the ‘fourth Bond movie mis-step’. The idea goes that for actors who’ve enjoyed successful, long runs as Bond, their fourth adventure tends to be so big and brash that it’s simply overblown, thus a bit of an ill-conceived mis-step. To wit, Connery in 1965’s Thunderball (glamorous but very long with slow underwater bits), Moore in 1979’s Moonraker (aka ‘Carry On Bond In Space’) and Brosnan in 2002’s Die Another Day (Bond vs. Robocop). The question has to be then, does 007 d’aujourd’hui, Daniel Craig, fall into this quattro-Bond-picture trap with Spectre? Is he squids in or is this a tentacle too far? The answer, my friends, is he (along with his collaborators) pulls it off. In fact, you bet his perfectly formed arse he does.

The fundamental reason why Spectre doesn’t just work but heroically succeeds as a Bond film, following in the wake of its most recent predecessor, the extremely well received golden-anniversary-celebrating Skyfall (2012), is because it blends the ambitiously fantastical look, sound and general sensibility of that handful of truly epic Bond efforts from the ’60s and ’70s with the character-focused, pseudo-realistic philosophy of the modern 007 Craig era. It’s big, bold and extravagant and sleek dark, and hard.

And, let’s not be flippant about this, that’s one hell of an achievement. All right, Spectre isn’t perfect (no Bond film so far has been and this one may not be the series’ tippermost, toppermost high), but it scales the heights for sure; so much so, it could almost reach the summit of an exclusive clinic-toting Austrian Alp. Or of a giant skeletal figure to be seen during a bacchanalian Mexican festival. Or of that new, eerily onerous glass tower that’s sprung up out of nowhere on London’s Vauxhall Embankment.

And why has that sinister, shiny glass tower been built right next to the burned-out shell that was once the HQ of the UK’s MI6? The ‘00’-Section (especially its relatively new inner team – returning from Skyfall – Fiennes’ M, Whishaw’s Q, Kinnear’s Tanner and Harris’s now desk-bound Moneypenny) certainly want to know. But they’re left horrified when they learn it’s to be a new home for a combined MI5 and MI6, the Centre for National Security, under the leadership of Scott’s young, cocky new boy Max Denbigh (codenamed ‘C’ – now what could that stand for?).

But what of Bond? He’s got other things on his mind, much to the chagrin of M (whom rebukes him for, pre-titles, going AWOL) and to the consternation of both Q and Moneypenny, whom our man ropes into his clandestine mission. Which has all come about because of a mysterious message he was left just after the events of Skyfall concluded… The basis of Spectre’s plot then is the standard paranoiac stuff of post-millennial espionage fiction (including, of course, the first three Craig Bond movies); where the film significantly departs from its series’ most recent entries, though, is in style and tone.

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There are dinner jackets and there are dinner jackets, this is the latter: a white-tuxedoed Craig and Seydoux appear to approve of Spectre’s rich and glamorous aspirations – and nods to Bond of old

In the style stakes, this is a stonker of a 007 escapade. So colouful and luxuriant is much of the cinematography that the film’s visuality often feels as rich as an entire box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates (DOP Hoyte van Hoytema, you’re definitely spoiling us – Academy take note, if Roger Deakins before him deserved a nom, then Hoytema deserves one too). Austrian Alp vistas fill the screen with pure white or misty, snowy  lakes; Central American carnivals come off so vibrant and brilliant they dance right out of the screen; Rome at night feels like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) made colour (all burnished browns and slivery silvers); and the Sahara Dessert looks positively paradisical, an oasis of golden sand. Composer Thomas Newman (a Skyfall alumnus) deserves recognition too for delivering a score that, although not as dynamic and distinguished as his last one, contains some excellent cues and rises and soars to meet the visuals’ most epic moments.

And in terms of tone, don’t doubt it (you may have been misled by the trailers here) Spectre is, for the most part, of the entertainment-first school of Bond film; more a Goldfinger (1964) or Thunderball, a You Only Live Twice (1967) or Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – with all of which it shares its epic aspirations – than a Living Daylights (1987) or Casino Royale (2006). It’s grandstand stuff, chock-full of action involving helicopters, aeroplanes, speedboats, trains, brand new Aston Martins and villains’ lairs (yes, you read that right, villains’ lairs!); all fast, frisky, violent and explosive, cemented to that lavish colour palette.

Special mention here must, indeed, go to the pre-title sequence, which although it kicks things off is arguably the flick’s tour de force. It’s truly a visual and sonic feast, set in the midst of Mexico City’s Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, opening with a breathtakingly long Touch Of Evil (1957)-esque tracking shot and developing into a genuinely edge-of-the-seat action set piece. It’s the series’ best pre-title sequence yet. Honestly.

Also, Spectre is the funniest Bond film we’ve had for some time. Continuing the trend of a return to obvious humour, sprinkled here and there in scenes, started in Skyfall, this time satisfying comic moments come between Bond and his MI6 cohorts, when the gadgets he’s supplied with (yes, gadgets plural) don’t work as well as they might or work just fine and when he’s asserting his 007-ness in the face of hapless jobsworths, outclassed minions and beautiful Bond Girls. Is this old-school cinematic Bond we’re talking then? Oh yes. At times, it might even be Roger Moore-eyebrow-raising-worthy.

Yet, let’s not get too carried away. As I mentioned above, Spectre is still a Daniel Craig Bond film; it’s not all fun and games. There’s a serious, hard-edged, even arty undertow that every and now again, pleasingly, spurts up and out over the proceedings like a stream of cruel and, yes, crude oil. For, that hard-nosed Fleming influence, which has been apparent in all of the blonde Bond’s outings is here too, all right (Christensen’s Mr White makes a plot-driving return; female leads Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci are souls as haunted and damaged by ‘liars and killers’ as our hero and the baddies Bond’s up against are as sadistic, violent and as emetically twisted and evil as any he’s recently encountered).

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Vandal in the wind: Bond hunts a punk-inspired, enigmatic evil in the now abandoned former MI6 HQ

Much credit for this fine mix of the light-cum-epic and the much grittier ‘authentic’ must go to director Sam Mendes. Unlike with some of his previous dabbles as a movie director (for me, say, 1999’s American Beauty and maybe even Skyfall at times), it doesn’t feel like we’re signpost-like seguing from one tone to another in Spectre; scenes and sequences feel like they more seamlessly blend or sweep into one another. There’s a maturity, a highly confident feel to everything, which is set from the off with that (previously noted) bravura pre-titles opening.

Plus, fans well versed in Bond lore will recognise more than one or two nods to the cinematic 007 of times past (a villain’s old-fashioned Rolls-Royce? Attractive chattering snowboarding girls in an Alpine cable car? And, of course, our man in a red carnation-topped white tuxedo?). Moreover, continuity heads will likely appreciate the fact this adventure, narratively speaking, definitely makes its business to reference the events and mythos of the other three Craig outings.

Having said that, though, with his predilection for playing with different genres and cinematic tones, Mendes happily throws us a curve-ball in the shape of Spectre’s climax – rather like he did with the Straw Dogs (1971)-like finale to Skyfall. For this Bond movie’s London crescendo is, frankly, un-Bond-movie-like. And, it has to be said, feels pretty out of step with much that precedes it. It’s more reminiscent of one of those noir-ish Scandinavian TV detective dramas. And has something of a punkish, even ‘street’ vibe to it. Is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. In its way, it could even be said to be sort of an updated Fleming-esque finish to a Bond adventure, thus defiantly in tune with the Craig era sensibility. But so strong and singular is it, it will surely colour people’s feelings towards the film as a whole (not least because it’s the thing’s climax).

Finally, worthy of more than note in this review, is the one constant in a movie that deftly steps in and out of the classic Eon template and the 007 of today; Bond himself, Daniel Craig. For, as did one or two long-running Bonds in their fourth outings before him (Brosnan in Die Another Day certainly; Moore in Moonraker arguably), Craig once and for all absolutely nails his interpretation of Fleming’s hero here. Yes, it is, as ever, very much his usual take on the role (pugnacious and physical, lugubrious and never one to suffer fools), but it’s also more relaxed, wittier and, frankly, cooler than ever before. As the Bond hullaballoo has grown around him (this time a $300m, two-and-half hour opus that premiered to glorious fanfare at London’s Royal Albert Hall), he’s simply grown in the role; so much so that his performance in Spectre almost feels like the culmination of his personal 007 journey.

Moreover, he enjoys sparkling chemistry with his main co-stars (Seydoux’s female lead is the best since Eva Green’s Vesper in Casino Royale – more a Fleming heroine than Bond Girl archetype – and Waltz’s villain, although deprived of screen-time and some oomph compared to Javier Bardem’s excellent Skyfall baddie, is still a highly enjoyable enigmatic, eccentric antagonist, whom also brings to the party, in the shape of Bautista’s man-mountain, the most memorable henchperson since Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye). If this is to be Craig’s last outing in the tux then, it’s a worthy way to bow out. Undeniably.

And yet, I hear one or two of you clamour to know, what about SPECTRE? How is the classic criminal organisation worked into the whole thing (if it is at all, that is)? And Blofeld; does he appear? And the white cat? Etc. etc. Well, I don’t want to spoil things – too much – with this review, so suffice to say, the whole SPECTRE/ ‘Spectre’ deal is certainly dealt with – and in a way that may surprise some; it’s treated smartly, thoughtfully and intriguingly. All in all then, Spectre is pretty much a triumph of a Bond film. Another excellent entry in the modern 007 repertoire that entirely successfully returns to the series many of its most beloved tenets which some, whom may have felt the whole shebang had veered so far from them in recent years, believed were buried for good. Don’t believe it. Los muertos vivos están. The dead are alive. And kicking.

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