Monday, November 9, 2015

"Spectre" (2015)

Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz and Lea Seydoux
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
Directed by Sam Mendes
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language, some sexuality
Running Time: 148 Minutes

British superspy James Bond (Daniel Craig) causes an international incident in Mexico City when assassinating a terrorist without authorization from his superiors. Bond's actions couldn't have come at a worse time as M (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling to keep MI6 and its Double-O Section alive. It seems a new intelligence chief, Max Dinbergh, nicknamed C (Andrew Scott), has convinced the higher-ups that M's old-school spy section is outdated and outmoded and has managed to build a massive high-tech drone system and networked it with the intelligence communities of nine other countries. This, C says, will eliminate the need for men like Bond, who C believes is reckless.

But Bond, driven by a message from his past, can't let this one go. His investigation leads him to a secret meeting in Rome, where he runs afoul of another ghost from his past: Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), leader of a powerful organization calling itself Spectre. Barely escaping with his life, Bond begins to realize that the conspiracy goes bigger and deeper than he ever expected. Stopping Spectre might take more from Bond than his past — it might mean his future as well.

The 24th James Bond movie. Dang. That's pretty incredible. But how do you follow a blazing hit like "Skyfall"? That film was a massive, gorgeous surprise. With most of the same crew returning, especially director Sam Mendes, the film feels very much in the same vein and definitely wants to be a culmination of the Daniel Craig version of the series. While it offers a lot of closure to this batch of episodes, it doesn't have quite the same impact that "Skyfall" does.

In one respect, this movie probably couldn't be like it is without "Skyfall." One of the aims of that movie was to bring us back to a more traditional version of Bond by the end of it, and in that regard, "Spectre" runs with it — it's a lighter, funnier ride than "Skyfall," and even features a few of the more traditional Bond movie tropes.

Not the least of which is Spectre itself, which for decades was out of reach of Bond's producers thanks to a rights issue. There's that iconic, shadowy organization, a secret lair in the desert, a nigh-indestructible and mute henchman (Dave Bautista), an Aston Martin full of weapons and tricks...

And that both hurts and helps "Spectre" because it also means that it's more of a conventional Bond film, and, frankly, we've had decades worth of those already. It helps to view a lot of those tropes through the lens of "Skyfall," because "Spectre" also feels like these ideas have been pretty modernized.

Stepping back from "Skyfall" to give "Spectre" its own due, the film is exceptionally well made. Daniel Craig is still a fantastic Bond, and gets to be a little looser and have a bit more fun this time around. Sam Mendes directs some incredible sequences, not the least of which is the Mexico City opening. The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Bond through a Day of the Dead parade, into a hotel, back out of the hotel and across the rooftops as he tracks his target. It's one of the longest, most impressive single-shot scenes I've seen. A car chase through the deserted, late-night streets of Rome is gorgeous. A plane sequence in the mountains later is even better.

Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux are the requisite "Bond Girls" in this film, and both do splendid. Bellucci has the far smaller role as the widow of Bond's Mexico City target, who leads him to Spectre, which leads him to Seydoux's Madeleine Swann. Swann, the daughter of "Mr. White" (Jesper Christensen) from "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace," is one of the better Bond girls. She's a more rounded character, one deeply conflicted and resentful of her father and the life he forced upon her. But in throwing in with Bond, she begins to peel back layers of both her father and herself, which makes her more interesting than a lot of the female characters in this series even if she ends up being a rather typical damsel in distress by the end.

"Spectre's" big attempt to tie everything in Bond's life together is perhaps too big of a stretch. It feels a bit forced and artificial that so much of Bond's life comes together here. The writers try really hard to justify it, but it's such an obvious retcon that it feels rather awkward. Christoph Waltz does a fine job as the villainous Oberhauser (though, c'mon, everyone knows where this story is going — hiding it didn't really work for Benedict Cumberbatch, and the attempt is about as successful here). There's a scene between the two of them, one of the classic "the villain tortures Bond, gets only quips in reply" scenes that's actually quite fantastic. There's a great deal of information conveyed in this one scene, and it's capped off by one of the better nods to the old Bond continuity in the film. Waltz is obviously having a good time in this scene, perhaps more so than anywhere else he appears in the film. It's his moment to shine and he takes it.

So if "Spectre" isn't quite as good as "Skyfall," it's still plenty good. It may seem from reading this review that I was disappointed with the film, but the truth is that I'm not. There's a lot to love here for fans, from the usual gorgeously excessive property destruction and gorgeously excessive alcohol consumption, to expanded roles for M, Q and Moneypenny. Callbacks and homages to the older films abound, and a generally lighter tone helps things move along crisply despite a 148-minute running time.

See Also
Casino Royale (2006)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Skyfall (2012)