May 16, 2016
Spectre (2015): a spoiler-filled review
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for Spectre!
There are no bad James Bond movies, but… some are better than others. If you liked Skyfall, you’ll probably like this one, but I personally had many problems with Skyfall, and I think Spectre is an even weaker film.
I will praise the cinematography: this is a beautifully shot film, with lots of on-location shooting that milks Rome, Austria, Mexico City, and London for all their gorgeous worth, and a few impressive long takes, such as the shot of Bond taking a jaunt across rooftops during the Day of the Dead festival after waltzing out of a lady’s hotel bedroom. And some of the action scenes are pretty good and well-executed—though none really stood out for me. The most memorable and best is probably the fight scene with wrestler Dave Bautista (his character is called Mr. Hinx, but you’ll only know that from the credits), but that was a bit clumsy, plot-wise, and he literally comes out of nowhere, and the fact that it’s the last we see of him is a bit lame.
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Frankly, Bautista was kind of wasted. He’s supposed to be the movie’s resident Invincible Henchman, but he gets zero lines and mostly just stands around being menacing and doing the occasional evil thing. He’s introduced gouging out the eyes of a fellow Spectre operative in an “eviler than thou” moment, but not only did they not make this method of killing a signature of his (I got the impression that it was supposed to be, but he never tries to do this again, as far as I can remember), he never really does anything other than show up as an excuse for some action scenes, before he dies in the second act. Given the way he was billed, and the way he’s introduced, this is kind of weird.
And if he got the short end of the stick, Monica Bellucci basically got a twig. For all the attention she got for this role, she’s in the film for maybe ten minutes before disappearing forever. It’s a glorified cameo, which makes me wonder why her role was given so much media buzz. Except, of course, the obvious answer: she’s a recognizable enough name to help put backsides in seats.
Oh, and Judi Dench shows up to kick off the story, but this thread is left completely unexplained. Bond shows a video to Moneypenny where M tells him to find and kill a certain man, which we see him do in the cold open before the opening credits. But afterwards? Nothing. Not even a mention. Who was this guy? How did M know him? Why did she want him dead? There was no explanation whatsoever.
Here’s one of a number of forced contrivances that tie this paper-thin plot together: the man in question is Marco Scarria, who turns out to be an operative of Spectre, which Bond is put on the trail of because he nicks Scarria’s ring in a fight. Why did he steal it? Who knows. He didn’t even see the Spectre symbol (which I always thought was an actual “spectre”, but according to the opening credits, it’s an octopus. Oh, well) from where he was. He just saw the silver ring, and he snatched it.
Later on, some terrible technobabble that would make the CSI writers roll their eyes is used to tie this to every villain in the last three Bond films. Apparently, at some point, each of these long-dead people were in contact with this specific ring (did they shake Scarria’s hand? Was that supposed to be it? Or do Spectre agents share rings like dirty needles?) which enables computer genius Q to figure out that everything that happened in the previous three films has been orchestrated by one organization (which is evidently not Quantum) because they left DNA residue on the ring, or something.
I’m tempted to say they pulled this out of their backsides, but of course the first two Daniel Craig films were setting this up somewhat, and while Skyfall gave no hints to this, it does seem that the films might have had a bit of a color-coded naming hint going on: Mr. White, Dominic Greene, Raoul Silva. And the studio only re-acquired the rights to the SPECTRE/Spectre name late in 2013, so maybe it’s just a case of actually having a plan, but executing it poorly.
One of the reasons SPECTRE worked in the Connery films was that both Bond and the audience knew from the first movie that this was who Bond was up against, and they built up the confrontation expertly, right up to the climactic reveal in You Only Live Twice where Bond finally meets the cat-stroking evil genius Ernst Stavro Blofeld face-to-face, whom the audience had been menaced by since From Russia with Love.
And yes, in case you’re wondering: Franz Oberhauser, the character played by Christoph Waltz, is indeed Blofeld in this continuity, but it loses impact since a) it was as obvious a reveal as KHAAAAAN! in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and b) unlike the original series, there’s no build up: Spectre is only named and introduced here in this movie, and we’re merely told that they were behind everything else up to this point (they don’t even bother explaining the finer details of this; it’s closer to the reveal in Day 7 of 24, which was basically, “Yeah, so this random bad guy you’ve never seen before? He was behind everything. And now he’s in jail!”). It’s not that this wasn’t hinted at or anything, but the fact that it’s a “big reveal” kind of misses the point of what made the original so great.
Instead, they give us a very, very lame and lazy backstory to make it “personal” between Blofeld and Bond this time around, to make up for the lack of build-up: Bond, as in the novels, was raised by a mountain climber named Hannes Oberhauser following the death of his parents, and Franz is an original character who’s supposed to be his son, who grew jealous of how his father treated the young James (oh yes, he calls him “James”, so we don’t even get to hear Blofeld call him “Mr. Bond”, which is what he always called him in the older movies, and if you watch Diamonds are Forever, this is even a hint to tell Blofeld apart from his body doubles). So Franz killed his father in (or with?) an avalanche (yes, an avalanche. How, exactly?) and was presumed dead, but apparently survived, took the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld (from his mother’s side, he says), and somehow went from the son of a mountain climber to the founder and head of the most dangerous and sophisticated criminal empire the world has ever seen.
Yes, you read that right: Blofeld, in this continuity, is James Bond’s foster brother, and that’s why he hates him. It’s a “twist” of Mortal Kombat proportions. And they don’t even do anything with it. Sure, Bond is motivated to hunt Blofeld down after learning the treacherous sociopath is still alive, but we don’t learn why until the two finally meet and Blofeld, after giving a guided tour of his evil lair (naturally), tortures Bond (in an admittedly effective scene involving Blofeld sadistically drilling holes into Bond’s skull. Also, his cat is there). And afterwards, Bond just calls him “Blofeld” anyway, so it’s a weak build up with a weak payoff in a weak attempt to capture the enmity of one of the most famous cinematic archenemy relationships of all time in the most clumsy and lazy manner possible.
This scene ends with Bond and Bond girl Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) escaping Blofeld’s high-tech desert lair, in the middle of nowhere, in the most “suspension of disbelief”-defying scene possible. The duo fight past every single one of his guards, Bond shoots something that causes explosions to go off, the pair make it to a helicopter that’s conveniently waiting for them to steal, and then before escaping, they watch as the entire base blows up for no reason. It’s a parody of Bond by this point. Yes, villainous lairs have a tendency to blow up, but this one (which is the hub of Blofeld’s entire operation, by the way; he’s connected to every surveillance network on Earth from here) is as sensitive to gunshots as dynamite is to matches. It’s a wonder why he even arms his guards.
And naturally, not only does Blofeld somehow escape from this, but when he next shows up (having taken an exploding watch to the face), he’s sporting a cartoonish, Donald Pleasance-esque scar down his face, plus he’s blind in one eye for good measure.
We then cut to a rather boring climax on the dark, empty streets of London (the streets of Rome, where we had a not terribly exciting car chase, was equally derelict, as was the train when Bautista showed up, despite being crowded earlier. Where are all the people, is what I’m asking?) that seems suspiciously reminiscent of the one from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from earlier this year. Though admittedly, this one has more explosions.
Between that and having Seydoux as the Bond girl (she was an assassin in the fourth Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol), I have to wonder if someone working on this script got a sneak peek at the story of that one and decided to rip it off. Or maybe it’s the reverse; Either is possible, as is sheer coincidence, but damn is this ending familiar.
The evil plan—Spectre has tricked the world into adopting its intelligence network by engineering terrorist attacks, so they’ll be able to secretly control every security service in the world if they aren’t stopped—is suspiciously familiar too, reminiscent of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, amongst others, only without the plan to kill hundreds of thousands of people at the end (which makes me wonder what the returning Mr. White was talking about. He claims he betrayed Spectre because they were now “too evil” for him, because they’re planning to kill women and children, but given we’ve seen him fund ruthless African militia armies and be involved in a plot to engineer both a drought and a coup in South America, what’s so bad about this?).
Oh, and Andrew Scott, better known as Jim Moriarty from the BBC Sherlock series, is in this film too as C, the guy looking to take over MI6 from M and merge it with MI5, but is secretly a member of Spectre. It’s a neat casting gag—Moriarty is working for SPECTRE!—but he’s more of an enemy of M than of Bond, to the point where M, acting more like a vigilante than the Head of British Intelligence, ends up being the one who fights and accidently kills him. He really exists to exposit some crappy, Skyfall-esque arguments about how men on the ground aren’t needed and are old-fashioned and everything can be done with computers, cameras, drones, etc.
Oh, and M (who’s in charge of a covert intelligence service, and has a section consisting solely of elite government assassins) and C frame this as a battle between the latter’s Orwellian ambitions and the former fighting for democracy. Of all the things for M to take a stand on. Democracy. Yes, I think Captain America is what they’re ripping off here. And M is Captain America.
Also, the two of them have a little exchange which I think sums up the problems with this film rather neatly in a meta sort of way. C, now exposed and under arrest, says he didn’t know that M stood for “moron” and pulls a gun on him, only to find that the bullets have been taken out. M retorts, “I guess we know what C stands for.” And everyone in my packed cinema laughed, because we thought he meant… well, you know what we thought he meant, only for M to say, “Careless.” Yes, “careless”. This sums up the fundamental problem with this film rather nicely. It looks like it’s doing something clever and edgy, but in reality, what it’s saying and doing is rather lame and tame.
And as for Bond himself? Bond is…okay. He is a bit inconsistent, to be honest. This is probably the most lighthearted of the Craig films yet, so there are times he doesn’t seem to be taking this quite seriously enough, given he’s supposedly on a personal vendetta of some sort. The thing is, since we don’t actually learn what the history between he and Oberhauser is until the pair actually meet, for a good deal of the movie, Bond is playing an affectionate parody of himself, notably in the intro which takes his penchant for reckless disregard for collateral damage to a borderline comedic extreme, as he deals with a bomb meant for a stadium by shooting it, which causes a building to collapse (nearly killing himself, and endangering any innocent person who might have been in the area), before fighting inside of (and trying to hijack) a helicopter in mid-air as it hovers above a crowded square, beating the crap out of the pilot while he’s busy dealing with the other guy. In other words, Bond nearly crashes a helicopter and almost kills dozens of people (including himself) in order to assassinate one man whose evil plot by this point has already been foiled on the orders of his dead boss. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, Bond is often a little bit cavalier with public safety, but this is pretty bad even by his standards, especially since in those other cases, it’s usually the bad guys trying to kill him and not the other way around.
It’s only on occasion where Bond seems to be taking any of this as seriously as he should, given he’s supposedly pursuing a bloody vendetta. The scene where he interrogates Mr. White is probably the closest he comes to demonstrating the raw emotion he’s supposed to be feeling, but it’s not helped by the fact that neither the audience nor the script seems certain about what exactly that emotion is; otherwise, he seems rather easily distracted by couch gags, old-fashioned cars, and mice who may or may not be double agents. Craig has just gotten a bit too laid back in a role he might not be very fond of anymore (if he ever really was), and he no longer seems to have much of that gritty intensity he originally brought to the table back in Casino Royale.
The other issue is that he falls in love, which is a problem, because it isn’t particularly convincing. Léa Seydoux is perfectly fine in the role of Mr. White’s doctor daughter (whose doctorate doesn’t really matter beyond her introduction, though). She gives a good, emotional performance, and gets one or two quite meaty scenes. The problem is that the film acts like she’s the One for Bond, even though they don’t really know each other enough, don’t particularly like each other at first, and are probably bonding over the emotional trauma of what they’re going through more than anything else.
The character also spends much of the movie as somebody’s hostage, and while she has an interesting backstory and implicitly a decent set of skills, she never really feels like she “earns” Bond’s love the way, say, Vesper Lynd or Tracy Di Vicenzo did, her admonishment of him as stuck in the life of a killer coming off as rather cliché by this point in the franchise, since we’ve heard it before, and we’ve heard it better.
Given that we know they’re going to go on making sequels, it’s odd that the film treats itself as something of a swansong for Bond (oh God, is that why she’s called Swann? It is, isn’t it?), to the point of pitting him against his classic arch-nemesis one more time, and giving him a girl he can actually settle down with. Some of this might have to do with Craig being not really sure if he even wants to come back for a fifth movie, or if he’s done with the character. The fact that he contributed to the script is telling, though the fact that he was one of four or five people who worked on it also explains the numerous problems with the messy and underdeveloped plot.
Basically, much like Skyfall, I feel like this is a movie made by people who may have some measure of respect for the character of James Bond, but don’t seem to understand him. This is a well-shot film with good-to-strong performances and fairly competent action and dramatic scenes, but it’s undermined by a weak script and one too many in-jokes and poking fun at the franchise, most notably the car chase in Rome where the gadgets fail to work (which is again something reminiscent of Mission: Impossible 4) and the borderline strawman critiques of both Bond and his employers. I was rarely “bored”, but I was frequently taken out of it. While a good deal of it works, the parts that don’t are the parts that matter. It’s a film where the plot is really just an excuse, and it suffers and even embarrasses itself for it.
It’s a film I would watch again, but it’s not making my top 10 Bond list anytime soon, either. It seems like a movie that’s going to get a little more awkward as the years go on.
And Mr. Craig, if you don’t want to do anymore Bond movies, then just don’t. Maybe letting a new guy take over the role will be best for everybody.