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Spectre (2015)
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by Brett Gallman

"Writing's on the wall, indeed."
3 stars

When we last left James Bond in “Skyfall,” he seemed to have finally been firmly rebooted and locked into the comforts of familiarity.

Finally, it seemed as if the next adventure would be in the more traditional mold. However, I couldn’t help but notice the faint sense of melancholy rumbling beneath a status quo that involved a man reassuming the M position and Moneypenny being planted behind a desk. For a film that reveled in nostalgia, its final moments were clouded by a hint of somberness that seemed to ask if a return to form could truly be triumphant. Three years later, “Spectre” provides an answer that’s muddled at best: it features Daniel Craig in his most familiar outing yet, but also makes the argument that the previous films were correct to resist familiarity. At some point, tradition becomes formulaic, and “Spectre” struggles to straddle the line as it continues to reconfigure and reconfirm the Bond mythos—again.

In truth, the tension between embracing the formula and resisting it is the most compelling conflict of “Spectre,” a film that, quite frankly, often seems to operate on autopilot. From the prologue—which has Bond skulking around a Mexican Day of the Dead festival in pursuit of a mysterious terrorist—it thrives on a mystery that’s never quite as intriguing as it should be. Rather, it mostly functions as the impetus that allows Bond to glide from one exotic locale to the next: a posthumous recording from the previous M (Judi Dench) implores him to chase down the terrorist in Mexico, which in turn leads him to Italy and into the arms of a criminally underused Monica Bellucci.

This, too, is but a layover (on multiple levels), as he’s quickly off to Austria, then to Northern Africa, with each stop proving to be more informative and exposition-laden than the last. Somewhere along the way, Bond uncovers a nefarious, shadowy organization responsible for orchestrating multiple terrorist attacks, falls for his latest conquest (Lea Seydoux), and has to once again prove his usefulness to another round of government oversight committees looking to shut down MI6 and replace it with a global intelligence network.

If the presence of such an invasive network sounds like a typical Bond villain plot, rest assured that “Spectre” has little intention of hiding this fact. From the moment Andrew Scott smarmily drops by as the British government’s representative, he all but broadcasts his role as a mole for the more ominous and shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, whose iconic attire similarly telegraphs another reveal that has no business being a reveal). At no point does “Spectre” stray from the narrow, obvious path that “Skyfall” seemingly charted for it.

For better and for worse, it’s the Bond film that traditionalists have clamored for since Craig assumed the mantle. Depending upon your persuasion, the last couple of outings have either been frustrating or refreshing, as EON has playfully poked, prodded, and explored what a “Bond film” truly is, almost to the point of teasing the fan base with familiar but rejumbled signifiers. As someone who falls into the latter camp, “Spectre” feels so much like an exhausted parent finally giving in: “here’s your stock gun barrel opening,” it seems to say before checking off the rest of the list in an effort to satisfy a mythical formula.

But, like any decent parent, it insists that the audience eat its vegetables too, which in this case amounts to the franchise’s continued pursuit of recent trends—if “Skyfall” was the franchise’s “Dark Knight,” then “Spectre” strives to follow down the same conspiratorial rabbit hole that lead to “Star Trek Into Darkness.” In an era that almost demands overcomplicated interconnectedness, it follows that “Spectre” would take a route that insists on wrapping up the entire Craig run with a nice, tidy bow. To an extent, this is not the most misguided approach, particularly since the earliest Bond films found a connective tissue in S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the terrorist organization that resurfaces here.

The problem comes when “Spectre” wraps its bow so tightly that it eventually suffocates the mythos it’s so desperate to resurrect. That the franchise would eventually retreat to this particular turn of events feels inevitable, what with all the nostalgia baiting in the previous entry; that it would take such a ridiculous, anticlimactic path is perhaps surprising. Though it’s a stretch to say that the film’s central reveal is shocking, spoilers are in order from this point forward, as it’s this twist that threatens to unravel “Spectre,” if not the rest of Craig’s run (if ever so slightly).

Not only is the film somewhat hilariously committed to telegraphing its every move (there is an entire, ominous scene in which Bond ruminates over a childhood picture and his adoption papers), but its eventual surprise is deflated by a clumsy delivery. Despite its best efforts to drape Waltz in mysterious shadows during his first appearance, there’s no mistaking him for who he truly is: not only is it obvious that he is actually Ernst Blofeld, but it’s also fairly clear that he and Bond go way back—all the way back to a childhood that left him so bitter at his family taking in an orphan that he murdered his own father and became ringleader of an international crime syndicate. All of this to, yes, simply spite James Bond.

We know all of this because the script tasks Waltz with delivering monologue after monologue in its ruthless commitment to checking off the list of shit you expect to find in a James Bond movie. While it obviously comes with the territory, it’s such a dispassionate (yet ridiculous) moment that it can’t help but fall flat. Regardless of the script’s attempt to increase the personal stakes by weaving Blofeld’s backstory into Bond’s own past, it somehow only reduces the tension between the two. The connection is so artificial and contrived that you never feel it, no matter how much Waltz attempts to spell out his contempt and menace. There’s simply nothing between these two; in fact, the odd bond between Bond and Jesper Christensen’s returning Mr. White is far more fascinating (but all too briefly explored).

The newly established link with Blofeld reeks of the Bond franchise’s latest attempt to keep up with the cinematic Joneses, something it’s admittedly struggled with for 40 years now. Nearly every film since the Roger Moore era is a reflection of its competition, and never is this more apparent than it is with “Spectre,” a movie that connects dots seemingly out of an obligation to ride the current wave of continuity-laden shared universes.

Sometimes, it’s enough for an arch-nemesis to simply be a megalomaniac hellbent on destroying the world. Here, I’m not even sure what Blofeld’s objective is beyond sticking it to Bond thirty years after the fact. Somewhere amidst Waltz’s ramblings are platitudes about information and power, but he’s mostly concerned with rubbing Bond’s various failures in his face. Like, literally—the climax here involves him forcing Bond to see pictures of everyone who’s tormented or haunted him in previous movies.

It almost feels ironic that “Skyfall” ended with Bond’s repeated insistence that he’ll solider on “with pleasure,” a final line that perhaps hinted that the next film would finally embrace Fleming’s pulpy, escapist roots. Instead, “Spectre” comes with a bit of a hangover that often leaves it submerged under a dour haze. One can hardly accuse it of lapsing into self-parody—unless one counts its grim-faced insistence on self-seriousness in the face of silliness to be a more latent (and perhaps more insidious) strain.

Because let’s be real: “Spectre” is silly as fuck. It operates on the sort of logic straight out of the classic—and often ludicrous—Bond mold, right down to a villain practically picking 007 up from the train station, transporting him to his lair, and delivering an evil monologue (in between, a goddamn bird call serves as his veiled threat). Somewhere in between, goofy leaps in logic—such as Q somehow decoding identities from the DNA on a ring—are required to keep the plot gliding along. None of this would be much of a problem if the film didn’t proceed as if it were somehow above all of this—once again, there are unsubtle winks towards the audience to indicate that “Spectre” is aware of the silly legacy it’s supposedly outpacing. While not altogether different from “Skyfall,” the approach has worn a bit thin here—a film can get away with it when it’s genuinely subverting or commenting upon the formula. Hell, even “Quantum of Solace” goes for broke in completely blowing up the formula. “Spectre" just feels like a classic Bond film in denial.

For whatever reason, Bond is still hung up on what it means to be Bond or if the world even needs Bond. It comes with no small amount of irony that this particular franchise has begun to suffer from self-doubt and lack self-confidence. Again, this is worth exploring so long as the film has something to say, but “Spectre” only has half-hearted, muddled political musings on modern surveillance and a 007 that seemingly can’t wait to quit, a particularly baffling development given the entire point of “Skyfall.” The attempt at crafting an honest-to-god arc for this iteration of Bond is almost admirable: this is a quartet of films that ties together nicely (almost too nicely), but the final couple of bows have been clumsily and hastily tacked on. Of all the leaps the film asks you to make, buying that James Bond has finally found the woman that makes him want to settle down may be the biggest.

Granted, this only partly the fault of “Spectre,” which arrives in the shadow of a tradition that typically treats women as conquests, never to be heard from again. Forgive me if I am skeptical that this will be any different, especially since the closing credits once again insist “James Bond will return.” Finality and 007 are incompatible: part of the character’s appeal is his latent immortality and eternal recurrence. I’m not saying it’s impossible to imagine a final Bond story, but I am saying it’s a tall task that “Spectre” doesn’t conquer, if only because the relationship between Bond an Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann is all on the page. The chemistry between Craig and Seydoux never reaches the levels the script would have you to believe—in fact, I found myself blindsided when the climax insisted that this was a genuine love story rather than Bond babysitting his old nemesis’s daughter.

I don’t mean to sound so down on “Spectre,” a film that has plenty of nice parts that it can’t quite put into working order. At its center is Craig, still glowering through the proceedings as a rugged, weary Bond, while also flashing the wry, urbane swagger befitting the 007 mantle. It’s the closest he’s come yet to looking as if he’s having a lot of fun, often in spite of the tone deaf movie surrounding him. With the renewed commitment to formula comes the familiar dynamics: here’s M (Ralph Fiennes) admonishing Bond for rogue activity, here’s Q (Ben Whishaw) playfully antagonizing him with gadgetry.

Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is back behind the desk, though she thankfully does more than simply pine for Bond (in fact, Bond’s jealousy of her is one of the self-aware nods that works). Even though the supporting cast is often just that, each character is at least afforded moments throughout; MI6’s finest might not be as spry as their “Mission: Impossible” counterparts, but the genuine team aspect here is welcome—you’re just left wishing there were more for them to do rather than act as convenient plot devices.

Somehow, there’s a lot of that going around in “Spectre.” Despite clocking in as the longest Bond film to date, it seems to shortchange its stellar cast, including Seydoux. With an alluring mixture of beauty, danger, and vulnerability, she’s the platonic ideal of a “Bond girl,” though the script’s early, promising attempts to tinker with character dynamics is snuffed out by a lame damsel-in-distress routine. We’re a far cry from the interesting sexual dynamics in “Casino Royale” here.

Waltz, too, feels as if he were born to be a Bond villain. His take on Blofeld is perhaps rightfully muted compared to his iconic predecessors (until he’s forced to go over-the-top, complete with a big fucking scar on his face—that’s right, “Spectre” is an origin story for Blofeld’s scar). He’s both sinister and playful all at once, and it’s just too bad a bulk of his screen time is dedicated to delivering tedious, expository monologues. So much of his performance is an exercise in dryly recounting the connect-the-dots plot that he doesn’t have much time to craft Blofeld into an actual character. I spent most of the time hoping he’d survive, if only to let “Spectre” serve as a mulligan.

The same is true of Dave Bautista’s Hinx, appearing as the best Bond henchman in years. Because the character’s appeal thrives on his enigmatic charisma, it can’t be said that he’s wasted. Rather, there’s just enough here between his incredible entrance, metal-plated fingernails (perfect for skull-crushing, it turns out), a car chase, and a train brawl for the semi-mute brute to make a mark. Out of all the film’s attempt to recapture a familiar, formulaic glory, this is the most successful, so much so that it wouldn’t be the worst idea to allow him to follow in Jaws’s footsteps as the rare recurring henchman.

Other bursts of inspiration abound: the opening shot—a bravura, fluid, long take tracking Bond through a crowded Mexican plaza—announces the film’s audacious sense of style and its commitment to wowing an audience through sheer spectacle (or just plain weirdness in the case of a bizarre credits sequence that mixes tentacles and eroticism). Bond’s usual assortment of carnage involving planes, trains, and automobiles is on display, though even many of these sequences reflect the film’s unwillingness to truly embrace everything about the Bond formula. It wants it all: the grounded grittiness of Craig’s run, the quaint familiarity of the franchise roots, the self-aware nudging of said roots, all in an effort to go big but not ludicrously big. Attempting to stuff all of these contradictory ambitions results in a bloated, overcooked entry that nearly represents exactly what “Casino Royale” attempted to outrun.

How, though, can a franchise truly outrun the specter of its own past when it’s constantly looking over its shoulder and having a glance? At this point, the furtive glances have almost become full-on naval gazing: Bond has, perhaps fittingly, become an exercise in narcissism on some levels. It can’t stop looking at itself in the mirror and flipping through old photos, which, again, wouldn’t be problematic if it were engaged on the same level as its predecessors. Instead, the best it can do is sometimes fret over itself in the mirror and wonder if it’s still relevant as it fumbles for some sense of identity. Say what you want about earlier films coasting on contemporary trends—at least they (mostly) knew exactly what they wanted to be.

“Spectre,” on the other hand, is Bond’s mid-life crisis writ large, right down to its obsession with fancy cars, younger women, and its hero’s desire to take this job and shove it. A pronounced identity crisis emerges as it wrestles with resisting or relaxing into a formula, leaving us a stranded at a franchise crossroads with no clear direction after a film that feels overwhelmingly fine and nothing more.

The only thing it can be sure of is that James Bond will return, but it never makes the case that it really believes he should.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27484&reviewer=429
originally posted: 11/12/15 22:48:37
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User Comments

2/12/17 morris campbell good not great bond movie 4 stars
3/11/16 Charles Tatum Could've lost half an hour, but still good stuff 4 stars
2/10/16 Mp4movieshub It is a Bond-movie so you can’t use normal criteria. I think Craig does a find job in the 4 stars
2/05/16 David Marsden Boring and lame. Bond movies used to be fun. 2 stars
1/22/16 tueliawkbh USA 4 stars
1/22/16 Loopy Nothing all that interesting here, well made isn't enough 2 stars
1/18/16 oz1701 Daniel Craig sleepwalks through an old fashioned unstirred 2 stars
12/08/15 The Big D Not a bad action movie, but nothing like traditional bond. 3 stars
12/02/15 1800suckmydick Yawn. 2 stars
11/14/15 rcurrier Not as good as Skyfall, better than Quantum and all the Moore Bonds 5 stars
11/13/15 Jack I was surprised at how much I liked it. Much better that Skyfall! 5 stars
11/10/15 the truth the best bond movie in 9 years, ties up the Craig era w/ a bow - AWESOME 5 stars
11/10/15 mr.mike Chris F is right, theme not so bad 5 stars
11/09/15 KingNeutron Theme song was pretty bad, but I really liked the film overall. 4 stars 4 stars
11/08/15 Koitus Worth seeing in the cinema for the opening scene. Yeah, theme song sucked sweaty b@lls... 4 stars
11/08/15 Chris F Craigs best Bond film so far. 5 stars
11/06/15 Bob Dog Bond jets to exotic Dullsville. 2 stars
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  06-Nov-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-Feb-2016

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