Friday, December 04, 2015

The Spectre of James Bond

Geeks are a whiney lot. They are notoriously difficult to please and obsess over every nuance, gesture and detail in search of any hint of discrepancy that will alter or dishonor the object of their passion. I count myself among them even though, like Groucho Marx, I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member. As a lifelong 007 geek when that word meant someone who bit the heads off of chickens in the carnival, you have just entered my wheelhouse.

So get the cheese ready. I'm about to pour the whine.

SPECTRE is such an appropriate title for the latest James Bond film, but for many of the wrong reasons. Its predecessor, the game-changing SKYFALL, set the bar so high that it could be the specter looming over its follow-up, the quintessential hard act to follow and the pressure on the Bond crew to outdo it has had some unfortunate effects this go around. I'm not about to write SPECTRE off as a disappointment because there is so much it gets right. But with that, so much does not.

From the git, expectations were through the roof, especially with the brilliant pre-title sequence set at a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. The opening shot, an extended sequence taking a page of the BIRDMAN (or TOUCH OF EVIL, if you'd rather) playbook, begins with a parade until the camera picks up Bond and a babe strolling down the street, into a hotel and finishes with 007 on the rooftop as if on his way to work. It ends with Bond and bad guys duking it out in an out of control helicopter over the heads of parade revelers below. A really sensational sequence that quite frankly steals the whole movie,  I felt relieved and ready to settle in for the ride..

The opening titles, in and of themselves a rarity these days for some inexplicable reason, unfortunately give this Aston Martin some engine trouble. The song, a sad sorry number by Sam Smith that I have previously complained about in a previous post (LICENCE TO TRILL) is bad enough, but Maurice Binder successor Danny Kleinmann's visuals are positively...or negatively, rather, creepy. Danny Craig's oiled up naked torso groped by adoring females and the homage to tentacle porn put me off more than Pierce Brosnan's torture in the opening credits of DIE ANOTHER DAY.

This sums up the entire experience for me, a series of extreme highs and lows that by the end left me more troubled than truly satisfied because frankly, I admit to have been spoiled by the previous outing and expected something more cohesive considering the talent involved. However, I am aware that the producers of the Bond franchise often shoot themselves in the foot more often than not so I lay many of the film's shortcomings at their feet. Sam Mendes pulled off the impossible with SKYFALL,
a recognizable directorial vision. This time around, there seemed to be so much emphasis on trying to make lightning strike twice that it appears forced, awkward and something a Bond film never has been, clunky.

A few other elements rankled me as well all within the confines of  a car chase scene through Rome. While maneuvering his Q tricked out sports car through the city streets and back alleys with a deadly assassin hot on his trail, Bond insipidly calls Moneypenny mid-way for some casual banter and unnecessary plot exposition, taking the piss completely out of it and transforming into excess without success. Toss in a couple of bad gags leftover from the Roger Moore era and the movie not only takes a step backwards, but falls sharply on its ass in the process.

On the other hand, the cast is near-flawless with some of the new faces introduced in the SKYFALL shining brightly. Ralph Fiennes' M continues to impress and when Ben Whishaw as Q is given more to do, the movie is better off for it. Dave Bautista's silent killer works his pro wrestling experience (the first of that profession since Peter Maiva-Dwayne Johnson's grandpa-in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) into an excellent train fight scene. Christoph Waltz underplays his main villain role to fine effect, though some of the quirky nuance he brings to Tarantino characters would have been welcome to help feed the initital delight of his casting in the first place.  The two big reveals of his character, a combination of Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK IN DARKNESS and AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER, became something the filmmakers should have avoided like the Black Plague. Monica Bellucci was a welcome addition who fortunately lived to see the end credits. And Lea Seydoux overcame her poorly written character as Bond's main squeeze with great finesse, not an easy task for such an ill-conceived character. Much has been made of the Bellucci's age as a Bond girl, which is noteworthy on the surface until Bond runs off with Seydoux, nearly half his age, at film's end.

Daniel Craig, the James Bond for this generation has been reportedly and understandably burned by the making of SPECTRE, but it doesn't show on the screen. He's certainly looser here than he ever has been, even allowing himself a sense of humor (blissfully pun-free). Physically, this film has certainly taken its toll upon him and since he's invested in the entire enterprise, Craig receives a co-producer credit, a first for any actor in the role. Despite his misgivings of one more time at the helm, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in Bond 25, but given his personality, I'm sure he'll wearing his cranky pants again.

So glad to hear a Thomas Newman  musical score again (not entirely sure he worked in an instrumental of that awful title song) and while cinematographer Roger Deakins couldn't come to the party this time, Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot HER and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, fill his shoes superbly. While I've kvetched enough about the story, there are superb individual lines and exchanges strewn within such as:
"Why did you come?"
"I came here to kill you."
"And I thought you came here to die."
"Well, it's all a matter of perspective."

The attempt to reboot the criminal organization known as Spectre (hence the title) worked for the most part by tying in all the elements from the previous three films together, though I wonder why Mathieu Amalric's Dominic Greene, the villain from QUANTUM OF SOLACE, was missing. The desert fortress in the crater became a touchstone to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE's volcano lair, as do some other callbacks to previous entries in the series. The finale wraps up in London, something the series has never done before, putting a rather lovely bookend to the Craig quadrilogy. However, SPECTRE reminds me of the recent FX TV version of FARGO. That show works best when strays away from the source material and becomes its own entity. SKYFALL, it being the 50th anniversary recipient, was able to walk the tightrope between past and present, often seamlessly. Here, the references seem an afterthought, forced and repetitive, muddying the waters of the Bond legacy.

When I eventually rewatch SPECTRE, which of course I will do because, well, that is what I do, I may reassess many of the drawbacks I found upon this initial viewing. In order of how I rank the Daniel Craig Bond films, I rank it number after SKYFALL, CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Not a weak effort, just overblown, overdone and ultimately, not enough, goddamn it.

Sorry, James. But according to the final tag, you will return. And so will I. It's what we do.

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