Massive, massive spoilers lie within.
Well, it’s been rather a long time since I’ve posted! Over the past five weeks or so I’ve been flat out at work work, and have also flown the coop into a swanky south-side apartment just minutes from the city. Though I no longer live with them, I trust my family will still rank amongst my most loyal followers, especially now that there is an entire room free in which to do the ironing.
Of course, in the meantime, three years of waiting came to a dramatic close for me last week when, at last, I could with mine own eyes behold James Bond film 24, SPECTRE.
A cryptic message from the past leads James Bond to Mexico City and Rome, where he meets the beautiful widow of an infamous criminal. After infiltrating a secret meeting, 007 uncovers the existence of the sinister organization, SPECTRE. Needing the help of the daughter of an old nemesis, he embarks on a mission to find her. Cut of from MI6 due to complications in the impending merger with MI5, Bond nevertheless seeks the unsanctioned assistance of his allies on his quest to uncover leads. As Bond ventures toward the heart of SPECTRE, he discovers a chilling connection between himself and the enemy he seeks.
SPECTRE was met with acclaim from critics in Britain, but more cautiously from American critics, and here in Australia they’ve tended to be split down the middle. It’s worth remembering that it had the unenviable task of following up the acclaimed 50th anniversary entry, Skyfall – the most successful, best received Bond film of the last 20 years – and I would say it largely succeeds.
Daniel Craig does good work and looks more comfortable than ever in the role of 007; indeed, I would say his deeper understanding of the character mirrors Bond’s own development. He takes the revelation that 007 has rather more unpleasantness than just his job on his conscience, and gives us a man who clings to his thoroughly unpleasant unemployment because that is all he has. This is somewhat emphasised by the charming way Craig plays Bond’s reaction to his successful action movie gambits, seeming pleased with himself when his faits accomplis work out.
Returning for another round are the MI6 crew established in Skyfall – Ralph Fiennes as M, Rory Kinnear as Tanner (M’s Chief of Staff), as Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Q. I could watch Fiennes as M all day – he is quite clearly channelling Bernard Lee’s original iteration from the classic series. Naomie Harris takes on the role of Moneypenny in Licence to Kill – helping Bond from inside the office whilst hell breaks loose around her. Harris once again is a delight; given the small amount of material she has to work with she still gives Moneypenny more depth than she’s ever had before. Q gets out into the field and narrowly escapes death, with Ben Whishaw providing the trademark Q quirk and putting an amusingly modern twist on it. Kinnear’s Tanner is enjoyable, but the definitive version of that character for me will always be Michael Kitchen’s in Goldeneye. However, Kinnear brings out a ‘man of action’ side of Tanner which lends the character a renewed purpose.
The supporting cast is rounded out by Monica Bellucci, Léa Seydoux, Jesper Christensen, and Dave Bautista. Bellucci is in the film for but a handful of minutes, but she gives her all as the lonely, unloved widow Lucia Sciarra. She plays an early but important role as the person who gives Bond the final clue to infiltrate SPECTRE. Christensen returns for the third and final time as Mr White, the Quantum organisation’s mysterious backroom operator from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Mr White has repented his sins, and for his trouble has been poisoned, almost to death. With his dying breath he sends Bond to the assassin from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol…I mean, Léa Seydoux. She is Dr Madeleine Swann. Dr Swann assists Bond in tracking down the last lead towards at last finding the head of the SPECTRE octopus. Seydoux is an inspiration – she is able to fulfil the tropes of Bond girldom and yet retains her personality. There’s a nice will-they-or-won’t-they about hers and Bond’s relationship, which is made more enjoyable by her actual personality. She doesn’t need to say nor do much for us to know she is a dangerous woman with whom one should not trifle. Bautista is well known as a wrestler and the Blue Guy from Guardians of the Galaxy, but here he is Mr Hinx, henchman extraordinaire. His function is largely as a minor inconvenience to 007, though the train fight in which he is involved certainly proves difficult for Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s probably one of the best staged fights in a Bond film, ever, even better than the one in From Russia With Love to which it pays homage.
As expected, Christoph Waltz is scene-chewingly excellent as Franz Oberhauser. His barely contained glee at being able to hideously torture 007 in person is both terrifying and compelling, as are all Waltz performances. Certainly he is a character that we will be seeing more of, and soon, I hope, as unfortunately he doesn’t get much development here.
It’s Oberhauser’s development where the film’s biggest flaw comes to pass. He reveals himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which is done with such dramatic buildup that it is clearly one for the fans. This irked me because it leaves people who are new to the series in the cold – “Whoop dee doo, Basil!” as Austin Powers would say. Speaking of Austin Powers – remember how Dr Evil and Powers turned out to be brothers? And remember how eight months ago I jokingly hoped that James Bond “doesn’t turn out to have a brother who is the head of an evil organisation, because Austin Powers already did that”? Well, look away now because you’re going to be disappointed to discover that, in the rebooted Bond franchise, Blofeld and Bond are stepbrothers. I mean, come on. COME ON. But what’s worse is the way the film deals with it. “James, you stole my dad when your parents died and I killed him in an avalanche as a consequence AND NOW WE SHALL NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN.” It’s a pathetic attempt, and what’s more an unnecessary one, at shoehorning in a reference to literary Bond – in the Fleming short story “Octopussy”, a man named Hannes Oberhauser is referenced by Bond as being “something like a father to me at a time when I happened to need one.” Hannes Oberhauser in the filmic universe is Franz’s father. And after the exchange where the link is revealed, it’s never again mentioned. The function of this plot twist is to create a “two sides of the same coin” dynamic between Bond and Blofeld, akin to Batman and the Joker, but it is so jaw droppingly hokey, so poorly executed, and so utterly wasted, such that I am astonished and disappointed that it wasn’t picked up on and killed by someone at Sony Pictures. It’s so disappointing because the rest of the film is just so good. There’s even a reference to an even more obscure Fleming short story, which I thought was hilariously clever, and it didn’t jar in the way that the Oberhauser one did.
More positively, the music is excellent; Thomas Newman returns from Skyfall and this time he does a better and more bombastic job of creating a Bondian atmosphere. Sam Mendes’ direction is, as usual, second to none and so you can forgive his odd plotting decisions because at least they’re well guided. Visually, the film is good-looking. Not quite as beautiful as Skyfall, but its cinematography compliments the action effectively, with plenty of long tracking shots to satisfy those who like their action uncut. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema comes to the series after working on Interstellar, and more importantly for Bond, the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He nails the gritty shadows of this new Bond era, but he also succeeds in playing up the beauty of the mundane. One of the best shots of the film is of a wide desert landscape, taken from behind the hood ornament on a 1947 Rolls Royce.
Two other random thoughts:
- The car chase between the Aston Martin DB10 and the Jaguar C-X75 is far too short, and considering the level of hype around the film-exclusive DB10, slightly perplexing. Awesomely filmed though, and for the short while it lasted, very gripping.
- Why the hell did they use Courier New as the font for the location captions? If you know the font I mean, you’ll doubtless understand my incredulity. It was almost as offensive as Comic Sans.
Hindsight being what it is, it must be said that Skyfall has some major narrative flaws, which few people drew attention to at the time because it was still a massive, massive improvement on Quantum of Solace. Narratively, SPECTRE’s flow is vastly superior to Skyfall. It moves along at a fair clip and it never bores. It has the perfect blend of grit and lightness of touch that made Casino Royale so successful, and the continuity throwbacks to the rest of the Craig era create a satisfying unity for the four films. SPECTRE even tips its hat at the much maligned Moore era, moments of little consequence but they’re nice for fans. SPECTRE finally answers questions that have been dangling unaddressed since the end of Casino Royale. In doing this it also paves the way for a new, even more exciting plot arc, and I predict that a remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service will arrive within the next decade. I believe that with everything before and after the stupid, stupid brothers thing, SPECTRE redeems itself. Watch it. Love it.