2 November 2015

Review: Spectre

(Dir: Sam Mendes, 2015)

In reinvigorating the series with a new actor taking over the mantle, the producers of the Bond series wisely decided to move away from the overtly fantastical elements that were starting to mire these films. At this point it was becoming en vogue to have an origins story for every hero / character of this ilk, whilst everyone was striving for a heightened sense of realism, not just in action but in tone and feel too. In response, Casino Royale took a story from Bond's past – a more intensely focused, less grandiose story – and made it (mostly) work as a more intense character study and psychological stand-off with Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre. Consider the audience reengaged after the stupidity of surfing Arctic tidal waves and invisible Aston Martin's. Quantum of Solace then muddied the waters somewhat with a forced revenge story, uninspired action and a bland, unthreatening villain. Thank god then for the combination of Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins and Javier Bardem. Skyfall turned things around again thanks to excellent structuring, the psychological nuance of Bardem's superbly creepy performance, and the mastery of one of the best cinematographers working in the business today – the film was not only the best looking in the series, but one of the best of that year. So how do you follow all that up? With Sceptre the answer unfortunately seems to be an awkward melding of Bond lore, the Bond we've come to know over the past three films, and the parts of Bond we thought we'd put behind us.

Having worked so hard to establish a very specific identity for Daniel Craig's version of Bond, it's disappointing watching Spectre regress to the "lightweight", almost superhuman Bond of old. In the days of Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan it would not have seemed out of place to have an overblown fight in a helicopter acrobatically twisting over a square filled with thousands of revelers below. Likewise, a descent down an Austrian mountainside in a fun but knowingly stupid manner doesn't sit quite right with what we've come to expect from the present iteration of the character. That older era of Bond film that many of us grew up with was imbued with a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish charm: for better or worse an evolution of the character that reflected our shifting entertainment expectations caused by the rise of the modern blockbuster. The tangible history these most recent films have endowed upon the character have humanised him - something Skyfall seemed at pains to do - making it so much more difficult to buy into the overtly audacious set pieces presented here. We've become invested in the man and now see him as just that, not some sort of super-man.

Understandably there's a reverence to Bond lore, but the approach taken with the villain - relying on a quintessential part of the character's history updated with a brand new back story to make sure it all fits together more cleanly - is another piece of Spectre that just doesn't sit right. It's intended to tie-up these four films with a neat bow, and obviously overarching stories regularly make-up part of a work with multiple entries in a defined universe, but it does seem that the producers had one eye too closely on what Marvel have been doing. Plus the reveal of this character feels as if it cheapens the previous films and their villains just a little (despite the clue being in the title). The funny thing is, Christoph Waltz possess a quality that makes him seem born to be a Bond villain, and yet he's not able to match up to two of the three most recent nemeses. Aside from his first scene in the film, which is played (and lit) fantastically, he's just a bland megalomaniac who merely espouses lots of exposition whilst lacking the requisite threat. Bardem exuded a creepy psychosexual menace, whilst there was always something sinister driving Mikkelsen (who the hell knows what was going on behind Mathieu Amalric's Dominic Greene!). With Waltz's character supposedly being the hook we've all been waiting for, having Bond merely play follow the breadcrumbs to this is extremely unedifying.

This sounds like an especially negative review, yet the film is still entertaining in that particular way that the series always has been. It's just a shame some pretty fundamental errors were made at a point when expectations have been raised so high thanks to what preceded it, giving the feeling it's regressed a couple of steps. One could also point out that the ultimate threat here is someone controlling all the surveillance - not that perilous, really; or that it lacks much good MI6 action - an obviously dumb plot twist feels like 24 cliché; whilst cities just seem weirdly deserted at night - that's noticeably jarring; or that the utterly utterly insipid theme song should have never been committed to tape - Skyfall was bad enough, what the hell were they thinking this time!? But you know, it's always a plus seeing Ralph Fiennes enjoying some screen-time, and the cinematography, whilst not up to Roger Deakins quality, is mostly pretty good (that long single take at the start is nice). The bottom line is, if you enjoy Bond films, Spectre should at the very least keep you entertained. If you loved Skyfall, make sure to keep your expectations in check.

1 comment:

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