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What makes a good movie? Now – what makes a good Bond movie? The answer to the former usually includes well-developed characters, strong themes and events that only exist to drive forward the plot. The answer to the latter is largely the opposite. Reviewing a Bond film therefore requires balancing the faults of film with what it is to be a Bond movie and as such, saying ‘I loved that’ becomes increasingly difficult.
SPECTRE is Sam Mendes’ second Bond outing after what I’d consider the fantastic, but largely overrated Skyfall and boy, have I ever missed Skyfall so much. It begins so promisingly with a symbolic and vibrant trip into Mexico’s Day of the Dead, in what is an impressive and beautiful long, single take, made all the more lavish in the 4K screening I was lucky enough to see. The Octopus symbol of the shady organization looms large from the off and promises a fantastic pay off. However, as Bond knows as well as anyone after frequenting behind MI6’s back, promises are often broken. Anyway, Q the Sam Smith opening sequence (see what I did there?). It plays out hauntingly, if uncomfortably. I was half expecting to see a naked Christoph Waltz.
SPECTRE pays homage in some fitting ways to Bonds of the past. Some of the cliché’s play out fantastically with a hilarious Q riff here and suave Bond jibe there. Waltz’s introduction as the shady Franz Oberhauser is beautifully shot in the shadows as SPECTRE’s reputation is terrifyingly darkened throughout the opening hour. Bautista’s henchman Mr Hinx is one of the highlights of the film, a silent physical menace that tails Bond’s journey like an ominous and sinister…freight train.
But from a story telling perspective, the latest Bond outing is deeply flawed. Bond appears to meet his foe, then disappears for a good ninety minutes of what seems solely like an opportunity to cram in backstory and exposition, only to meet Waltz again. Sure I hadn’t fallen asleep due to the genuinely entertaining and well shot action sequences, I found myself asking why exactly Bond started following some bread crumbs on a path that seemingly led nowhere – except of course to pointlessly tie in all of Craig’s other films. Actually, if anything, this move threatened to make Skyfall and Casino Royale less impressive.
Waltz was criminally underused (see what I did there again?). By no means the worst Bond villain, he had many memorable moments including a brutally filmed torture sequence. Waltz basically plays himself, which has worked so menacingly well in Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds that it just about works here. I say just about because the difference in SPECTRE being a somewhat inferior quality of writing – Oberhauser’s motivations seem trivial, underwhelming and actually bare no coherent resemblance to his actual plan. Here’s where the opening dilemma comes in – a tight focus on a message isn’t something Bond movies are renowned for, yet a good film requires this. SPECTRE like many other Bonds but very unlike Skyfall has a plan that seems discordant with the people acting it out. It’s a poignant mission for our times, it works in its own regard, but not when the main villain has a very personal vendetta against our protagonist. In doing so, other main characters stick out like sore thumbs. One feels like the writers, after twenty four of these films, are getting a bit sick, even if this did allow Ralph Fiennes to shine as the brilliant M.
The campiness is really upped, harking back to the old Bonds, which is really bizarre for such a dark story and, a dark protagonist. Craig’s eyes scream ‘take me seriously’; the visual gags and over the top technology betray him. Thomas Newman’s score doesn’t feel right, a weird quirky beat that could be scrapped for the serious tones of its predecessor, especially during a tense finale that instead of horror, goes for stereotypical action flare.
That being said, the finale is one of the stronger points of the film and would have been much stronger with a more suited score; it’s amazing how much difference music can make. Oberhauser’s playful puzzles are delightfully sinister; the cross cutting to MI6’s existence on the line is exciting and the resolution fitting for yet another outing that is insistent on delving deeper into Bond. Annoyingly, SPECTRE continues to try and convince us that Bond is a real person.
But Bond can’t be a real person, that is the point. Bond is an action man, a symbol for what many strive to be, a genre that can get away with poor developments and still be stupidly entertaining. If Bond is a real person, which this film would have us believe, then its pitiful five minute use of Monica Bellucci as yet another women haplessly fallen for him, and a seriously underdeveloped and all around confusing relationship with Lea Seydoux is very troubling for a film in 2015. A character at one point retorts ‘you don’t mean anything anymore’ and perhaps Bond doesn’t. In any case this has to commit to real or campiness and it simply doesn’t.
But I’d suggest we do need Bond. There’s something hypnotically entertaining about SPECTRE for all its faults; something glamorous and beautiful and undeniably likable. There’s little character development, action is rarely used to drive forward plot and the themes are all over the place; so I may not be able to say that I loved it, but I certainly find it hard to hate.