Thursday, November 19, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre


Movie: Spectre
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux

Unapologetically cliche and gloriously “old school,” the 24th official entry into the Bond film canon doesn’t promise anything groundbreaking, but while it strays into cinema no-nos at times, it still packs enough humor, action, and old-fashioned charm to bring Craig’s run as 007 to a fun, if unimaginative, conclusion.

In depth:
I confess that I've never been much of a James Bond fan.  Far be it from me to deny anyone else their own vicarious pleasure, but I didn’t fall in line with the peculiar brand of wish fulfillment Ian Fleming’s magnum opus had been selling over the decades.  Although Skyfall, with its masterful score and surprising intellectual force, certainly coaxed a bit of interest out of me, I never saw Spectre as one of my “must sees” for this November.  I stormed the movie theater blind, having no expectation,s really, other than the sense that I’m in for an action-packed, meat-headed power fantasy.  And I was right - but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Though weighed down by a plethora of minor weaknesses and a startling lack of originality, Spectre by and large delivered a fun, frenetic experience, with the expected charm and strength Daniel Craig commands as 007 on full alert, giving us more than our money’s worth.

We first spy our hero in usual Bond style - trailing an apparent evildoer through a spectacularly rendered Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico, but not before giving a random woman (and honestly, aren’t they all random?) his obligatory token of affection before heading back out on the case.  What follows is a chase through the crowded Mexico City streets, culminating in our hero clashing with his quarry on a spinning helicopter above the sprawling.  This is where the classic, inordinately-long Bond entrance kicks in, but we’re already given an eye-opening view of what’s to come.  Daniel Craig, of course, stand strong as the supreme spy, indulging in the usual “Bond perks,” without losing one iota of his unflappable manner and surprising wit.  His responses to the random and often humorous happenings in his immediate surroundings - like falling on a conveniently placed couch while a building around him collapses, or pulling a gun-point interrogation on a mouse sneaking into his room - come off as natural and somewhat understated, avoiding the pitfall of overindulgent goofiness.  Every actor leaves his own stamp in this iconic role, and Craig will long be remembered as a man who meshed both tough guy bravado and effortless charm in a way that hasn’t been seen since Sean Connery graced the screen as “Double Oh.”

The rest of the cast left a bit to be desired, but Craig’s command of his role more than made up for it, and in either case they were at least a touch above “just enough.”  The departure of Judi Dench as M in Skyfall left an unfillable void, since she provided a near pitch-perfect foil to the traditional paragon of masculinity that is Bond.  However, the circumstances of her exit in the previous film did help kick off the current plot, giving a reason (however spotty) for Bond’s presence in Mexico.  Ralph Fiennes takes up the mantle of M16’s head in an admirable but rather textbook performance, playing as if he following a master script of beleaguered bosses, with little nuance or personality - an unpleasant surprise, considering the man’s distinguished background and obvious ability.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone, for if I were to leverage a blanket complaint about the actors as a whole other than Craig, it’s that they seemed simply to go through the motions, adding nothing to their characters beyond the bare-minimum demanded by the weight of what they represent in the Bond Mythos.  The beautiful Léa Seydoux, playing Madeleine Swann, the latest “Bond girl” and daughter of an old nemesis, is virtually interchangeable with any of her Seventies-era counterparts, although her chemistry with Craig is palpable, despite the wide gulf separating their births.  The one notable exception to this is Ben Whishew, who plays M16’s long-suffering but ever-reliable quartermaster Q with a delightful blend of awkwardness and subtle smugness that never comes off as irritating, and actually gives him a more natural rapport with Craig than anyone else in the whole film.

In any other movie, such an admission would be tantamount to a dire condemnation, a character-based foulness in the heart of Denmark, but Spectre avoids the consequences of skimping on the character development by dancing a delicate and difficult line in maintaining the status quo without sliding into staleness and decay.  This impressive accomplishment is owed to a rare triumph of plot over character, cemented by the power of the Bond mythology.  The film’s momentum is driven first and foremost by the setting, and the characterizations, though comparatively thin, at least didn’t leave me wailing and gnashing my teeth.  This balancing act would have fallen to pieces were it not for Craig and his magnetic onscreen charisma, or if his co stars had been less than average; as they stood, I was willing - even delighted - to mostly ignore the actors' shortcomings and dive into the film's manic, high-octane world.

And Spectre certainly sanctifies our good faith, putting the pedal to the metal right from the start, bouncing from Mexico City, to the M16 home in London, and Rome, all while pursuing our film’s shadowy antagonist - who turns out to be none other than Ernst Blofeld, the mysterious mastermind behind the eponymous organization who also harbors a “surprising” connection to our film’s hero.  If it seems like I’m skimping a lot on the details, it’s because I am, but trust me - there's little that can’t be seen from a mile away.  Spectre is a movie held and propelled by a startling kinesis, one that defies easy description. The eternally actified Bond moves through his mission with old school zeal and determination, and must literally be seen in order to be fully understood.  In fact, this very celebration of the “old ways” of doing things speaks out in the side plot running congruent with Bond’s mission: M16, perceived as a relic of old-world spying, risks absorption and eventual dissolution into the Joint Intelligence Service.  This leads to M engaging in dimwitted but relevant ideological battle with the  devil-in-plain-sight leader of JIS, C (played by Andrew Scott), who also advocates a technologically-based global surveillance initiative called “Nine Eyes” that will supposedly replace traditional spies like Bond on the field.  This angle in the story is handled in a maddeningly hammy and meat-headed manner, but it isn’t shoved down the viewer’s gullet, serving only to contrast the (admittedly romanticized) fun and adventure found in Bond’s unrepentantly "classic" style of espionage with the cold, sterile and potentially-abusive threat posed by more “up-to-date” methods.

Just as Spectre succeeds despite its relatively weak characters, it also somehow manages to avoid stumbling over its many other flaws; it goes without saying that there is a lot to pick apart in this film, especially its pacing at some points.  Part of the downside for being such an action-oriented flick is that the stretches between the gunfights and fisticuffs feel that much longer, though I personally didn’t find this to be an issue for most of the movie.  More notable is the polarization strewn from its self-consciously old-school flavor.  The treatment of Seydoux’s character, the blandly avuncular showing by Fiennes’ M, along with the mandatory displays of hypermasculinity, might not sit well many modern audiences - nor, I imagine, would the old-fashioned extended torture sequences that’ll have you screaming “Why don’t you just shoot him?!” at the tops of your lungs.  These are legitimate critiques, and should be weighed in any debate regarding Spectre’s cinema mettle.  However, these disturbances are minor annoyances at their very worst, and the film was so linear in its direction that even the wonky pacing between fight scenes was far less painful than if this had been a less dynamic movie.

I came into this movie as a relative 00-novice, with mostly the older works for my reference besides Skyfall, so I might not reflect the reactions of someone who grew up with or participated in the mythology on a more continuous level.  Still, for all the cliches embedded into its thick-headed veneer,  there is a firm, pitch-perfect action flick pulsing beneath, and one that hardly misses a beat where it really counts.  It may not be the best Bond film ever, or even recently, but as long as you withhold your judgements, its energetic plot will carry you along for one wild ride.

Grade: B

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