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The past is prologue.  So goes some home truth in case of the latest James Bond chapter, Spectre.  Coming after the stunning Skyfall, perhaps one of the best of the franchise, this newest caper has a lot to live up to.  Director Sam Mendes, returning for his second go, throws his viewers an unexpected loop by making a very insistent connection to the previous films in the current canon and shows us that 007’s foes this time are a lot closer than he thinks.

Practically paralleling the present time of release, the story opens in Mexico for a raucous celebration of El Dia del los Muertos and a whole populace celebrating the opening of the veil between life and death.  As revelers made up as sugar skeletons dance through crowded streets, their masquerade enables one tourist to add to the numbers of the deceased.  James Bond’s pursuit of a shady underworld figure will not only bring entire edifices down around his ears, but endanger the gathered merrymakers as he goes a bit far to stop a helicopter from spiriting said deviant away.  His explosive visit sets off shockwaves back home in London, where the agent’s home organisation, MI-6, is finally pushed onto the chopping block by ambitious politicians with big ideas about drones and cloud technology eliminating any possibility of there ever being an uncontrollable loose cannon like Bond again.

What his beleaguered boss doesn’t understand is that Bond is actually acting on orders.  A video mailed to 007 after the tragic death of his previous master (mistress?), M, demands the spy eliminate - not investigate - certain named figures.  Such was Bond’s devotion to the prior M that the current M cannot stop him, even after injecting him with nano-trackers.  Bond refuses to give up the trail and with the help of the loyal, newly-deskbound Agent Moneypenny, and the creator of all MI-6’s shiny gadgets, Q, he discovers what the late M was onto was much larger than anyone could have suspected.  Right under the collective nose of the global protection agencies, a countermeasure to all those good intentions, ominously called Spectre, has sprung up like a weed with roots (or, in this case, tentacles) that wrap around and threaten to choke the world.  The terrorist clan is so securely embedded, it has wreaked havoc in unexpected ways and places while setting itself up to snatch the biggest prize; full access and control of the upcoming amalgamation of the earth’s bad guy intel.  Data on every field operative and operation stands to be exposed and chaos will rule, which is exactly what Spectre is looking forward to.  

My foremost impression about Spectre is that while entertaining and fun, it’s no Skyfall.  Where Skyfall had the benefit of the requisite exciting action set pieces, it went into the personal story of Bond the man, as opposed to dealing with our hero one-dimensionally as the cool, suave seducer with a license to kill.  There’s a continuation of that a bit here, but it’s almost overdone with an ineffective result.  Trying to remain (relatively) spoiler-free; by film’s end, you realise the main villain (cos there’s always some small fish to fry first) who’s spent innumerable zillions and ruthlessly crushed countless lives has done so because he’s got daddy issues.  Worse yet, daddy issues that the writers haven't even bothered to flesh out sufficiently.  Then again, Silva from Skyfall got his Oedipal on in his vendetta against M, but carefully teetering on the edge of camp, Javier Bardem brought a creepy, unbalanced menace that is simply absent from this latest miscreant.  There’s really nothing special about this villain, and Christoph Waltz plays him in such a reasonable, unremarkable way that he might as well have been a persuasive insurance salesman instead of the shadowy figure brilliant and powerful enough to gather every evil force on earth to his stable.  The most attitude Waltz musters is annoyingly quirky (The constant “cuckoo”-ing) or perhaps elfin.  This wouldn’t have been so bad had I not seen Waltz magically work that quirk into diabolical terror in Inglourious Basterds, and stir up a torrent of righteous might and destruction from the (comparatively) still waters of his Django Unchained character.  After watching Spectre, I began to wonder if Waltz had anything more in him?  As it stands, his villain, regarded by most fans as the greatest in the Bond pantheon, is pretty unimpressive.

Also pressing that daddy issue button our Bond Girl.  This time around, Madeleine Swann {Léa Seydoux} has made escaping from her father’s corrupt influence her life’s work.  Her whingeing at Bond when they first meet and her refusal to believe she’d better catch the first train out of Dodge before her dad’s old assassin cronies arrive, gets tiresome quick.  She’s capable enough (Her ability to pack a different drop dead gorgeous haute couture ensemble for every scene into one suitcase is surely some high military secret), but she mostly serves as Bond’s Jiminy Cricket, urging him to just turn away from his life as a spy.

While we’re speaking of Bond girls, considering how far the series’ producers have come from the vacantly pretty models only good for window dressing and rescuing, I was kind of jazzed by the announcement that the Italian actress, Monica Bellucci, would play one of 007’s ladies.  At age 51, she is the first fully grown Bond Woman.  Since Skyfall had broken ground in Bond love interest casting by choosing two actresses of colour for the first time, it seemed a natural progression for 007 to actually interact with a woman *gasp* near his own age.  Shocked does not even begin to describe my feeling when I saw how very wrongly the directors of photography and lighting had done to La Bellucci.  She must’ve made somebody really mad on that set because the actress looks every second of her 51 years and more.  She’s lit in this awful yellow tint which does not flatter her lovely olive skin, and she’s shot from under her chin; an angle that’s merciless to even the most dewy ingénue.  What’s even more appalling is that (and yes, I have to spoil this) for her all of ten minutes onscreen, she doesn’t even get any from Bond!  What?  Had I walked into the wrong movie?  As the not-terribly-aggrieved widow of one evildoer, Bond requires some information from the lady, and we all know how JB normally gets his intel, but not this time.  I have no idea what the filmmakers were going for with her, but this was a terrible misuse of the lovely Ms. Bellucci.

There’s also a passé feeling to many of the set pieces which is ever a kiss of death to anything James Bond.  Instead of the riveting MMA-style hand-to-hand fight in Shanghai we adored in Skyfall, we get a bulky, Jaws-like behemoth (The WWE’s Dave Bautista) with a thing for eye-gouging, tossing Bond around a train car for a bit (Reminding me of From Russia With Love).  In an almost Roger Moore-era bit of cringeworthy comedy, this varlet utters one unpleasant syllable before he’s dispatched.  I suppose it’s tough to top oneself film after film, but it’s pretty much part of the job of making a James Bond movie.  There’s plenty of bombast, as with the hotel collapse in Mexico and the crater hideaway explosion in the Sahara, but it feels strangely detached and hollow.  The entire script bears none of the startling and unexpected emotion of the previous film, despite some heavy-handed attempts at making that correlation again.

What’s good: The folks at EON Productions have heard my fervent prayers and given me more Q.  Ben Whishaw returns as the super genius nerd with a bevy of fabulous toys he struggles to keep out of Bond’s accident-prone hands.  Perhaps sensing the age group around 007 and his antagonists was looming closer to AARP territory, Whishaw gives a bright spark of youthful archness against Bond’s worldly-wise, cocksure swagger.  He even gets a chase scene as the Spectre henchfolk suss out that he is one of 007’s tiny, trusted army and run him around the ski lifts of Geneva.  That experience, combined with what his own intel bears out, makes the Quartermaster that much more appreciative of Bond.  Also on 007’s side is the spritely Moneypenny (the fab Naomie Harris), who trusts her former partner (in every sense) no matter what.  Still possessed of her Skyfall spunk, when a late night call comes through from Bond, he seems a bit put out at how she’s not exactly sitting around waiting for their in-field romance to rekindle.

Q’s most amazing toy this time around is what I’d considered the film’s true Bond Girl.  The absolutely blindingly beautiful Aston Martin DB-10.  It’s truly a work of art.  Sleek and curvaceous, the ghostlike silver vehicle is more than just a heartstoppingly pretty face, as it races another British icon, a Spectre agent’s Jaguar C-X75, around the streets of Rome, breaking many laws, including those of gravity.

The moral of this story: Reflecting the current world, even in a fantastical sense, the James Bond writers have always kept a page in reality.  As we keep hearing about computer hackers able to enact hitherto impossible security breaches, that peacekeeping governments could seriously consider gathering all their most sensitive information, whether financial, criminal, political, or otherwise, into one potentially hackable cloud database is just madness.  Another modern conundrum is the all-too-hearty embrace of drone warfare by many of the world’s powers.  This is a big motivation for the film’s new Defence Minister, who’s mighty gung-ho to put all those dangerous, unwieldy Double-0 agents – Bond, in particular - out to pasture.  The movie shows us a great argument to back M’s anti-drone rebuttal that having a license to kill means also knowing when not to pull the trigger.

Daniel Craig has been vague about whether this movie would ring in his last round of vodka martinis, and as able as he is in Spectre, I sense it’s already becoming pretty routine.  I did feel that considering how very many links there were to not only Craig’s previous Bonds, but to others by Messrs Connery and Moore (I was gutted there was no Baron Samedi reference with all the skeleton people at the Day of the Dead sequence), the very end scene of Spectre could hearken to another older 007 adventure that sort of stands as a lone wolf.

Spectre is a fun ride while you’re in it and certainly worth seeing on the big screen, but once you’ve left the theatre, the hollow script, increasingly rote action and strangely staccato pacing doesn’t lend itself to linger in the mind, give any residual thrills, or desire for repeat viewings.  My time was mostly spent connecting the Bond trivia dots.  I’d be happy if the filmmakers went back to whatever it was that made Skyfall such an engrossing, exhilarating experience on every level, but until they can work it out again, Spectre will do.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov. 6th, 2015

 

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