Tuesday, 25 April 2017

BRIT PICK: Spectre (2015)

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Spectre (UK/ USA, 2015)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw

One of the most obvious characteristics of the Bond series is that each instalment of the franchise can sit on its own. Modern audiences are asked to believe that the character has been the same age for more than 50 years, and the series has bent or tinkered with its conventions ever so slightly as the decades have rolled past in order to stay relevant. While this has kept the Bond series as a whole firmly in the realms of fantasy, it has allowed individual entries in the series to push for something more gritty or realistic; if it works, it's embraced and carried forward, and if not the series reverts to type with very few tears.

Since the franchise was effectively rebooted with Casino Royale, an approach more becoming of comic books has been employed: different writers and directors come in and somehow try to stitch all the character's actions together into an overarching narrative. Doctor Who, Sherlock and Star Wars have all shown that this is not an easy thing to pull off, and it's harder still to convince an audience that such an undertaking was always intentional. Spectre attempts to tie together the events of its predecessors with a story about chickens coming home to roost - and while there is much to applaud about Sam Mendes' film, it is also riddled with problems.
The first such problem is the amount of emphasis given to each of the previous films. You would imagine that any story which seeks to claim that the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were all an elaborate means to bring us to this point would place an equal weight on each instalment and the events therein. Instead, Quantum of Solace has been practically airbrushed out of history; besides the odd mention of Quantum, we get no reference to its plot and Dominic Greene is never seen on camera. The refusal to even hint at it is too constant a factor for it to be an accident; it is as though the whole production threw up their hands, admitted that it was terrible, and then asked us to forget that it ever existed.
A related problem is that the script for Spectre is deeply conflicted, especially when it comes to the film's female characters. Madeleine Swann is written like two completely different people who have been composited; one moment she's being icy cold, compelling and giving Bond a run for his money with a gun, the next she's being captured for the umpteenth time and needing to be rescued. For all the steps forward that the Daniel Craig era has taken, it still can't resist a damsel in distress.
None of the women in Spectre are given a fair crack of the whip. Even if we put Léa Seydoux to one side, that still leaves us with Monicca Bellucci. The film has a great opportunity here, casting an older woman with the promise of a deeper relationship. Instead, she gets five minutes of screen time to look scared, sleep with Bond and then leave. Dressing her in stockings is at best a nod back to Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies and at worst just lazy fanservice. Not every woman in Bond's life has to be helpless without him, and the series has been at its best when the women are equal to him - either in a fetishistic way, like Xenia Onatopp or Bambi and Thumper, or something more mature and three-dimensional.
Then there are the villains to consider. Sherlock's Andrew Scott waltzes through the whole film like he has "bad guy" tattooed on his forehead, but at least he's fully committed to what he is doing. Christoph Waltz, meanwhile, is completely underwhelming as Blofeld. Having Bond and Blofield as adopted brothers is workable, but Waltz can't decide whether to play it as the Jew Hunter from Inglorious Basterds or as a straight-up pantomime. He seems uncomfortable in the costume, looking like Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II but without the threat. Either it's just a bad performance, or Mendes didn't know what he wanted from the character.
Further evidence of a confused director can be found in the torture scene. The rope torture and poisoning scenes in Casino Royale were justified; they were both an effective means of moving to a grittier style and a meaningful way of showing Bond's vulnerability. Torture has been used as a novelty in Bond films before - there's a lot of it in the Brosnan era, whether Xenia's thighs in Goldeneye or the neck-breaking chair in The World Is Not Enough. But here it feels all too routine, as if Mendes said: "We need a torture scene here" and then got the specifics from a trip to the dentist.
Like Skyfall before it, Spectre makes a number of conscious nods to its back catalogue. There's a lot more references to the Connery era this time around, with the DB5 and the gadgets on the DB10 nodding to Goldfinger, and Blofeld's cat and base borrowing heavily from You Only Live Twice. The sequence on the train is essentially a more stereoidal take on the train fight in From Russia With Love, and Swann's appearance particularly in the dining car is strongly influenced by Tatiana Romanova. But unlike its predecessor, these references are here for their own sake rather to make any attempt at justifying the franchise's longevity.
There are a lot of plot details in Spectre which don't make sense or which are disappointing - another probable consequence of having four writers. The DNA scan on the Spectre ring is both a very arbitary gadget and a contrived plot device, asking us to accept both the technology and the fact that all the people involved would have worn the same ring. Then there's the ease with which Bond is able to blow up Blofeld's base, or the comparable ease with which Blofeld is able to wire up the whole of the MI6 building without anyone noticing. The final act is deeply anticlimatic, falling emotionally short where The Bourne Ultimatum hit a home run.
In the midst of all these niggles, flaws and frustrations, there is an awful lot about Spectre which can be enjoyed, at least in the moment. For all its concessions to cliché, the film does make some interesting points about our increasingly surveillance-driven world and how easily it can be manipulated. The set-pieces are beautifully filmed, with Mendes lending excellent coverage to both the car chases and the long opening shot in Mexico. If you only watch Bond films for the car chases and fight scenes, rest assured they are still exhilirating enough to allow you to gloss over the plot holes.
There are also improved performances within the supporting cast. Ben Whishaw's Q in Skyfall was essentially Brains from Thunderbirds, but here he becomes more rounded and appealingly tetchy. It's a different Q from Desmond Llewellyn's, but it still feels like a kindred spirit. Ralph Fiennes was always going to have a hard job following Judi Dench as M, but here he rises to the occasion, taking the tension he exhibited in In Bruges and bringing along some devil-may-care attitude for the ride.
The best aspect of Spectre, however, is the scene involving Mr White - if nothing else because it is the most effective at tying up a part of the overarching story. There's a wonderfully bleak, pathos-ridden quality to the scene, with one man utterly defeated and the other delaying the inevitable. The writing is unpredictable but coherent, with Craig and Jesper Christiansen dualling brilliantly and the latter giving a sad, dead-eyed performance. Hoyte von Hoytema, who shot Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, does a fantastic job, contrasting the dark, oppresive colours in the cabin with the stark, deathly white of the snow.
Spectre is a watchable slice of the Bond saga which pales in regard to two of the three films which preceded it. It's still heaps better than Quantum of Solace, if only because it always has a rough idea of where it is going even during its moments of writing conflict. But while its visual spectacle can give Casino Royale and Skyfall a run for their money, it doesn't have either the brains or the heart to rise above them. Bond fans will embrace it, but the rest of us will be expecting more effort next time around.

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NEXT REVIEW: 8 Mile (2002)

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