I follow quite a few fellow film critics, bloggers and podcasters on a variety of social media. Broadly speaking we share the same politics as much as you can detect these things through such communication models, being supportive of equal rights for everyone, agitating for a woman’s right to choose her fertility options, in favour of gay marriage as an equalizing factor for a certain strata of the community, loathe the entire fabrication of austerity measures, all in all pretty much left of centre in most areas of social progress and civil evolution. It amuses me no end then that some of these individuals go absolutely berserk when ‘controversial’ ideas strike the movie community, such as perhaps the next actor to strap on a tuxedo and prefer their beverages being shaken and not stirred being of a darker skin tone than the last fifty years of representation. ‘But….but Bond is white‘ they passionately implore, with the idea of the franchise being helmed by Idris Elba or Colin Salmon allegedly representing some enormous affront to humanity, decency and in-universe character integrity. It’s ridiculous of course, as I think this immensely popular franchise could survive some small measure of experimentation, and in fact such developments could save the series from its slow, inevitable slide into irrelevance. Some of these ideas of Bond being a dinosaur and a relic of an earlier age are explored in the fourth film of Daniel Craig’s arc of Ian Fleming’s beloved misogynist psychopath, notions that are uncomfortably set against some of the series defining features – scheming super villains, travelogue globe trotting narratives, elegant sexy ladies and all socio-political problems being solved on the receiving end of a Walter PPK. Having precisely zero investment in this particular franchise on an emotional or historical level I do vaguely look forward to these films as movie events, as big, high-profile entries in one of cinemas most enduring franchises, and I was mildly interested to see what Mendes and Craig were going to go next after the spectacular success of Skyfall. The results for me were similar to the last picture, entertaining enough for a couple of hours but not secreting a great deal to take home and unpack, either intellectually or aesthetically.
It’s a shame that the opening sequence set against an evocative Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City is the strongest movement of the entire film, as when the expectations levels are set so high the remainder of the film is doomed to disappoint. Bond has gone rogue as all the heroes do in these films, instructed by a message from beyond the grave to hunt down the international ne’er-do-well Marco Sciarra, a nasty foreign type who is planning a series of terrorist bombings. Back in London HQ the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing for a sinister new amalgamation of intelligence services and assets across the western hemisphere, with drones and surveillance assets being seen as the 21st century direction of travel by new Joint Intelligence chief C (Andrew Scott). The bad old days of wet-work and clandestine assassinations are deemed redundant in the modern global environment, but little do the authorities perceive that a secretive foe is marshalling its grip on the international narcotics, slave and terrorism markets, with a sepulchral figurehead whose evil ideology also bleeds into our heroes tragic childhood…..
As we all know the film has been eagerly awaited since the rights of the Spectre characters and concepts of Thunderball were acquired in November 2013, so if like me you have a passing knowledge of the Bond universe then there are no real surprises as to where the plot and character revelations finally formulate. Well, when I say plot I’m referring to a rather amorphous chain of A to B to C materializations which never really coalesces into any entertaining master-plan, as Spectre is not much more than a collection of interruptions and exotic locations set against the side plot of the intelligence co-ordination which also contains zero unguessable twists or revelations. Apart from the amorous opening (with a very comfortable long uninterrupted tracking shot that sees director Sam Mendes competing in the same arena as Cuarón and Iñárritu) and a particularly painful train tussle my pulse wasn’t exactly pounding, but Craig is as coldly functional as he has been in the other movies, comfortably sporting his arrogant tuxedo attire which he has carnivorously carved for himself. Ben Whishaw gets a bit more to do as the newly promoted superhacker Q (presumably a moniker for Querulous), Moneypenny is functional in the form of Naomie Harris, while Fiennes gets a bit more screen time as well. Personally I could have done with a lot more of Monica Bellucci though, she disappears after two scenes which is a shame, although the emphasis from an x chromosome perspective rests clearly with Léa Seydoux as the primary plot cypher whom leads Bond from one energetic entanglement to another.
For all these glaring faults I did kind of enjoy this movie, I was never bored even when enduring some of the patience sapping set-pieces, and I actively enjoyed the finale which I’m assuming is the first of this arc that peaks on the gloomy, rain-sodden streets of central London. It would have been nice to have more amusing quips and dialogue exchanges that deserved more attention, and I liked Seydoux’s character even if she starts off as a fairly strong agent before devolving to another damsel in distress trophy to be saved from the evil clutches of the nefarious, titular organisation. Speaking of which Christophe Waltz is proficient as always as the puppet master behind the scenes with an interesting link to our heroes childhood (is that in the books? If not that’s an interesting angle for Mendes to take the series), but it’s a shame he didn’t get more to do as the omnipotent scheming antagonist who has apparently been secretly torturing Bond for the past three movies. Perhaps Spectre’s saving grace is the lavish photography from the increasingly brilliant Hoyte van Hoytema who bathes the screen in high contrast black versus white exteriors, it can’t be easy stepping into Roger Deakin’s shoes but he acquits himself admirably. Nevertheless I still can’t for the life of me see how this movie cost an absurd $300 million, I guess all that commitment to practical effects and location work stacks up spectacularly plus the starry cast receiving generous upfront paycheques, and thankfully the product placement doesn’t sour the experience as much as the last few movies. Overall the series has thankfully moved on from the 1990’s doldrums of Die Another Day and other Brosnan bruisings, but still lags behind the modern techniques of the Mission Impossible or Bourne movies, as it tries to grapple with contemporary post Snowden queries on the ethics of modern surveillance and intelligence, alongside the franchise trappings of dispatching remorseless henchmen, seducing sexy ladies, conveniently contrived gadgets and remote super villain bases. You’ll have to forgive me for such an obvious affectation but Spectre left me stirred but not necessarily shaken;