Oh man, this is my first "Double Oh..." entry for a brand new Bond movie... but that doesn't make it all that much different from most of my "Double Oh..." entries, considering that most of them I did were after seeing a Bond movie for the first time. The only difference this time is I don't have dozens of "ranking Bond" lists and years of reviews and other dissections as background noise. All I really have is first impressions.
In anticipation of seeing Spectre I rewatched all of the Craig 007 films again. I like each of them more and more each time I watch them. There's a fluidity between them that's uncommon for the Bond series otherwise, a connectedness that the series had always tried to distance itself from previously. Whether it was being too mired in formula, or too concerned with passing the torch at any moment, or too reactionary to the popular cinematic trends of the time, I don't know. The novels (from what I've heard) had a strong sense of continuity, something this series of Bond films is doubling down on,
Anticipation was high, but what I had to expect, I don't know. I've tried to avoid rumor mongering but the intonations that this would be a remake of On Her Majesty's Secret Service had reached my ears and it disappointed me. Of all the Bond films, it's OHMSS that is least demanding a remake. The imagery (and music!) of the trailer and TV commercials hinted at a lot of things that could be OHMSS, but seeing as that film was about Bond falling in love, then having his lover murdered on their wedding day, that arc seemed covered by Casino Royale already, and not really worth retreading. But, thankfully, that wasn't the case...
Enough preamble, let's get to the structure.
Also TOTAL SPOILERS AHEAD
(don't say I didn't warn you)
Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) returns to close out the arc he started in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace only here, he's no adversary. No friend either. He's connective thread, but wonderful connective thread, bridging the earlier Craig movies with this one.
Mr. Hinx (David Bautista) is the burly mountain of a man that's just sheer physical force, with sharpened, painted thumbnails for gouging out eyeballs. He's an impressive physical force and an ace race car driver, and seems capable of tracking Bond anywhere he goes. I want to like Hinx, but I think Bautista was wasted in the role. He gets the physical aspect down pat, such as in the train fight sequence (just one of many callbacks to other Bond films, this I think mooning squarely at From Russia, With Love) where he's just a rampaging ogre (and Bond's ineffectiveness seems equally hearkening to his fights with Jaws...don't be surprised if Hinx returns in the next one)... but Bautista, who showed such incredible comedic timing in Guardians of the Galaxy has one line here, and that's a swear word poorly dubbed over to say "Shoot". It's a shame.
Yes that's Sherlock's Moriarty, Andrew Scott, as Max Denbigh, the new dick in charge of MI5 who is give greater powers and becomes the new C (M's boss). He's hell bent on a new coalition amid 8 other countries intelligence gathering organizations, and decommissioning the double-oh program. It's really the latter that makes him a villain, but the plotline of the former is teased with such insidiousness that it's no surprise that he's a mole for Spectre. I mean, anyone who watched Sherlock would suspect him anyway, he just seeps vileness. It would have been more interesting had he been an unsuspecting patsy of Spectre's, completely unaffiliated.
And finally there's the big man himself, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who pulled a total Kahn-berbatch and kept saying "I'm not Blofeld". Well, no big surprises, he is Blofeld. He's kind of wasted here, teased out early on, clearly the head of Spectre, with uncanny awareness of all of Bond's actions, but later revealed to be a quasi-adoptive brother believed to have perished. That there's an approximate familial tie between Blofeld and Bond isn't necessarily the problem, but the level of hate Blofeld has towards him is never truly realized by Waltz. He cheerfully revels in his role as lord of an omnipresent supersecret superpowered superevil organization, but how that relates to Bond (the fact that he claims it's almost all been done to throw in Bond's face) doesn't truly play. It's like Waltz is caught in between the old school Connery villains who like to toy with Bond like a Cat with a Mouse and the very personal villainy of Javier Bardem's Silva, and can't really pick which is priority (not that the script seems decided one way or another).
In the third act, when Bond and Dr. Swann make it to Blofeld's super-secret Spectre lair, Bond finds himself in a torture chair, about to be killed but manages to escape with Swann and blow up the whole compound with, ultimately, one bullet. There's such a hearkening back to Blofeld's past lairs here, the monitoring room full of dutiful workers, cast in steel grey floor-to-ceiling is so retro, as is Blofeld's nehru jacket, that it's as much aping as homage. Of course the compound had to go up in flames, but so quickly after its introduction was the ultimate disappointment..it's a really neat set they seemed utterly rushed out of. That Bond and Swann leave in a helicopter with no escape action sequence (the film was already long enough, yes) was also surprising. The whole Blofeld story felt like it needed a lot more time. Waltz's presence isn't felt nearly enough. If Mendes really wanted to capture elements of Connery's Bond he should have presented more than a few cutaways to what Blofeld was up to when Bond wasn't around. As such Denbigh seemed to get all that cutaway focus, so he should have been the major villain...and Blofeld only teased, spared for the next one.
Much ado was made in advance of Monica Bellucci since she's the oldest Bond girl to date (it's an dumb marker that she's been saddled with because it shouldn't matter). Her role as Lucia Sciarra is unfortunately tiny, she's only featured in two scenes, but she's pretty great in both of them up until the make-out scene with Bond. I just didn't feel the two characters connecting, Craig seemed like he was more going through the motions than genuinely attracted to this woman. But then the character is all about pumping women for information, coldly, without remorse. The scenes with her, the funeral and at her home, are the most beautifully shot of the film, keeping up with the incredible work Mendes and his cinematographer did with Skyfall, I just wish the passion that the camera implies as Bond and Lucia make out against a wall-sized mirror was actually there between the actors.
Lea Seydoux plays Madleine Swann, Mr. White's daughter and a worthy romantic foil for Bond. She's been trained by her father from a young age to protect herself, but all to aware that her father was into bad business that she wanted no part of (despite also being keenly aware of his love for her). Then Bond comes along dragging her (kicking and screaming mind you) into the business. They have a connection, as she's quite keenly aware of what kind of man he is... like her father, capable of very bad things, but also quite capable of very big love. There's a good dynamic that builds between them but it doesn't quite feel romantic. It feels comfortable, but the romance feels like something necessitated by the script and less organic between the characters. When Swann tells Bond she loves him, it comes out of left field. And when she walks away from Bond it feels awkward, and not such a big deal for him. And when Bond walks away from MI6 for her, it seems like something he's doing for himself, and not necessarily anything to do with being in love.
There's the feel of On Her Majesty's Secret Service at play. In that film, Tracey was also a tough woman, the daughter of a criminal, and she too rescues Bond on occasion. Blofeld kills her in the end, which this film leads up to but goes another way (again, that arc already done with Vesper).
The title song, "Writing on the Wall" by Sam Smith is, well, abominable. It's just not very good. It builds then falls, then builds again, then falls, and over and over. There's no climax, or break out, it's all a long tease, and unpleasant. It has a haunting element to it, the orchestration is superb, and Smith has an impressive falsetto, but there's no payoff, and no hook.
The opening credits, on the other hand, is the best ad for Kraken
spiced rum. I love octopuses and octopi imagery, so this opening
credits crawl really, really did it for me. They brought back the
titillating silhouettes (and tossed, for the first time, a naked Bond
into the mix... I keep wondering when we're going to see a title
sequence with naked silhouetted men bounding about, willies flapping in
the breeze) and there's a needed but somewhat ineffective recapping of
the previous three films.
As I'm writing this up, I'm noticing what I hadn't noticed before, that it's failures may not be so much the script, the action, the direction, or the other actors, but perhaps it's Daniel Craig. It's evident Mendes wanted to go for something of a more playful Bond film, hitting later Connery or Moore-style, with a bit of cheekiness in the action, gadgets, and Bond himself. But Craig seems to be either reluctant or unable to really sell that lighter side of Bond. Connery had that glint in his eye, a little twinkle that allowed him to be brusque but playful. Moore was mostly playful but could occasionally deliver a moment of threat and danger when he wanted. Craig seems to have difficultly getting out of brooding Bond, of exhibiting emotion. That feeling of watching Connery sleepwalk his way through Diamond Are Forever seem to creep into Craig's performance here, but not always...just most of the time. It's like he knows his character and the film is trying to push his character against type. At times he's a willing participant, at other times it seems he couldn't be invested less in what he's doing. When it comes to Oberhauser/Blofeld, I never felt he was moved by his resurgence, but then it could be that it was Oberhauser killing his own father out of jealousy for his relationship with Bond that steeled Bond's detachment from people.
Bond is only given a couple scenes with M, Moneypenny, and Q, and it's to the film's detriment. There's a sense of comraderie (even antagonistic comraderie) that just doesn't have time to revive itself by the time they're reunited for one scene in the last act. Craig and Ralph Feinnes established a pretty good dynamic in Skyfall and it feels at ease here, respectful but totally not friendly. It should have been allowed to flourish, rather than falter. I think had Denbigh's play for power been the main thrust as Bond rooted out Spectre in his own organization with M and Moneypenny and Q as direct support, the film would have played a lot better, and leaving Blofeld as the mastermind of a massive criminal organization too big to be easily dismantled for another film would have been the smarter move. The Blofeld story provided some narrative thrust for Bond's character here, but in a sense it detracted from the connection he was supposed to be forming with Swann.
The way the film ends, with Blofeld captured, and Bond riding off into the sunset (I told you, spoilers) with Swann seems oddly conclusive for a Bond movie. It really does wrap up this quartet of film with a little bow, and in a way leaves the series open for subbing in a new Bond in the next one with the same supporting cast. All the delving the Craig movies did in digging into Bond's backstory and family mythos can be dispensed with, and a new Bond can get to work with his crew of M, Moneypenny and Q, in the structure of Bond of old almost without missing a beat. It really seems fit for new blood at this point. It's not that I don't want to see Craig in another Bond movie, but if the next one is going to be his full bore (pun intended) Diamonds Are Forever I'd just rather not.
Would it surprise you, given all my kvetching above, if I said I didn't hate this movie? Because I didn't. But I went into it wanting to love it. With Mendes' Skyfall (which I still need to give a proper "Double Oh..." entry, as right now this site only holds my first review of it) being one of my favourites of the series, and without question being the most visually impressive of the entire series, I was expecting more of the same. One of the common complaints about Skyfall was that it was teasing the old Bonds too much, that it was too in-jokey or borrowing too much from the past. I thought that it managed to be its own movie, its own story (and a rather engrossing one at that) while still paying homage to the past in fun ways. This one, however, felt less homage and more rip-off, really trying to capture a Bond sensibility that the Craig films shied away from unfortunately to its detriment.
It all starts with the pre-credits action sequence in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival. Mendes captures the glamor and revelry of the festival with extreme beauty. It's nothing I've ever experienced in real life, but it looks amazing. It's like being at a Comic Con on Hallowe'en. Everyone's dressed up but there's absolutely nothing commercial about it... the skeletons and wardrobes and masks and face paintings are so individual and so diverse, despite being of the same ilk. It's all black and white and grey with these great pops of color. And the massive crowds, Mendes captures the scope of the festivities so incredibly well. Then Bond goes adding a wrinkle of chaos by accidentally exploding a building and narrowing escaping death after the rooftop he's standing on collapses and a convenient sofa breaks his fall. It is a wonderfully orchestrated action and comedy sequence, with the beats of each quite distinct, but Craig stepping up off the couch really recalls Moore for the first and only time this movie. It leads to a chase through the crowd and ultimately a fight aboard a helicopter (I forget how many helicopter sequences Bond has had now, but this one seems to be visually alluding to the opening of For Your Eyes Only to some degree) but it's here that the film has its first falter. That Bond keeps attacking the pilot, putting himself and the teeming masses of Dias De Los Muertos revelers in jeopardy feels too reckless even for him. That the sequence ends with him flying off in the copter, and not returning to the woman he left in a hotel room earlier in the sequence is the most decidedly un-Moore Bond thing and was the tip off that despite his best intentions Mendes doesn't quite get that style of Bond movie.
There's a lot to like in this movie, and even the stuff I don't like I don't hate, I just wish they'd made different choices, in some cases slight ones, in others much larger ones. There's a lot of complaints laid down on Quantum of Solace for being too thin on plot and too action focused, but it was made during a writer's strike and really works as balls out action and stripped-down Bond plot. Here there's almost too much plot and definitely too much focus on the action, with not enough attention to relationship building, particularly between Bond and Swann, but also Blofeld and Bond. These things do work to an extent (perhaps just conceptually) but execution wise they don't have the attention they deserve. And when Bond winds up in the villain's lair, and that whole aspect feels entirely rushed, that's a problem. I think about Bond at Silva's abandoned island, and the wonderful chemistry between Craig and Bardem that's allowed to breathe, while at the same time presenting two characters with familiarity with one another by sheer fact of the roles they have played in the service of M, and the way they play back and forth off one another. In the mix of that there's moments the film gives to Craig to service the arc of the character being a bit out of condition for the job, and it all works so beautifully to fulfill the story. Here, Bond, Swann and Blofeld share the same space, and Waltz tries his damnedest to inject a sense of familiarity between the characters, and a sense of meaning and purpose to their gathering together, but it never actually comes. The whole arrival at the isolated base of operations, just Bond and Swann with no back-up, leaves the question dangling exactly what Bond's plan is (he says he might not come back, so is his only goal to kill Oberhauser?).
But I'm bitching again.
Bond's infiltration of the Spectre gathering is one of my favourite parts of the film. The shadowy organization's nefarious dealings are driven in, highlighting exactly how deep their tentacles run in society, and the challenge ahead of Bond in weeding this organization out of global commerce and politics will take more than just cutting it off at the head. As such, his commitment to destroying Blofeld should then be personal but Craig didn't sell that angle enough. It's a nice touch that Bond tosses the videotape of Vesper's interrogation aside, a sign of his having moved on, but at the same time every death close to Bond (that Oberhauser has taken responsibility for) seems to have steeled him even more, such that wanting straight up revenge, rather than doing the job doesn't come across.
Bond gets an exploding watch and a really cool car with ejector seat, tailguns, flame throwers and another custom switch that's a pretty good gag too. I have to admit, the tricked out car feels out of place in these Craig Bond movies, but also was a welcome sight.
Classification [out of 01.0]: 00.5 - This one may grow on me in time, but I feel let down right now. I'm going to scour the reviews and read all about the Sony email leaks and studio notes and other scandalous sundries and just fill my noggin with useless trivia.