Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Spectre" Review: A Much More Traditional Bond Experience Than The Previous Daniel Craig Bond Films


One of the most notable aspects about the Daniel Craig era James Bond films has consistently been their reluctance to fall back into that old James Bond formula where he fights off super villains and their army of loyal goons as they try to take over the world. Casino Royale was more of a tragic love story with an extremely grounded villain, Quantum of Solace returned to the more action oriented aspects of the Bond films but was still more revenge story than the A-typical Bond versus Evil Genius and Skyfall took the franchise in a whole other direction by examining Bond's childhood
history along with one of the more menacing villains in the entire franchise. Some may say that those films had always been leading to this point and that the new film Spectre has finally crossed us over to that old Bond formula once again, for better or worse. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital IMAX             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 28 min
Studio: Sony Pictures 
Release Date: November 6, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Casino Royale, Daniel Craig as James Bond
Likes: Skyfall, serious James Bond
Neutral:  Quantum of Solace, campy James Bond
Hates: That they couldn't get Roger Deakens back as the cinematographer
Does Daniel Craig's apathy towards playing James Bond effect the films?: It kind of does which is sad.


Picking up shortly after the events that took place in Skyfall we find that MI6 is still in pretty bad shape. From the terrorist attack on their headquarters by Silva to the death of M (Judi Dench) and with a new threat in the form of C (Andrew Scott), a snobbish man who runs a global security agency that looks to do away with the antiquitated double O program and form a sort of United Nations Security branch, the newly appointed M (Ralph Fiennes) has his work cut out for him. As for James Bond (Daniel Craig), he has decided to go rogue (a common story device for the Craig films) and continues to pursue leads on the Quantum organization he uncovered when searching for the people responsible for the betrayal by the woman he loved, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and her subsequent death. He is closer than ever to unraveling the mystery that has eluded him for the past three films but at what cost does his persistence come?

Remember the days when a James Bond film was a fairly straight forward affair? Bond was given an assignment which led to numerous encounters with henchmen that more than likely had some sort of trait they were named after like Jaws who had sharp metal teeth or Oddjob who...did...odd....jobs? Bond would usually romance one woman who would later die and another who was usually tied to the villain in some way which would then lead him to an initial encounter with the villain only to be put in some sort of elaborate deathtrap for him to escape and ultimately foil the villain's evil plans of world domination. Well like it or not, those days are back again.


For everything the past three Craig films had done to set themselves apart from what many consider to be the franchise's more ridiculous nature, Spectre hits the brakes, busts out a U-turn and goes twice as fast down the opposite direction. The best and most apt example of this changing of the guard happens within the first few seconds of Spectre where we see the iconic image of Bond walking out from the side of the screen being tracked by a scope where he turns and fires at the camera. That scene has been played at the end of each of the three previous films instead of at the forefront like the classic Bond films. By placing that at the beginning the filmmakers have made it loud and clear that we have re-entered into that classic Bond formula once again.

This is all more or less going to come down to a matter of taste rather than if the film is bad or not of course. Nobody is saying those classic Bond films are bad per say (although avoid Moonraker at all costs), but there was certainly an air of campiness that has grown over the years in all of those films that most will say has aged them poorly. In comparison it is difficult to see films like Casino Royale or Skyfall succumbing to that same fate. They are in line with other timeless Bond classics like Goldfinger or even what is considered the best Roger Moore Bond film For Your Eyes Only. But enough with history lessons and speculations, let's get down to business here.


Spectre had a lot to live up to coming on the heels what many consider to be the best James Bond film ever made, an opinion this reviewer does not share. Skyfall was a very good film but to call it the best of the Bond franchise is jumping the gun for sure. Top five is a better assessment to make until there is some time between the hype and the truth. Regardless though, that is the viewpoint many had leading up to Spectre so even if that statement proves false over time that does nothing to give this film a fair chance at standing on its own in terms of its quality.

The filmmakers knew they had an uphill battle though so they pulled out all the stops when putting this film together. Many of the original writers had returned, Sony threw gobs of cash at Sam Mendes to return and direct and they even secured a heavy hitter for the villain this time around in the form of the impeccable Christoph Waltz (although they apparently couldn't afford the price tag to get Roger Deakens back unfortunately). But by far their biggest trump card was including the notorious evil organization of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) into this brave new Bond world. Long the running joke of the Mike Meyer's Austin Powers films, SPECTRE is a staple in the spy espionage film world and its inclusion, or its orign as it were, is not to be taken lightly, especially for long time James Bond fans.


However, pulling out all the stops means nothing if the actual material (IE the script) isn't up to the same standards as everything you are throwing at it and sadly that is the one place Spectre falls a little short. Although the writers admirably attempt to tie everything from the last three films together here it all feels slightly underwhelming. Part of this is because the reveal of SPECTRE is a little haphazardly handled. Even the opera sequence in Quantum of Solace had more impact than the glorified board meeting we see here. Aside from the introduction of a trademark Bond henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista) who has an affinity for putting his razor sharp thumbs into other people's eye sockets, we discover little of anything that we didn't already know beforehand.

The other issue is probably going to rub people the wrong way but it is a point that must be made, Christoph Waltz may not have been the best choice to play Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE. While I was like most who got excited at the prospect of having Waltz play a Bond villain since the man seemed destined for such a role, it may have been more advantageous to give him a character more befitting his nuances. Blofeld is an important character in the Bond world so reintroducing him shouldn't be taken lightly and while Waltz does flirt with greatness from time to time in the role (the drill scene in particular is a highlight) his many scenes of exposition heavy dialog fail to instill that sort of maniacal menace one would expect from such a prominent Bond villain. Most of the blame must go to the script though and shouldn't be directed at Waltz himself.


There are other problems that pop up as a result of the script as well such as a mostly uneventful first half. Sure there are a couple car chases with one through the streets of Rome at night and another through the a the snowy Alps of Austria, but despite their attempts to be thrilling they are both merely adequate. By comparison the opening sequence in Mexico City was far more interesting with that extended long shot following James through the crowded Day of the Dead festival. But even then the helicopter battle that concluded that sequence was merely par for the course when it comes to some of the more elaborate action sequences we have seen in the franchise over the years.

Another couple nitpicks that must be mentioned are things such as all the scenes involving M and the CNS. While not horribly distracting they do little to keep our attention and are thankfully easily dismissed since each scene lasts only a brief moment before we move on to more interesting things. This one is perhaps more than a nitpick but the way SPECTRE is presented here fails to illicit any sense of danger other than immediate threats. For an organization that is supposed to spread terror around the world they don't come off as anything more threatening than a group of voyeurs which begs a comparison to the villain from Tomorrow Never Dies who wanted to rule the world by manipulating the media. Even more perplexing is that given how smart Blofeld is portrayed it feels a little off when we discover that his entire evil lair can be destroyed by a single bullet.


Much like Skyfall and Casino Royale before it however the best moments in Spectre are its more quiet ones. These come in the shape of scenes like James courting the recently widowed Monica Bellucci (someone long overdue to be a Bond girl), his slow seduction over the feisty Madeline (Lea Seydoux) or even his many interactions with Q (Ben Whishaw) who is proving to be a real highlight in the Craig Bond films. The final confrontation between James and Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) which has been built up now for the past three films was also a surprisingly effective moment. The aforementioned discovery of Spectre is interesting as well but that comes from how the scene was framed and shot more than anything pertaining to its content. Probably the best sequences in the film though revolve around anytime James and Blofeld share the screen as the chemistry between both actors makes anything they have to say to each other a real treat regardless of them having a somewhat lacking script.

The transition from the new formula to the old has resulted in at least one major positive though which is the continued evolution of Bond himself which comes to a head in Spectre. Over the course of the past three films we have seen Bond go from brute, to careless to sentimental. Here the cycle concludes with him transforming, just like the franchise itself, back into the James Bond of old. Unlike the franchise however his transformation was always something we expected to happen as we watched him grow and learn with each installment. Seeing him in action here felt as if a promised made long ago was finally made good on and done so with zest. If there is one aspect to Spectre that no one can contest it is that Daniel Craig's Bond has come full circle in the best way possible.


Spectre serves up a dose of classic James Bond goodness but is that what audiences really want at this point? Skyfall was successful mainly because of how much it wasn't like all the other Bond films. As a matter of fact all of the Daniel Craig films have been standouts because of how different they were from everything that came before them. By reverting the franchise back to its roots so unceremoniously one has to question the motives behind it. Was it always heading to this point or did the filmmakers really not know where else to go after the massive success that was Skyfall? Either way you slice it Spectre is a solid effort and one of the better James Bond films out there. It isn't in the top five like Skyfall or Casino Royale but it also isn't in the bottom five with turds like The Living Daylights or Octopussy.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

James Bond fans should enjoy Spectre without a doubt as it carries with it all the hallmarks of the franchise that make it what it is. But new fans who jumped on board starting with the Daniel Craig films may find themselves chuckling a little here and there as visions of Austin Powers and Doctor Evil dance around in thier heads. Let none of this deter you though as this is a thoroughly enjoyable film that continues the best streak in Bond history since the good ole days when Sean Connery wore the suit and tie.

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