In one of the precious few MCC movie reviews ever to draw non-positive responses, I called Skyfall my favorite James Bond film of all time, based on having seen maybe ten or eleven of them in all. Even as a kid I never got excited about the concept of a globetrotting sophisticate who’s more into booze and hook-ups than he is into crimefighting. At least Batman confines his vices and his expensive suits to his off-duty civilian hours. If Bond were an Inside Out character, the simplistic emotions ruling his head would be Sex, Suaveness, Sarcasm, and Slaughter.
After the welcome reboot of Casino Royale and the redundant vendetta of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall struck me as the apex of Daniel Craig’s 21st-century take, which built to a genuine emotional arc for the usually one-note character, supported by stunts genuinely thrilling without resorting to renamed sci-fi Bat-gadgetry, by updated camerawork, and with none of the nonsense of the last two Pierce Brosnan farces. It was a film designed to reach beyond the typical fan base, and for me it worked.
Spectre, in contrast, is less about director Sam Mendes deepening the impact he made on the aging series last time, and more of the intellectual property’s longtime producers giving Bond Classic fans more of what they want. Lucky them, I suppose.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Well-paid location scouts send Agent 007 on a quest to visit high-end vacation destinations around the globe, and then someone wrote dialogue to stitch it all together into an Amazing Race episode in search of a host. Along the way Our Model earns points by collecting upscale fashion, accessories, and at least one luxury car. Side quests involve courting young ladies, extreme stunts, and 20th-century gunfights. So now you’re caught up on the entire Bond series to date.
The ostensible framing device for this Bond film is the British government’s threat to downsize Bond’s precious MI6 service and the slightly less precious MI5, and to replace them both with international state-of-the-art surveillance gadgets (sorry, spies — apparently robots are taking your jobs, too) all under the directive of a subdued Andrew Scott, better known and better written as the grandstanding Jim Moriarty from TV’s Sherlock. Meanwhile there’s an evil organization trying to take over the world through super-hacking. Where frantic good-guy typing has failed, now Bond must stop them with guns.
Technically there’s a twist the trailers more or less give away: this same organization employed the villains of the last three films. It’s a revelation 90% meaningless since we never see Hannibal Lecter, Anton Chigurh, and Quantum Guy team up and call themselves the Well-Dressed Dark Avengers, but it’s this close to intimidating when you hear it from Spectre’s becalmed leader, two-time Academy Award Winner Christoph Waltz, who tells us to call him by one name but later tosses out another nom du guerre that should be familiar to old Bond viewers. (No, not “Oddjob”.)
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Rory Kinnear all return as New M, Moneypenny, Kid Q, and MI6 Executive Gofer, as does one second-string nogoodnik from two of the last three films. (Curiously, no Jeffrey Wright this time, though he’s mentioned once in absentia.) Womenfolk this time include the record store clerk from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the Frenchman’s Wife from The Matrix trilogy, and a warm-up act.
Leading the legions of faceless henchmen is strongman Dave Bautista, last seen winning hearts and semantics debates as the heroic Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy. Sadly he’s silent throughout nearly every scene, spends most of his one hearty fight just throwing Bond into fragile inanimate objects (the least interesting movie-fight tactic of them all), and the one time he does speak, I couldn’t understand what he said. On the upside, we get to see Bautista — who in real life had a not-ideal childhood — driving expensive sports cars, wearing finely tailored suits, and enjoying the heck out of being a Bond baddie in the time-honored tradition. His moments, I thought, were kinda cool for reasons that had nothing to do with product placement.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The first ten minutes are the best reason to see Spectre. Once you get past the mandatory abstract-sexy opening credits and the latest Bond theme by Sam Smith (frankly, I preferred Adele’s), two grand tracking shots are stitched together to show an average day in the life of Bond: first a DePalma-esque stroll through a Mexico City Day of the Dead celebration and into an adjacent corporate shindig; then an abrupt about-face as Bond marches and leaps across crumbling, centuries-old rooftops with spy gear in tow to face his next targets, oblivious to the camera darting about and trying to match his determined pace. In mere moments the two sides of Bond are established back-to-back, the playboy and the professional.
And it doesn’t stop there. Spectre is the fourth film I’ve seen in theaters in 2015 in which the best stunt sequence involves wild helicopter barnstorming — see also San Andreas, Terminator Genisys (on second thought, don’t see that one), and most recently Ant-Man. Spectre‘s tops them all in this, the Year of the Helicopter, which should totally be a montage at next winter’s Oscars telecast.
Beyond that solid-A opening: average Bond. Fancy car chase. Train fight. Gunfights. One (1) torture scene in an upgraded dentist’s office. Buildings blowing up. And so on. As if to prolong the magic, the movie ends with a second helicopter sequence, but I’m convinced significant portions of it aren’t the real thing.
The following underlying themes are presented to varying extents:
1. Surveillance BAD. BAD BAD BAD. BOO SURVEILLANCE. BOOOOOOOOOO.
2. Not all new things are better than all old things.
3. Young things are sometimes okay as long as they know their place.
4. Murder is almost as bad as surveillance.
Nitpicking? Despite a strong yet understated showing by Waltz, his “Franz Oberhauser” racks up a fairly low body count for a Bond villain. Human trafficking seems to be more his thing (discussed but never shown for a second), though his master plan seems to have zero to do with that. Mostly he taunts Bond a lot, knows things he shouldn’t, and looks forward to using the internet to rule the world. Or something.
Otherwise, I think I got everything else out of my system in the previous sections.
So what’s to like? By now Craig has made the role his own, becoming like a comfy pair of slippers. He’s slightly less gruff than his first two outings, but not as nuanced as Skyfall, especially when the script requires him to fall in love awfully quickly. His sidekicks are afforded a few moments to shine, joining the front-line action more than they’re usually allowed. The core bad guys don’t seem to do a whole lot (odd considering this thing is dragged out to nearly 2½ hours), but at least they’re played by interesting people.
In all it’s a competent Bond film, but I’m not a huge fan of those. Whereas Skyfall triumphed with its scintillating, above-and-beyond assemblage of pieces of flair, after a fifteen-minute bravura showcase Spectre simmers down and settles for getting by. Look, we viewers want movies to express themselves, and if the Bond producers feel that the bare minimum pieces of flair are enough, then okay. But some movies choose to do more and we encourage that.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Spectre end credits, but upscale shoppers might take note of the “Special Thanks” product-placement checklist starring Omega watches, the car people, probably some millionaire tailors, etc. I get more than enough ads for all that in my Indianapolis Monthly subscription and I don’t pay attention to them there, either.
Below the cast but above the stunt-crew list, there’s a highlighted credit for helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron, who’s so awesome at what he does that his Wikipedia entry touts him as “the only pilot licensed by the FAA to perform aerobatics in a helicopter in the United States, and one of only three such pilots in the world.” Also, he’s a helicopter pilot with his own Wikipedia entry. I wish I knew if he had anything to do with the other movies that made 2015 The Year of the Helicopter, but if he did, at the very least it’d be nice to see him granted one of those special secret Oscars they hand out at the offdate offsite offscreen Sci-Tech banquet. It’s not much, but we need to treasure these amazing stuntpeople and pilots while they’re still with us, these stalwart performers who prove Hollywood would be foolish to try and replace them all with computers and robots.