“Spectre” – A Review

10 Nov

SpectreJames Bond is necessary. Perhaps a necessary evil, but still necessary. The man is a paid assassin, literally possessing a license to kill. The franchise celebrates a violent, misogynistic, alcoholic, who is nevertheless charming, handsome, brilliant, and ridiculously good at his job. The man is necessary because he’s been saving the world for the past fifty years. The franchise is necessary because it modernized a whole genre of film. There are those who pooh-pooh action films as shallow, testosterone-filled, gun crazy, sexist, violent, and completely absurd. I mean, how many car chases have you ever witnessed in real life? To those who find action films repulsive, I say fine, your loss, go watch a three hour long Polish film. Action flicks can be silly, stupid, and completely unbelievable, but the very best are pieces of brilliant escapist entertainment.

The word entertainment is too-often derided by those who think that enjoying art on a visceral, animalistic, sexual level is wrong. On the contrary, entertainment is a form of art. The James Bond movies have always understood this. The best Bond films are filled with grotesque absurdities: a woman is killed after being covered in gold paint; a man is killed after he swallows a shark gun pellet, blows up like a balloon, and explodes; a woman kills men by squeezing them with her legs. Villains possess plans which are insanely complex (and at least twice involve hijacking spaceships), and henchmen use hats or steel teeth as their weapons of choice. In some ways Bond movies are akin to superhero stories: they possess an intentional lack of emotional depth combined with nonsensical plots. The best action movies all follow this same script. Just look at what is arguably the finest film in that genre: Die Hard. Think about that movie for a bit, and tell me, does it make any sense?

The recent Bond films have been a change of pace. Bond has a backstory, he has emotional depth, he “feels.” As played by Daniel Craig, Bond is a stoic who cares deeply about those close to him, but rarely if ever shows it. Casino Royale, based on the very first Bond novel, is perhaps the best film in the entire series. Quantum of Solace is a step back, but it still a far better film than many claim. Skyfall is the most personal of all Bond films. These films are unique in that they go beyond being merely Bond films to being terrific movies outside of their own niche genre. Similarly, The Dark Knight trilogy was so good because it wasn’t just a series of superhero films; they transcended the shackles of genre while simultaneously celebrating the very best aspects of genre.

Spectre, the 24th film in the franchise, and the fourth – and probably last – featuring Daniel Craig, is a return to normalcy. While the plot starts more or less where Skyfall ended, and while there is more emotional complexity than pre-Craig Bond, Spectre is a more traditional Bond film. This is a smart decision by the filmmakers. Letting Bond be Bond removes some of the darker elements that were present in the newer films and reminds us the films are best when they are silly, stupid fun.

After an opening set-piece in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations (buildings explode, helicopters turn upside down), Bond is reprimanded and grounded by M for going rogue. What Bond cannot tell his superior is that he’s obeying the final order given by M’s predecessor (Judi Dench). Soon, Bond has stumbled upon a super-secret global terrorist organization – SPECTRE, and it’s shadowy leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, doing what he does best). Joined by a former adversary’s daughter (Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, one of the best “Bond girls” of recent years), Bond travels from Mexico City to Rome to Austria to Morocco and finally to London. There’s a car chase through Rome, a car/plane chase through the Alps, a fight scene on a train, and plenty of buildings blowing up.

There’s also Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser. When we first see him he is in the shadows at the end of a long table listening to his underlings report on their latest acts of terrorism with the bored monotones of middle managers discussing a quarterly report. Later, at his Moroccan lair, Oberhauser stands amidst hundreds of lackeys analyzing pieces of information, and playfully taunts both Bond and Swann. Even when things don’t go his way, Waltz’s Oberhauser has a cheeky, all-knowing smile, similar in its madman-ness to Heath Ledger’s Joker.

There will be those who dismiss Spectre as a step back in the Bond franchise. It’s a mistake, however, to believe that Skyfall was the way of the future for Bond. It was merely an aberration, an outlier, an experiment in making Bond more soulful and realistic. At that it succeeded. Still, Spectre does not shy away from some of these deeper elements. In some ways, they are even more nuanced than in the previous three films.  An oft-repeated concept in the film is trustworthiness. Can M trust Bond after repeatedly disobeying orders? Can Swann trust the enemy of her father? Can Bond trust Moneypenny and Q, or will they rat him out? The answer to all of these questions comes down to this: you may not be able to trust these people, but at this particular moment in time, you have no other choice but to trust them if you want to survive.

Spectre also delves deeper into Bond the killer. Can he be anything but that? Does he want to be? Is coldblooded murder a learned behavior, or is it part of Bond’s intrinsic nature? As M points out in a bit of moral gamesmanship: “A license to kill is also a license not to kill.” The question hangs over our hero: does he still have that choice?

This question of the intrinsic nature of James Bond the man goes back to my argument about the intrinsic nature of James Bond the franchise. Some books, movies, and television shows become themselves after a while. What made the Star Wars prequels mediocre was not necessarily the tone deaf dialogue or the inclusion idiotic of characters who will remain nameless. What hurt those movies was not what was present, but what had disappeared: a lived-in universe and a sense of awe and wonderment that had made the original trilogy classics. Similarly, while Man of Steel was not the terrible movie that many make it out to be, it wasn’t a Superman film either. Those movies are bright, shiny, all-American objects. Man of Steel was dour and somber like The Dark Knight trilogy; but where those films could be dour and somber because it’s Batman, Man of Steel had no right distancing itself from the Superman brand.

Therein lies the success of Spectre. It’s Bond, James Bond, with gadgets, awesome cars, malevolent villains, superhuman henchmen, hot ladies, chases, fights, incredible escapes, and plenty of double entendres. Hell, it’s even got Bond saying, “Hello, pussy.”

Final Grade: B+

See in Addition

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: My personal favorite Bond film, and one of the few pre-Craig entries in the canon that possesses a darker side.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: One of the best spy films of all time, depicting the zero-sum game of the world of espionage. With Richard Burton at his haggard best.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply