Flatiron Hot! Critic: Spectre of 007’s Epic Past Haunts Latest Bond Flick!
- Eric Shapiro
- On November 12, 2015
Reported by Eric Shapiro; Edited by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff
An unfortunate pattern has developed in the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise and it doesn’t take a 007 agent, or even an overzealous surveillance apparatus of the kind featured in the latest franchise entry, Spectre, to notice it. Despite the film’s clumsy attempt to tie the last four Bond movies together in a parlor scene in the latter half of the film, the pattern that haunts the franchise’s most recent entry has nothing to do with the various villains and love interests who entered and exited Bond’s life with formulaic inevitability. No, the pattern that I am alluding to arises, ironically, as an unintended consequence of the Craig-era franchise’s greatest strengths.
Casino Royale, which rebooted the franchise and marked Daniel Craig’s first appearance as Bond, left audiences and critics shaken and stirred in all the right ways. It paid due deference to Bond tradition while simultaneously updating the titular character for the 21st century, an approach that entailed greater psychological complexity, better-developed female characters and a brooding cynicism to fit the times.
The follow-up to Casino Royale, cumbersomely titled Quantum of Solace, boasted more ambition and considerably less charm or soul than its predecessor, which many fans consider to be among the best Bond films ever made. Alas, lost in Quantum’s labyrinthine plot and meandering action sequences were all the subtle and not-so-subtle qualities that make a Bond movie a Bond movie. Absent were Bond’s signature humor, charm, wit and passion; in their place was a joyless assassin fueled only by revenge; in other words, a generic action hero circa 2008.
Chastened by the critical and audience reaction to Quantum, MGM followed up a dud with Skyfall, an introspective, thematically rich character study first and foremost and an action movie second. Skyfall homed in on Bond’s relationship with one of the few women he valued for reasons that had nothing to do with sex: Judi Dench’s M. Skyfall, another critical darling, was a mighty tough act to follow, even with director Sam Mendes on board for another film. Would the screenwriters continue with the serious, character-driven approach to Bond, or would they try something different altogether? For better and for worse, they chose the latter option. Spectre, supposedly the product of multiple rewrites, would have benefited from even more of them, perhaps by people with enough distance from the franchise to notice its glaring flaws. It is an overcrowded, chaotic mess of a film overflowing with promising themes and character arcs that, even at an overlong 2 1/2 hours, it cannot possibly address in a satisfying manner. In the end, Spectre attempts to juggle too many thematic balls and ends up dropping some and failing to fully realize others. The writing quality is still superb, but the sheer volume of rich material to service means that every compelling element receives a level of attention that is superficial compared to superior Craig-era Bond films. Unlike Quantum, however, Spectre FEELS like a Bond movie and more than satisfies fans’ insatiable hunger for periodic servings of 007’s world.
Suffice to say, Spectre falters not in its tone, its characters, or its themes but in its schizophrenic ambition. The image of Bond being probed and enveloped by the tentacles of a spectral octopus over Sam Smith’s workmanlike theme song “Writing on the Wall,” is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself, albeit not in the way the filmmakers intended. Spectre’s narrative is being pulled in too many directions by the meticulous tentacles of its screenwriters and, throughout a barrage of stunning set pieces, it never fully commits to moving in one direction.
Some of the film’s paralyzing conflict likely derives from the uncertain circumstances in which it was conceived. Although Daniel Craig is under contract for one more film, the actor controversially stated he’d rather “slash his wrists” than appear in another Bond film. The viewer feels acutely aware that this could be the swan song for this iteration of Bond that began so memorably with Casino Royale. Spectre strives to function as a swan song for Daniel Craig’s Bond while simultaneously setting the stage for the franchise’s future. Unfortunately, it never quite succeeds in pulling off this delicate balance, failing to satisfy as either the end of a quadrilogy or a harbinger of installments to come. Even as Bond himself achieves some measure of thematic closure (which feels more than a little forced at times), supporting characters that the screenwriters seem keen on developing for potential appearances in future Bond installments eat up substantial chunks of screen time at the expense of developing the protagonist, his love interests and, of course, the villain. Consequently, Spectre can feel like a half-hearted ensemble piece but, almost without exception, the film falters when it shifts focus to its dull, cliched thematically anemic “B plot.”
Perhaps attempting to replicate their success in bringing Judi Dench’s M to the forefront in Skyfall (or, more cynically, to justify a star actor’s fat paycheck), Spectre showcases Ralph Fienne’s M as he struggles to prove MI6 is not irrelevant in the world of drones and mass surveillance. The new M even gets his own antagonist. While this may or may not sound intriguing on paper, the execution is excruciatingly awful. Not even Ralph Fiennes’ acting chops are enough to salvage a premise that involves an MI5 bureaucrat attempting to carry out a scheme considerably more implausible and far less entertaining to watch unfold than that of any Cold War-era Bond villain. Regardless of one’s opinion on the controversial issue of mass surveillance, vice antagonist (Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his cat obviously get top billing) is the worst kind of straw man character; his justification for combining the intelligence gathered by the spy agencies of multiple nations come across as laughably ludicrous, even by the standards of the Bond franchise. Worse, in a failed attempt at social commentary, the film bludgeons the audience over the head with a simplistic anti-surveillance message conveyed far more effectively in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another promising action movie weighed down by its own ambition. This unfortunate creative decision would perhaps be forgivable if the scenes dedicated to it were emotionally resonant or at the very least self-aware enough to function as a sort of parody. Instead, we are treated to scenes of a saintly M tediously explaining to his 21st– century moustache-twirling adversary why surveillance technology does not make the human intelligence provided by MI6 obsolete (the kind of scenario that would stand out as absurd even in a clinically paranoid, conspiracy-prone libertarian’s fever dream).
Ralph Fiennes makes a noble effort to breathe life into a half-hearted, lifeless film-within-a-film, but the audience simply doesn’t know or care enough about his flat, cliche-spewing character to be invested in his mission, which insults the intelligence of even those viewers who walked into a Bond film in part to have their intelligence insulted. It’s not hard to see why the powers that be in the Bond world thought it would be a good idea to heavily feature Ralph Fienne’s M in Spectre. They had a superb actor committed to playing an iconic character, not to mention screenwriters with a proven track record of success in previous Craig-era Bond films; what could possibly go wrong? After all, they took an ostensibly similar gamble in Skyfall, bringing Judi Dench’s M to the forefront of the narrative in a series that had typically centered around James Bond, a primary antagonist and a revolving door of “Bond girls.” MI6 staff typically made cameos in a few scenes, briefing Bond on his latest mission and equipping him with all manner of useful gadgets and weaponized cars. Giving Judi Dench’s M an expanded role in Skyfall worked because she had by that time featured in six Bond films starting with Goldeneye (the first post-Cold War Bond film as well as the first to feature Pierce Brosnan in the leading role) and continuing through the Craig era. Over the course of many hours, the various directors, screenwriters and actors involved with the franchise had the chance to flesh out the first female M’s increasingly maternal relationship with the reckless, insubordinate, exasperating and indispensable “misogynistic dinosaur” (her words) we all know and love. When the powers that be in Bond-world finally decided to give Judi Dench a leading role, all they needed to do was focus on a mother-son dynamic already present (see The World is Not Enough, another Bond film with potential that fell short, for evidence) and let two actors with great chemistry play off each other.
Fiennes’ M, on the other hand, only just made his debut in Specter’s predecessor, Skyfall, where he spent the majority of his screen time as a thorn in the side of Judi Dench’s M before taking on the mantle himself following her death at the hand of the film’s Oedipal antagonist, Raul Silva (Javier Bardem). At the start of Spectre, even the biggest Bond fans are not invested enough in Fiennes’ M to care about his bureaucratic struggle to prove MI6 is still relevant, especially when the character himself is barely relevant. The film would have been better served giving the new M a few memorable cameos and allowing Fiennes to earn an expanded role in future installments. Instead, he gobbles up a great deal of screen time that would have been better spent on the main plot.
Fortunately, the preachy exploits of Fienne’s M is the only aspect of Spectre that completely falls flat. The rest of the film is likable enough, offering a number of compelling scenes and even a few truly memorable ones. The pre-credits sequence features a breathtaking extended shot of Bond and a lady companion walking through Mexico’s Day of the Dead Parade, which is quickly followed by an action sequence that takes full advantage of the setting and culminates in a scuffle between Bond and an enemy assassin aboard an out-of-control helicopter. Spectre abounds with these kinds of thrilling sequences. Another highlight: Bond gets into a knockdown, drag-out brawl with henchman Mr. Hinx aboard a train – harkening back to an iconic train fight scene in From Russia with Love – and ending in a hilarious, totally unexpected way.
But epic action sequences are par for the course in Craig-era Bond films. The part of Spectre that will have fans geeking out and dissecting it for years to come is the return of Spectre, the international criminal organization that gives the film its name and its leader, none other than Ernst Stavro Blowfeld. The closest thing Bond has to an arch-nemesis, Blofeld last appeared in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, when Bond dispatched the leader of the world’s worst terrorist organization in the most anti-climactic manner possible, dropping him down a chimney before the opening credits. MGM subsequently lost the rights to the iconic, Ian Fleming-created villain, resulting in a decades-spanning Blofeld/Spectre drought (not including his non-canonical appearance in the Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again. It goes without saying that the long-anticipated return of Spectre is big news for the Bond franchise, which is what makes it so puzzling that Blofeld (played by none other than Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz) has a relatively small role in the film that one might expect him to dominate. Blofeld certainly isn’t established as the greatest threat Bond has ever faced, cinematic history notwithstanding. Retroactively making Blofeld responsible for all the devastating losses Bond has suffered since Casino Royale seems more like a cheap plot device than a carefully foreshadowed revelation with the genuine dramatic weight. It turns out, you see, that all of the antagonists that Bond vanquished were part of the organization, as was Vesper Lind, his lover who was tragically drowned at the conclusion of Casino Royale. While it is nice to see some of the key players from Craig’s previous outings mentioned, retroactively tagging them as part of some poorly-explained, Spectre conspiracy rather than independent actors with distinct motivations cheapens the rich characters developed and dispatched seemingly as a consequence of their own poor choices. This is a transparent attempt to make Spectre and Blofeld feel important, something the film fails to establish in a plausible, organic way. In a narrative shortcut perhaps dictated by lack of sufficient screen time, Spectre opts to show, not tell us, why we should care about Spectre and the intriguing, but skimpily-developed mad genius at its helm.
Thunderball, one of the greatest Bond film’s of the Connery era, introduced Spectre and Blofeld in a memorable fashion that drew on the events of a previous Bond film in a way that felt natural and did not intrude on the audience’s ability to appreciate that film as it was initially conceived. The other way that Spectre chooses to tell, not show that Spectre in general and Blofeld in particular are a BIG FUCKING DEAL is by tying the latter into Bond’s origin story. While this fits thematically with Craig’s previous Bond outings, which touch upon his origins and even bring him back to Skyfall, his family estate, Spectre drops the bomb that James Bond, a character fans have known since the 1960s, had a surrogate family in a completely off-hand manner. Blink and you’ll miss it. Which begs the question: why was it necessary to make Blofeld Bond’s foster brother at all when this seismic change to the character’s origin contributes little or nothing to the plot? Blofeld possessed only the thinnest of motives for not only despising and torturing his foster brother, but murdering their foster father. Sorry, but a pedestrian monologue about birds, even one delivered by Christoph Waltz (one of those actors who, as the cliche goes, could read the phone book and make it sound utterly poetic) does not suffice to explain one of the most iconic enmities in movie history. Despite some shoddy back story, Waltz singlehandedly saves the long-awaited return of Spectre and Blofeld from being completely unsatisfying. Put simply, he was the perfect actor for the role (finding the “perfect actor” for a mediocre movie is one benefit of revamping a flagging franchise). He instills a character largely bereft of motivation and complexity with a soul and an implacably sinister quality that befits an iconic movie villain. His performance is so memorable that one can almost forgive the character’s adequate but not extraordinary dialogue and the lack of any reason beyond nostalgia and forced narrative contortions to feel that he is a particularly memorable villain, much less Bond’s arch nemesis.
Seeing as Blofeld survives the film’s lackluster climax, we can hope that the subpar reintroduction of Spectre and its famously feline-fond leader will pay off in future Bond installments. Still, it’s a shame that we will never get to see Craig’s Bond (if this is indeed his last outing as 007) in particular engage with Waltz’s Blofeld in a more satisfying manner. The other intriguing elements of Spectre, of which there are many, also feel like missed opportunities. First and foremost: the film’s two “Bond Girls.” The first, Lucia Sciarra, played by Monica Bellucci (the oldest Bond girl to date) comes and goes without serving much of a purpose (of course, she serves Bond’s “purposes” well enough). While the other Bond films are filled with narratively frivolous sexual encounters with a largely interchangeable cast of voluptuous beauties, the Craig-era’s update of the franchise, which seeks to portray a famed womanizer as less overtly shallow and sexist when it comes to the opposite sex, sexual encounters that hearken back to the old days can be a bit jarring, especially when the Craig Bond films self-consciously seek to be something more sophisticated than guns, cars, babes and gadgets popcorn fair.
On the bright side, Bond’s quick seduction of Lucia before casting her aside is extremely well done, providing Spectre with a playful, erotic charge that Craig-era Bond films have not emphasized compared to previous iterations of the franchise. Its glaring lack of purpose would be far more forgivable if it didn’t come at the expense of more important plot points.
Speaking of more important plot points, Spectre makes the questionable but surprisingly satisfying decision of squeezing a touching love story (by Bond standards) into an already-packed film. Although Craig and actress Lea Seydoux lack chemistry, her Dr. Madeleine Swann is actually quite well developed, her motivations and the means by which Mendes conveys them emotionally coherent. Gone are the days when Bond girls (or at least the “important ones) immediately succumb to Bond’s charm. Gone are the days when they are defined exclusively by their sex appeal, although Belucci and Seydoux are certainly not lacking on that front. In fact, Dr. Swann is in possession of a particularly rare asset when it comes to Bond girls: a brain. She is nothing less than a trained psychologist. Bond hooking up with a certified mental health professional who can offer unique insight into his damaged psyche is a premise rich in potential that, alas, Spectre doesn’t take the time to explore. Just when the relationship is starting to heat up, Dr. Swann is shunted to the side so the film can tie up other, similarly-neglected narrative strands. Still, she more than fulfills her purpose, reminding Bond why his career and personality are not conducive to long-term romantic entanglements. But then again, we’ve seen him learn this lesson before (usually punctuated by his lover’s death from not-so-natural causes) and one cannot help but wish Spectre decided to devote a bit more time to coming up with a satisfying conclusion to a promising love story, even if that meant cutting an action scene or two.
Indeed, Spectre, perhaps more than any Bond theme to date, demonstrates the dramatic limitations of action movies in general and Bond films in particular. Casino Royale marked the beginning of a remarkably fruitful attempt to prove that Bond movies could be “serious films,” striking a deft balance between the action and T&A required for box office success with mature themes, sophisticated screenplays, sociopolitical commentary, and complex relationships of both platonic and sexual varieties. They even decided to partially nix the longstanding tradition of each Bond film being largely self-contained. A sample size of four films demonstrates that this new approach works best within the framework of a tight, relatively streamlined plot that allows the film’s core cast of characters room to breathe and provides the franchise’s stellar cast to squeeze as much emotional mileage as they can out of superb dialogue until the building tension erupts, inevitably but often unexpectedly, in violence and/or sex. Casino Royale and Skyfall kept their plots relatively simple and focused on deep characterization, stunning cinematography and innovative, varied action set pieces relying largely on the practical as opposed to the excessive CGI that marred the later Bond films of the Brosnan era. Despite it considerable strengths (the acting, direction, dialogue, cinematography and soundtrack are consistently excellent), it shows the limits of the Craig-era Bond formula. Even with a running time of 2 1/2 hours, you can only fit so much weighty material into a single entry of a film franchise that simply must have a certain amount of “action” to satisfy its core demographics.
Like many Marvel films, Spectre simultaneously seeks to stand on its own as a movie and meet the demands of a formula and franchise that will always trump the creative instincts of screenwriters. Craig-era Bond movies strive to be considered “art” and, at their best, they succeed. But a mandate to include the requisite car chases, explosions and casual sex associated with a franchise that must meet certain expectations to remain commercially successful necessitates a degree of narrative restraint. To adequately address weighty themes in s Bond film, the screenwriters must have the discipline to “trim the fat,” or include only so many plot elements as they can realistically and satisfyingly cover in the allotted time. Spectre’s plot is not overly complex in the sense that it is confusing or has too many moving pieces. Rather, it introduces a number of complex, ambitious themes and compelling characters that require a great deal of screen time to do justice; screen time that is consumed by riveting but, at times, frivolous set pieces. It is a testament to the strength of the Craig-era Bond formula that even the narrative mess that is Spectre manages to be engaging and, every once in a while, truly amazing.
It is sad to see Daniel Craig leave a franchise that he helped to revitalize, especially when the long-awaited return of Spectre and Ernst Stavro Blofeld opens up so many promising narrative doors. On the other hand, Spectre stands as a fitting, if imperfect epitaph for a rendition of Bond second only to Sean Connery’s. If the film leaves an aftertaste of disappointment, a sense of opportunities unexplored and potential not quite met, it is only because Casino Royale and Skyfall set the bar so high. It is perhaps unfortunate that the swan song of Craig’s Bond had to occupy the same film as the much-hyped reintroduction of an iconic nemesis. The ensuing identity yields a film at war with itself and scrambling to tie together its disparate elements into something resembling a cohesive movie. The whirring of gears engaged in a Herculean and ultimately futile effort to smash puzzle pieces together that simply don’t fit is audible even over the cacophony of meticulously staged gunshots and explosions.
In the end, though, Spectre’s heavy-handed attempts to produce, by means of cumbersome exposition, a connective tissue weaving together the previous Bond films of the Craig era confuse and diminish themes, plot lines and characters rather than illuminating them. It doesn’t help matters that Spectre simultaneously takes it upon itself to flesh out the supporting cast, tell a tragic love story, delve into Bond’s past and re-introduce an iconic enemy. No amount of talent on the part of director Sam Mendes, the screenwriters or the actors can accomplish so much; they may have had a $250 million budget, but they would have been better served making use of Q’s latest gadget: a watch that tells time. Perhaps with the benefit of such a cutting edge, high-tech machine they would have realized that one Bond film can only contain so much.
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