Thursday, June 23, 2016
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes
Running Time: 148 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There's always this feeling of excitement accompanying the announcement of the new actor cast as James Bond. Then, after a few films starring this selection, familiarity starts to set in and the conversation inevitably shifts to when he'll be replaced, and who's next. It's little wonder so many actors are reluctant to accept the role, knowing they'll just serve as a placeholder for whomever succeeds them, regardless of the quality of their performance. Anyone taking the part has to know that going in and be comfortable with it, at least for the duration of their run.
It now appears we've reached that tipping point with Daniel Craig, once again tremendous in his fourth outing as 007 and the franchise's twenty-fourth film, Spectre. Faced with the unenviable task of not only following up one of the strongest entries in 2012's Skyfall, but remaining engaged and entertaining when (forgive the pun) the writing's on the wall regarding his future as Bond. This is likely it, and he exits having done things with the character few before him can claim, despite being hamstrung by decades-long formula that's loosened a bit thanks to his efforts.
It's true that the films take the shape of the actor playing Bond more than they do the selected director, who is clearly there to carry out a very specific task. Of course, their job is to anonymously serve as a carrier for the Broccoli family's creative vision of the character Ian Fleming created in 1952. It's not a job that goes to a boundary-breaking Quentin Tarantino, but someone who won't rock the boat and is capable of leaving an imprint on the franchise that isn't distinctively their own. It's at once the series' greatest strength and biggest liability. And never has that been more evident than in Spectre, which is quite a bit better than some have made it out to be.
While this is thankfully no Quantum of Solace, it's a considerable and expected step-down from Skyfall, even while sharing the same director in Sam Mendes. He definitely "gets it," but a weaker, more convoluted script results in bloated running time that makes you wish we could just do away with some of the traditional formalities germane to the 007 property. But it's worth mentioning that there's a section of the film (really most of the last hour) that's absolutely amazing, harkening back to the best installments of the 60's and 70's. What precedes that is less successful, but in heavily drawing from its own past for inspiration, at least some kind of an attempt is made to create continuity from one film to the next. Whether this approach is retained moving forward is a bit more doubtful.
After a spectacular opening chase sequence set during Mexico's Day of the Dead festival in which Bond (Craig) thwarts a terrorist bombing and kills their leader, an encounter with the man's mysterious widow (Monica Belucci) alerts him to the existence of a secret terrorist organization known as Spectre. Acting on her information and a posthumously videotaped message from M. (Judi Dench), 007 attempts to infiltrate the secret group, despite being indefinitely suspended by the current M. (Ralph Fiennes) for breaching protocol.
With the help of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q. (Ben Whishaw), Bond is able to get uncomfortably close enough to identify Spectre's leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), as well as his right-hand assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Armed with this new information, his mission soon shifts toward protecting Dr. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), the psychologist daughter of a former member marked for assassination. As Bond discovers that this sinister organization and the man behind it are more closely tied to his past than he could have imagined, he must fight this dangerous enemy while facing of the possibility that Britain's "00" program could be shut down for good.
As evidenced by that description, the plot is more overstuffed and complicated than necessary, as are a lot of the Bond films. At times it seems to jumps through hoops to relay what's actually a pretty simple story, frequently getting bogged down with exposition and backstory, at least in the opening hour (save for the thrilling opening sequence). With a screenplay outlining events as if we've never seen a previous Bond entry, it's a certainty James will go on an "unauthorized mission." That he'll be reprimanded for it and disobey direct orders anyway. And we even get the rather predictable threat of shutting down of the "00" program, a sub-plot that exists primarily so Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris have something to do. It does boast a satisfying payoff that makes sense, but it's a bit of a trudge to get there as M. engages in burocratic boardroom battles with an intelligence agency executive (played by Andrew Scott).
Much of the first half consists of Bond following multiple clues that lead to the unveiling of Spectre and a lot goes right once that reveal is made. While I'm not sure if I'm even allowed to talk about the identity of Bond's nemesis, he is a huge, familiar name in the 007 canon and it's worth praising the screenwriters for their renewed focus on series continuity, picking up where Skyfall left off in that regard. If anything, the filmmakers are almost overly ambitious in this installment, determined to retcon nearly everything that occurred in the Craig films by tying it all together here. Even if they bite off more than they can possibly chew, I really appreciated the effort and dedication involved, especially since one of the major problems facing the franchise is that nothing seems to carry over from one film to the next.
There's this weird mishmash of backstory from previous Bond entries and Fleming's novels, but somehow it all works and once the action gets going, it's a real thrill ride, especially the chase and fight sequences involving 007 and Oberhauser's Oddjob-inspired henchman, Mr. Hinx, played by wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista. Beyond the sheer physicality of the part, it doesn't require much, but he plays it perfectly deadpan and it's been a while since we've had a fun, well-cast henchman in the series whose fate we're actually invested in.
What Léa Seydoux adds to the equation is completely subjective considering how many differing opinions they'll be regarding her standing among previous Bond Girls. Despite her late, somewhat overly drawn out introduction, she equates herself well with an impressive combo of tenaciousness and vulnerability. Dr. Madeline Swann is no Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale (as a one of the film's most memorable moments actively reminds us) or Teresa di Vicenzo from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but for this film's purposes she really doesn't need to be. And it's not like she'll be back, which can be a problem in and of itself.
This is supposedly one of the most expensive Bond films ever made and while the lack of Oscar-nominated Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins is evident, replacement Hoyte van Hoytema can't be criticized for failing to equal the movie that looked like no other in the series. There's no shortage of memorable images here either, but where it makes up the most ground is in its production design, especially during the encounter at Oberhauser's desert compound (shockingly, a real home that's for sale) in the last hour. This base might be the best Bond action toy set never sold in stores and everything in this entire section is just about perfect, recalling not only the golden age 007 installments but an undiscovered cult sci-fi classic from the 70's.
The suspenseful build-up, the setting and Waltz's calm but disarmingly creepy performance lift this eleventh hour showdown in the desert above much of what came before. Technical choices are spot-on and even some smaller character ones, like Oberhauser's attire, which seems more suited for brunch at the yacht club than torturing 007. Waltz sometimes catches flak for playing variations on the same charming sociopathic villain from film-to-film, but if ever a case can be made for it continuing indefinitely, it's here. His casting was a masterstroke, and if the rumors of him returning are contingent with Craig staying on, then it's a big loss. Both in terms of continuity and the fact he's playing a villain we thought we got enough of.
Something happens at this compound that's one of the the most unintentionally meta moments in recent Bond movies. As Oberhauser threatens to physically invade James' brain and erase his memory with this bizarre device, the easy joke is that it won't even matter since in the Bond universe all is usually forgotten by the next film anyway. The best thing about Skyfall, and what Spectre continues, is rewarding loyal viewers with attention to detail and a backstory that significantly improves the entire experience.
This era found its perfect Bond in Craig, who brought a darker, grittier, more realistic vibe that fit the current times. There's been a self-contained, Dark Knight-esque feeling to his movies and now with him bowing out, it's likely we'll not only have to start from scratch all over again with a new actor, but one or more new directors. And as frustrating as that thought is, it's still absolutely necessary for a franchise that's survived and thrived by continuing to rejuvenate itself. Whichever direction the series goes, we can only hope it finds a way to step even further out of its comfort zone.