16 November 2015

First Impressions: SPECTRE

A new Bond film is always a special occasion - after all, we've only got 24 of them. It's the prototype for the modern movie, the modern action blockbuster, a series whose longevity and sustained popularity has guaranteed that everyone in 2015 knows who Ursula Andress is. It's a franchise so eternal that even years of horrible, horrible films in the franchise won't destroy it. It's immortal unlike so many other pretenders to the throne, with a truly interchangeable line-up of actors and directors all contributing to one boozy, womanizing narrative that weaves in the occasional jetpack and mild racism.
Aiieee!! Bond in a tactileneck!

So that brings us to SPECTRE (2015), which comes hot on the heels of Skyfall (2012), which is totally the best Bond movie made in the lifetime of anyone who reads blogs (even if I picked the one that inspired the video game that caused my eyes to bleed in the late 90s). Expectations are pretty high, with most of the core talent returning. The end result is obviously disappointing. We'll get to that, but let's take a second and talk about what works. SPOILERS everywhere, so tread carefully. Or just close the window and never return. I dare you.

SPECTRE unfortunately never gets better than its opening, but holy shitballs, what an opening. It's obviously the best introduction to any Bond film ever, and probably the best of the year. Largely wordless, the camera tracks a Day of the Dead celebration in Los Mexico, in particular one sinister looking douche in a white jacket, and then a mysterious dude in a bones-suit (be Bond for next Halloween!) and mask, strutting with a pretty lady. There's a split second where you see Daniel Craig's eyes, which incredibly convey everything you need to know to identify Bond. It's an intense, analytical focus, scanning his surroundings for both his prey and how he might apprehend him.

It's a little jarring to see Bond in disguise, because he really doesn't go maskless too much. Bond's whole thing is that he never uses codenames, which is what Archer always makes fun of, although he has done worse. But his rapid change into the classic debonair suit gives a solid pay-off. Part of why Daniel Craig works so well is that he can wear the hell out of a suit. He looks so damn good and completely comfortable cajoling around the rooftops of Mexico City, sauntering with determined purpose and an effortless melange of cool, casual, class, and bitter darkness that make it impossible to take your eyes off him.

The scene then escalates more and more with severe repercussions that we eventually learn about. Bond is acting without MI6's jurisdiction here, which makes him more or less a rogue assassin, a point that's eluded to a few times in the picture. All this really deliberate and captivating pacing is lost a bit in the helicopter action sequence that enfolds. There's less an action-reaction flow of beats than a prolonged struggle that gets muddled without significant changes or little consequences to make the action engaging. I wouldn't have totally picked up on this without Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or this video essay. So, thanks a lot for ruining complacent, meaningless action for me, George Miller.

This is something that continuously bogs down SPECTRE. Every time the film shifted into action my mind wandered and waited until we got back to the narrative at hand. So let's talk about John Harrison.

I can see that becoming nomenclature as infamous as "nuke the fridge" but at least Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is finally leaving a mark on pop culture, as ignominious as it may be. I don't totally understand the rationale there - I suppose it's to create this mystery box where the audience doesn't know that a major antagonist is actually in the movie, but there's not a tremendous point when the reveal makes no difference to the protagonists so nothing is actually shocking. It's weird fan service that's actually disservice because it deprives us of hype. Hype us up!

For those of you lost, Star Trek Into Darkness insisted that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing a new character named John Harrison instead of the most classic villain ever, Khan Noonen Singh from Wrath of Khan (1982). Of course, he was revealed to be Khan, and no one really cared because they were told that Khan was a bad dude rather than experiencing any pain that Khan actually caused that was the original reason for the Galaxy to fear him.

SPECTRE swore to its dying breath that Christoph Waltz was Franz Oberhauser and not Ernst Stavro Blofield, who hasn't been seen on film in an astounding 44 years despite being Bond's most classic nemesis. Of course Waltz was Blofield. Technically he's also Oberhauser in the film, but of course he's Blofield. And he is introduced very well. There is an absolute dread to his introduction scene that Sam Mendes draws out with spectacular precision. But the name doesn't matter at all. Why not just go with Blofield the whole way instead of swearing up and down that you're not doing it?

Despite being in the film for a relatively short period of time, two-time Academy Award winner Waltz's Blofield is a totally sinister presence that perhaps walks a line that doesn't quite know how to straddle between menace and goofiness. The final scene in the derelict, bombed-out MI6 headquarters plays like something the Joker would conjure up for Batman - but is that really appropriate for the character of Blofield? The most feared man in the underworld? It's entertaining but doesn't quite gel with the rest of the film.

I'm also curious what Blofield's evil plot actually was. The film wisely avoids any villainous pontificating, but it's still not really clear. Sure he's going to control the Intelligence of the world's nine most powerful countries and stimulate terrorist attacks to stir fear to get what he wants (echoes of this past Friday's tragedy in Paris run strong - although conflating ISIS with corporate machinations is a dangerous fallacy), but then what? He also wanted to destroy Bond, but it's not like he sought him out. I's more happenstance that Bond followed M's orders and wound up stumbling upon Blofield. Speaking of that, how did M get the tip on the dude in Mexico City anyway? She's SPECTRE!

If you can't tell already, some of these inconsistencies start adding up, and despite a film that has all these really great moments the whole of it feels incomplete. There's almost this complete journey from the stripped down, no gadgets, no help, "realistic" Casino Royale (2006) to SPECTRE, which has a lot more of these classic campy elements, but isn't necessarily a campy film. Compare the torture scene in Casino to SPECTRE. Blofield's mind drill machine emulates nostalgic Bond but also don't really fit with the Casino Royale modern Bond. Not like that's bad, they were still good scenes, but it represents this slight tonal shift that's more on the heels of updating classic Bond rather than tearing it down and rebooting it. One has got to think this is motivated by the success of Skyfall. We even get as close as you can get to a secret Volcano lair without being totally ridiculous.

And actually, the torture didn't work, right? Like, it didn't scramble Bond's brain. What was Blofield trying to do? It ended up being another needless scene that didn't offer any lasting damage. Bond is like, picking off guys with expert marksman precision moments after getting a drill in his brain. What the hell?

This is still the most complete Blofield we're going to get in the modern era. Although the reveal that he and Bond were sort of foster brothers sounds waaayy too much like the Austin Powers / Dr. Evil reveal in Goldmember (2002) for me to be totally comfortable. I'm awfully curious to see if they keep Waltz for future installments, even if more and more it seems like the Craig era is drawing to a close.

As far as other baddies go, Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx has a name that slides in very well with classic Big Bond Henchmen, and he's a total menace on screen with another great introductory scene, but Bautista is sort of wasted after he showed he can actually do some acting in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Not like he's not a huge and terrifying presence whenever he's on screen here, but it seems like a step back for him rather than the step forward it could have been had he had a little bit more personality.
Finally, a Blofield who likes milk!

All of this works to finally truly provide an updated Bond for the modern century, although it did so at the complete expense of the normal Bond continuity that only held its previous movies to the loosest standards. It's clear in SPECTRE that this is all the chronicle of a very specific iteration of Bond in a specific stretch of time. It's an odd thing to complain about, but the film had too much reliance on the previous three films, which bogged it down quite a bit. Perhaps that's just because of the odd things it chose to latch on to. I have no idea who Mr. White is, he was never a major character until now, despite appearing in both Casino and Quantum of Solace (2008). I'm also still to this day confused about the nature of Vesper Lynd's death, and it'd be nice if that was something that they focused on as still haunting Bond, and while it's clear that it is, it's clearly on the periphery. Bond is more notable for being solo outings, these were tenuous connections that came off forced instead of relevatory.

SPECTRE also stood out to me as letting all the other cronies get involved, which seemed novel for a Bond film. It's not often that M, Q, Moneypenny, and even good ol' Bill Tanner are all in the mix in the field. I think I liked that aspect. It's certainly more interesting to have that sort of power structure, even if it'd be nice if Moneypenny fired a gun once in a while. She is a trained agent, after all. It's at least better than this.

And that just about sums up where the Bond Franchise is now. No matter how misplaced or misfired things may seem, when you have a fifty-year history to fall back on there's always someone who did it worse. It allows for a forgiving bent to reviews like this, but I'm left feeling really divided over SPECTRE. If I were to slot it in to that Definitive List of Bond Flicks, I might split For Your Eyes Only (1977) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1981) in the 7th spot. That's pretty good, I guess. Its positives end up outweighing its negatives. At least in the first twenty-four hours of seeing it. Maybe I'll change my tune in thirty years.

Oh, and Monica Bellucci was also totally wasted and probably raped. Why didn't they learn to not have date rape after Skyfall? And this wasn't even date rape, it was like, rape rape. Not really okay.

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