Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2015)

24. Spectre

Despite being a franchise that is over fifty years old, a new James Bond movie is still an event. In our era of massive blockbuster series, Bond’s appeal remains evergreen. Even in 2015, we still can’t get enough of the adventures of an alcoholic spy who loves killin’ and fuckin’. “Skyfall” was an enormous hit, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in the UK. Eon Productions knew not to mess with a good thing. “Spectre,” the twenty-fourth official James Bond adventure, maintained director Sam Mendes and most of the same writers. That uniformity paid off, as “Spectre” has predictable been another huge hit. For long time Bond aficionados, “Spectre” was destined to be an even bigger event. The film would feature the return of SPECTRE, the villainous organization that vexed Bond back in the sixties, and its leader Blofeld, Bond’s fabled arch-enemy.

After M’s death, Bond receives a video from his deceased boss, informing him to keep on eye on an assassin named Marco Sciarra. After encountering, and killing, Sciarra in Mexico, Bond uncovers a new conspiracy. He discovers a secret organization – SPECTRE – that connects many of his previous enemies and, most frighteningly, features a familiar face from his childhood. Meanwhile, a new security merger threatens to make MI-6 and the 00 program obsolete. After teaming up with the daughter of an old adversary, Bond realizes the shake-up in the British government is directly connected with SPECTRE.

Before one discusses the new James Bond movie, one must discuss the new James Bond theme song. Sam Smith, some British pop crooner I’m not really familiar with, had been considered a foregone conclusion to sing the title song. When the song – inexplicably entitled “The Writing’s On the Wall” – premiered, fan reaction was not great. Many criticized it for sounding “wimpy” and lacking energy. Indeed, the romantic ballad doesn’t crackle. Smith’s high-pitch vocals grate at first, the lyrics are somewhat awkward, and the production is overly maudlin. Still, after a few listens, it started to grow on me. The melody is pretty, if nothing else. As for the opening credits’ sequences, it features lots of octopi and skeleton imagery, shattering glass and smoke. Sometimes these elements are incorporated in slightly goofy looking fashion, like the nude dancers wrapped in tentacles. It’s not destined to be an especially well remembered Bond opening but it’s not bad either.

“Spectre” not only keeps much of the same talent behind the camera, it also has a similar tone to “Skyfall.” It’s a serious story but incorporates more humor than Daniel Craig’s first two outings as Bond. Some times, this is handled with more grace then others. Bond coolly dropping out of the sky after making a daring escape is perfect for the character. On the other hand, a random by-stander’s airbag going off feels like something out of the Roger Moore era. After sticking with the character for ten years, Craig has developed a fine handle of sarcastic, wry one-liners. Despite its humor, “Spectre” is willing to get surprisingly moody at times. A long sequence has Bond infiltrating a SPECTRE meeting, quietly observing the enemies’ actions. Another lengthy scene involves James and his love interest spending time in her parent’s old vacation home. Perhaps it speaks to Eon’s confidence in Sam Mendes and his team, that they allow slow moments like this inside a big budget, action-packed Bond film.

Occasionally in the past, a James Bond movie has incorporated modern day news events into the super-spy narratives. Such as 24 hour news networks in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” tension between the Koreas in “Die Another Day,” or global water shortages in “Quantum of Solace.” “Spectre,” meanwhile, attempts to integrate concerns about government surveillance into its story. M and the other heads of MI6 are being slowly forced out by the Joint Intelligence Service, a new agency that seeks to monitor the data of everyone in the country. Throughout the film, characters are constantly watched by surveillance cameras or have their cell phone conversations recorded. “Spectre” makes its stance on this issue clear. The organization that want to push aside traditional spies in favor of data-mining is affiliated with a global terrorist cabal determined to conquer the world. “Spectre” doesn’t comment on these pertinent issues in any detailed way, besides saying spying on innocent citizens is bad. Still, it incorporates this more smoothly then previous attempts at merging a Bond story with a real world concern.

When it was announced that the current right-holders finally retrieve the rights to use SPECTRE and Blofeld, there was much rejoicing. Of course, the Craig series had already cooked up a stand-in for SPECTRE, the mysterious Quantum. Despite initial concerns that it might just skip them, “Spectre” directly references the events of “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” Mr. White, a minor antagonist from those films, plays a small but pivotal role in this one. Revealing that Quantum is but a small part of SPECTRE is a natural step. However, “Spectre” goes one further. It reveals that, throughout all three of his previous adventures, James Bond has been fighting the same threat. Everything ties together, Blofeld being the mastermind behind it all. "The author of all Bond's pain," as he says. While I appreciate the attempt to wield these stories together, “Spectre” never explains how Silva’s personal revenge in “Skyfall” connects with Blofeld’s master plan. In truth, the reveal that everything is connected is not so much a natural story decision. Instead, it’s a slightly sloppy way to make Bond’s new/old arch-enemy seem bigger and more important then he is.

Something that the films starring Craig’s Bond have done is create bigger roles for the Bond Girls. “Spectre” has two, Monica Belluci’s Lucia Sciarra and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. Lucia’s seduction is fairly incidental to the plot. Mostly, she’s in the movie to get the always glamorous Belluci her long overdue Bond Girl role. Swann, on the other hand, is a major character. She gives Bond a prickly reaction at first. However, as the two continue to survive this ordeal, she falls into his arms. The gorgeous Seydoux proves a decent foil for Craig. Swann is head-strong enough, and handy enough with a Walter PPK, to make a worthy companion to Bond. As the story progresses, we discover that Swann is not just a Girl of the Week for Bond. He seems to be developing serious feelings for her. The romance is slightly rushed. Whether or not Bond is truly in love is a question left for the sequels. However, Craig and Seydoux have fine chemistry, making the relationship between Bond and Swann worthwhile.

As always, this James Bond movie is full of explosive action. “Spectre” begins with an incredible long shot of Bond walking across the rooftops of Mexico City. This escalates to an exploding building, before climaxing with an exciting, beautifully orchestrated rumble inside a spinning helicopter. “Spectre” also contributes several pretty great vehicle chases to the Bond canon. The first takes place through the tight corridors of Rome, Bond and his adversary racing around tight corners, swerve around debris, and avoid other vehicles. (Amusingly, the film also defuses the typical Bond car expectations.) The film tops itself with an even bigger chase later in the film. Around the snowy mountains, Bond pursues the villains’ truck in an airplane. This sequence goes to some crazy planes, especially once Bond is directing the wingless craft down the slopes. Though it once again arguably pushes “Spectre” towards Moore territory, it’s still an exciting sequence.

In the press leading up to “Spectre’s” release, the film promises that Mr. Hinx, played by up-and-coming tough guy Dave Bautista, would be a Bond henchman of equal standing to Jaws or Oddjobs. It’s a nice thought, especially since we haven’t gotten a good henchman in a while. Bautista is certainly intimidating in the part. Hinx has a few nice touches, like the polished thumb nails he uses to gauge out eyes. Hinx isn’t defined too much beyond that. However, he does participate in maybe the film’s best action scene. Hinx corners Bond on a train, leading to a brawl that tears through the dining car. Bond improvises some weapons, like a bottle or a corkscrew. The combat is brutal, with plenty of audible slams and cracking bones. The pay-off is especially satisfying as well. Though Hinx could’ve been a great henchman, he doesn’t have enough personality and exits the film too early to make a truly iconic impression.

Like “Skyfall” before it, “Spectre” dutifully respects the formula of the Bond franchise. The villain has an elaborate lair, a huge facility inside a giant asteroid crater. Bond and his love interest is captured, before the secret agent is brutally tortured by the villain. This time, Blofeld drills into James’ head, which is as painful as it sounds. Thanks to a gadget devised by Q, Bond is able to make a daring escape. Said escape is a blast, in more then one way. There’s plenty of dramatic diving and shoot. The sequence climaxes in a massive explosion, apparently the biggest fireball ever created for a movie. “Spectre” is devoted to topping itself though. The film has an additional last act, a dramatic run through the ruins of Vauxhall, about to explode. This is an equally tense, exciting sequence, concluding with a helicopter skidding across London Bridge. That’s a wrap-up any Bond movie could ask for.

“Skyfall” went out of its way to re-establish the traditional James Bond supporting characters of Moneypenny, Q, and a more traditional M. Instead of sticking the characters to the sidelines like they usually are, “Spectre” involves each of them in the story proper. Q has an intense encounter on a ski lift with some shifty fellows. His hacking skills become an important plot point. Ben Whishaw retains a likable balance of nervousness and smug superiority, while developing a decent rapport with Craig. Naomie Harris as Moneypenny does more then just flirt with Bond at the story’s beginning, though there’s some of that too. She helps out Bond’s investigation. Ralph Fiennes’s M even gets an action sequence all to himself, confronting the movie’s secondary antagonist. It’s nice to see the film utilizing its rich supporting cast.

“Spectre” has its share of call-backs to previous Bond adventures. Some of them are easy to spot. A clinic among alpine mountains, obviously invoking “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” will probably be picked up by most. A business front called “Hildebrand” is a little sneakier. Yet “Spectre” biggest call-back to Bond lore is a dramatic reveal of a character’s true identity. As we all figured out months before its release, Christoph Waltz is playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The elegant and verbose Waltz is perfectly cast as the iconic villain. His way with dialogue makes the bad guy classy but no less sinister. After playing coy with the Nehru jacket and the white cat, the film cleverly introduces the facial scar. Still, I have a qualm with “Spectre’s” take on Blofeld. Having him be the mastermind behind the last three movies isn’t enough. Instead, “Spectre” makes Blofeld James’ foster-brother. It’s a story element that doesn’t truly pay off. Connecting Blofeld and Bond seems like another attempt by the script to punch up the series’ biggest villain.

Whether or not Daniel Craig will return for a fifth James Bond movie isn’t currently known. Craig has been open about his disinterest in returning, in no uncertain words. Producer Michael G. Wilson, meanwhile, has said they are willing to pay Craig whatever it takes to get him back for at least one more. “Spectre,” however, ends on a fairly definitive note. Most everything is wrapped up, save for the fate of one major character. (Maybe the next one’s beginning can recall “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s” ending…) I’d liked to see Craig return, if only because every James Bond actor deserves one movie were they’re too old for the part. If “Spectre” is destined to be Craig’s last crack at Bond, it’s a very satisfying conclusion. The action is great, the cast is superior, and the film puts an entertaining spin on the series’ established mythology. [Grade: B]

THE 007 SEVEN: 6 out of 7

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vodka Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

No comments: