Spectre - Another Review

Let's get one thing out of the way. The Blofeld family connection twist is one of the dumbest ideas to appear in a Bond film. It should have been torpedoed the moment it was even suggested. Octopussy and The Living Daylights was the final James Bond offering by Ian Fleming and published posthumously in 1966. A slim volume, the first story Octopussy concerned a murder victim named Oberhauser found frozen in an Austrian glacier. James Bond is personally involved in the case as Oberhauser was a mentor to him after the death of his parents. "It just happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one." The story is the flimsy basis for some ludicrous retroactive continuity in Spectre.
The gunbarrel is in the right place at last but the opening sequence in Spectre is overblown. It's trying too hard. Contrast this to the intro in the last Mission Impossible film (if you saw it). Ethan Hunt hanging on the plane and he gets caught in the cargo hold and makes his escape. Bang. Cut to the titles and music. It's economical and great fun. The whirling helicopter sequence in Spectre has some poor effects work and is very predictable. We know straight away that Bond is going to throw everyone out of the helicopter and then wrest control of it at the last minute and fly off. I don't think there is anything more to say about Sam Smith's song. He's taken enough flak already. The titles by Daniel Kleinman are not his best and he seems uninspired this time. The beginning seems to borrow from his titles for Goldeneye and the octopus theme is rather disconcerting.
Ralph Fiennes as M - I can't say that I'm warming to old Gareth much after this film. Bond and M were better off in the vintage films where M was some grumpy old duffer in an office who gave Bond his mission. There was something cosy and unshakable about MI6 in the Universal Exports days. In these new films you wouldn't trust them to look after your dog let alone national security. M is hardly ever in an office now. They might as well have Fiennes and Bond as a double-act in the field next time. Naomie Harris again fails to give Moneypenny any personality. Ben Whishaw is hard to dislike as the shy nerdy Q even if his diction sometimes makes him sound like a time traveller from the Victorian era. If they rebooted again Whishaw is the only one I might possibly consider keeping but I still tend to think this is a part for an older actor. The script (for reasons that escape me) seems to insist that M, Moneypenny and Q are like Ethan Hunt's Mission Impossible team and should end up driving around in a van together like the characters from Scooby-Doo.
How many people, I wonder, wrote Spectre besides Purvis & Wade. John Logan has a credit, someone called Jeb Butterworth has a credit. When Spectre was released in Britain I heard Sam Mendes say that he allowed Daniel Craig to improvise some scenes. Hmmn, I can easily picture Daniel Craig - the king of improv - knocking them dead on Whose Line Is Anyway? He'd be a natural with that stonefaced expression. It makes you wonder anyway how a film with a budget of obscene gazillions ($245—300 million according to Wikipedia) can go into production without a clear sense of what it wants to be and with such an up in the air story and screenplay. Spectre has an identity crisis. The first part doesn't feel that different in tone than Skyfall. Another act plays like Die Another Day. Then it changes course again and ends like an episode of Spooks. There is about 40% of a good film in there somewhere. The rest is mediocre.
Mendes said that he wanted Spectre to have a sense of mischief and not be similar to Skyfall. That doesn't really excuse the dire script. I don't know what he was doing when they enticed him back to direct the film. The stage show of Fungus the Bogeyman. It doesn't matter. Having decided to come back I'm sure he began with grandiose plans and ambitions to make a great picture. But Mendes must have realised that no one - including him - had a good story up their sleeve or any idea of what to do with Spectre. Or the SPECTRE organisation for that matter - beyond just having them in the film. That is literally what they do. They simply have SPECTRE in the film with Blofeld looking at screens in a control room. In the old films the the villain was usually out for world domination or planning an outrageous heist. They never really explain here what exactly SPECTRE does besides make money from Mafia type activities and monitor things on screens like a security guard manning the cameras in a supermarket. The treatment of SPECTRE is ill-defined and superficial.
With no great screenplay in place and deadlines looming it seems as if Mendes had to fall back on more jokes and some goofy action set-pieces - not to mention a daft underwritten villain. He had to fall back on some of the very tropes that he usually sneers at. If you are going to to make a James Bond film that seeks primarily to entertain (surely the purpose of James Bond films - a place to escape from our troubles and the world for a few hours) and return to the days when humour, escapism, panache, charm, adventure and an ultra sophisticated hero were staples and the traditions and conventions of the franchise were sacred do you really want this in the hands of Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes? It's not their cup of tea. I like Woody Allen films but I wouldn't want him to direct Robocop 4.
All the talk about Spectre being a return to Classic Bond is somewhat misleading too. Half of Spectre is Sam Mendes trying desperately to inject some sort of drama or emotion into the film and the other half is flippant and padded out with some bland action. Mendes flounders with both the dramatic elements and the more traditional elements. The torturous attempt to weave all of the Craig films together in Spectre is painful.
The surveillance subplot is the strain of Spectre that feels most like Mendes trying to stick his oar in. A piece of Snowden inspired wish fufillment that presents a world where intelligence services and spymasters would be up in arms about snooping and data collection. Aren't these the very people who are snooping and collecting our data in the first place? The other strain is Blofeld. Cuckoo indeed. Reinventing Blofeld as the embittered step-brother of James Bond is such an amazingly bad idea. I'm astonished it wasn't nixed along with the tentative early plan to make Blofeld an African warlord or female.

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz came to prominence through the films of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is a sort of bizarre ultra violent arthouse version of Mel Brooks, gleefully riffing on different film genres and historical periods with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Tarantino is the ultimate cultural magpie, enthusiastically ransacking and regurgitating the B-pictures of his youth right down to their wobbly red title cards. He should be at the back of every screening throwing stale popcorn at the audience. Tarantino's indulgent overblown trashy kitchen sink approach to filmmaking is both a strength and weakness but he imbues his films with a great sense of style.
Tarantino's films are notable for their pedantic (pedantic in a good way) dialogue heavy scenes. People in real life don't speak like characters in Tarantino films but the love of language is very charming. The way words are cherished and enjoyed. Waltz has an acting rhythm that appears to have been cloned in a laboratory purely for the purpose of acting in a Tarantino film. I love the way he practically has to compose himself and take a breath before embarking on each new dialogue scene that Tarantino has written for him. It's like he enjoys these loquacious speeches so much that he doesn't want to waste them. Sadly, Waltz doesn't get anything memorable to say in Spectre. At all. It's not his fault. It's the fault of the screenwriters. So Waltz is left standing there with no socks on delivering these low-key lines. Not only that but when his helicopter is shot down (by a Walther PPK from some distance away!) he's made to look weak and stupid. This man can manipulate the entire world and yet he can't even plan a simple escape in a large city?
London is starting to get overexposed in films lately, not just James Bond. It doesn't help that they always seem to shoot in the same places. Do something different if you insist on a London scene. The Sony leaks highlighted the problems with the third act and how it needed to be changed. We can assume then that Spectre's strangely low-key third act in the capital was written on the hoof. I never found myself engaged by it.
The Austrian scenes looked pretty and had some promise. This was the part of the film that engaged me the most after the dull parts in London and the bland Rome section. The Aston Martin DB10 chase was drained of any tension by Bond being so relaxed that he had time to talk to Moneypenny. The chase had no oomph at all. You could argue that Spectre begins to collapse in on itself around the time we arrive in Tangier and then meet Oberhauser.
The humour in the film is rather weak and clumsy. "I'm Mickey Mouse asshole. Who are you?" What? In the Alpine clinic there's a line where Bond is given a health drink and tells them to flush it down the sink and "leave out the middleman." It's no threat to Oscar Wilde. The Hildebrand safe house? I wasn't that far off. Three years ago I suggested the Risico Bar & Grill would be in the next film. Léa Seydoux is not as forgettable as some recent Bond women and you can see she's trying hard with the character but the love story in the film is never hugely believable. She seems to suddenly decide she loves Bond when he's being drilled in the head. Dave Bautista's Mr Hinx feels like a missed opportunity with only a couple of scenes allocated to the character. And where were the staff on the train when Hinx is throwing Bond around in the kitchen?
As for Bond, I would like nothing more than to enjoy Daniel Craig in these films but as hard as I try I don't get it. He still seems miscast to me. We have a scene in Spectre where Bond plays chess and it struck me as unrealistic that Craig's Bond would play chess. A game of intellect and patience. What a state of affairs. I don't think Craig is much of a Bond fan and I don't think it fulfills him as an actor.
Spectre seems to have hit the wall with this particular iteration of James Bond. Let's hope we've seen the last of backstory Bond.
- Jake

c 2015 Alternative 007

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