Friday, November 6, 2015

A Reel Review: SPECTRE

SPECTRE; the 24th film in the 50-year old James Bond franchise, is not only a sequel to its predecessor, SKYFALL (2012), but it also serves as a grand finale to the four-film arc populated by Daniel Craig’s turn at the super-spy character. A standalone film it is not and it demands knowledge of the last three films. But not content to be just a piece to the puzzle, SPECTRE does manage to be its own thing; for better and for worse.

A message from the past leads secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a hunt to discover the business of a worldwide sinister organization called Spectre, which is led by the mysterious Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile back in London, Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes), his quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) and assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), fight off a political attempt to abolish the secret agent program; an effort led by Denbigh (Andrew Scott).

Long-time fans of the 007 films will lap up SPECTRE faster than a thirsty mutt in a creek. Where the first three films of the Daniel Craig era danced around the old Bond mythology and never quite felt like the old days, SPECTRE makes an earnest effort to embrace it fully. The old gadgets and silliness are back, along with the standard template that the series of films followed for decades. As Bond bounces from country to country (and woman to woman) in his pursuit of Spectre, director Sam Mendes, in his second outing helming 007, uses every opportunity to saturate his spy-adventure in all things Bond with many winks-and-nods, all while keeping Bond in the sights and offering peeks behind the rough exterior of the master assassin.

Where SPECTRE starts to lose its grip is in the telling of the bigger picture. The script, which is credited to four different writers, is a wee-bit of a mess as it spews out a convoluted path for Bond to follow which requires a road map for the audience. So much is unclear, that it’s easy to forget exactly why everyone is shooting at and punching each other, or exactly what Spectre as an organization is supposed to be after. The script also takes some major shortcuts to move the plot along, which results in Bond making some incredibly dumb decisions. The narrative is a jumble of wooden pegs looking for a round hole.

Mendes still gives a lot to be pleased about. His action and fight sequences are a thrill to take in, and an opening tracking shot has to be seen to be believed. The film looks great, and the exotic locales are stunning…but not even Mendes’ mastery of the technical side can get away from that damn script he has to work with. There are major leaps in logic and characters get rushed to places way too fast, and overall the stakes never feel that high, even though we’re told one too many times that they are. Thomas Newman’s score takes advantage of some of the classic Bond themes but is generic filler outside of that, and Sam Smith’s opening theme song is torture on the ears and should be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

Daniel Craig puts in a fine performance as Bond, and does let us know that underneath his rough exterior there is more going on, although his charm doesn’t seem to be on much of a display. Christoph Waltz is his usual cartoon-like self, and as a super-villain doesn’t have much to do other than seek power and is as one-note as they come. The Bond Girls, consisting of the very beautiful Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux, both act their parts well although the former isn’t given much to do other than provide exposition. Bond’s office staff of Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Naomi Harris handle their roles very well as they are given actual things to do, and the show is nearly stolen by Dave Bautista, who as a hulking master assassin, gives Bond a true run for his money.

As a James Bond film, SPECTRE does fit in the overall series just fine and gives fans a lot to enjoy. As a movie on its own, it feels way more complicated than it needs to be, and the screenwriting-by-committee becomes very clear in the last hour. That sort of imbalance does make SPECTRE unique, but not in a great way.


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