Spectre

Spectre (2015): Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes takes his second straight trip behind the camera of a Bond movie, three years after the titanic success of Skyfall. Bond’s 24th saga is his longest, nearly 150 minutes, and his most retrospective.

Many times we see the images of fallen friends and foes from the Craig sagas. Perhaps a symptom of the current world-building Hollywood marketplace, or perhaps a chance to do something different in a film world so constrained, the Eon Productions team succeeded in creating a story that can stand on its own and as a sequel.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The author of James Bond’s pain (no, not Ian Fleming) unearths Bond’s past to terminate his future.

Hero (6/10)

Bond spends most of the movie running from British intelligence and his past. No previous Bond movie concerned itself so much with ones that came before. Spectre‘s Bond is angry, going rogue in the opening scene, fulfilling a dying wish of his former boss’s.

He finds love, actual love, in the daughter of a former enemy. Whether Bond feels the same way he never says. Vesper Lynd’s death, in Casino Royale, continues to weigh on him, especially when he comes across an interrogation video of her in L’Americain.

Despite the hauntings of dead, remembered specters, Bond is all smiles with his associates. He and Q still engage in their typical banter. And when Bond invites Moneypenny to his flat, he has the energy and drive to flirt with her, despite being suspended and worried about what to do next. Perhaps Bond, this time, sought the familiar when he felt unmoored.

Craig’s Bond finds the most humor in villains trying to torture him. Recall when he laughed at Le Chiffre and told him the whole world “will know you died scratching my ball.” He laughs, though less heartily, at Blofeld’s nerve ending technique.

Craig, in his fourth and possibly final turn as Bond, seems to have lost his joie de vivre. How much is the script and how much is the actor? Hard to say, but the evidence, if slight, was on screen.

Villain (7/10)

“The author of all your pain.” Sums up Blofeld in a nutshell. Christoph Waltz dons the buttonless sport coat of Bond’s most frequent villain. He is the head of the octopus that is SPECTRE. Blofeld was once known as Franz Oberhauser, a young man whose father raised James Bond after the latter’s parents died in a climbing accident.

Oberhauser didn’t like having a brother, even a figurative one, so he killed his own father, casting James to the winds, where MI-6 caught him. Blofeld doesn’t appear often in Spectre, but when he does, he makes an impact.

Blofeld first appears at Sciarra’s funeral, when he felt the presence of Bond behind and cocked his head juuuust enough to show that he wore sunglasses. I guess he wanted Bond to know his frame style.

Blofeld speaks initially during the Spectre meeting. The terror group meets in an expansive villa outside Rome following the Sciarra funeral. They’re scared, after what Bond did to one of their own. Bond infiltrates the meeting, which is well into its bullet points.

All the chairs at the world’s largest and most sinister board table are filled, save one. The bannisters are crowded with Spectre hangers-on on the second tier overlooking the table. If the people sitting at the table are the octopus legs, then these standing folks are the suckers.

But the head is missing. For a while the board members discuss the Nine Eyes vote not going their way–yet. They also discuss who will head Spectre’s Christmas Bake Sale. Eventually the doors open and several men enter. Previous Bond fans know one is Blofeld, and the others appear to be his bodyguards.

The room falls silent. Blofeld takes his seat in the chair left empty for him. He says nothing, makes no gestures. His face lies in shadow. One of his cronies slides the small microphone to him. Still, none speak. Blofeld bides his time, finally tapping the mike button and saying, “Don’t let me interrupt you.”

The board member who was speaking when Blofeld entered, continues the sentence he had been speaking. Blofeld rests his right wrist on the table, gently curling his fist in the most calculated manner in which you can curl your fingers. It’s creepy. All his gestures are creepy.

When Blofeld greets Bond and Swann in his meteorite chamber in the Moroccan desert, he first speaks from the shadows. This is a Blofeld motif, his octopus-like hunting from the dark deeps. Blofeld steps into view, but instead of standing normally, he slants his right leg away from him and turns his toes outward. The gesture is slight, but very off-putting.

Blofeld is a man so powerful that he controls his evil minions like machine cogs. As dozens of Dieter-clad computer techs watch the camera feeds of the newly approved Nine Eyes surveillance program, Blofeld shuts off the feeds. They stop watching, stand in unison, and face their leader. He’s got that kind of control.

The more I think of Blofeld, the more he creeps me out. Waltz nails the sinister villain. Portraying any Bond villain always presents the danger of walking into ham territory. Waltz is skilled enough to avoid the ham and spend all his time turning your guts.

Blofeld is like the anti-Joker from The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker was “an agent of chaos.” Blofeld wants total control, yet they act in similar ways. Consider that Blofeld seems as interested in destroying the mythos of Bond as carrying out his schemes. He begs Bond to shoot him on the bridge, just as The Joker begs Batman to shoot him in Gotham’s streets. Blofeld also offers Bond a choice of who to save: himself or his love. Blofeld also has a death wish.

Action/Effects (8/10)

What better way to start a Bond film than with a festival celebrating what’s to come. La Dia de los Muertos.

The film opens on a parade of skeletons through Mexico City. Bond, holding the hand of a beautiful woman and wearing a skull mask, follows another masked skeleton through the crowds. The camera tracks the parade, the white-suited mark, and Bond in one long shot.

Bond and his ladyfriend walk into a hotel and take the elevator to a hotel room. They smooch a little, and Bond has enough time to pull off his skeleton suit and reveal a regular suit. He must have been hot in there. And he’s about to turn up the heat.

Bond assures her he’ll be right back, as he walks out of the window with a small gun. Typical stuff. The camera pulls back to track Bond’s route across the rooftops with the party in the background. It’s a beautiful city.

Music has played throughout the entire scene. The movie opened with a Mexican-style beat of drums heavy on the lower tones. The music never stops, which boosts the tension across the slight changes of scene. When Bond walks across the rooftops, the classic horns of dozens of Bond scores subtly bleed into the drum beat, reminding us this is still a 007 flick.

Bond trots to a ledge and arms his gun. Across the street is Sciarra, the white-suited man, who is telling another guy all the key information for blowing up a stadium the next day. Bond kills a few guys then BOOM. His little gun shot a grenade into the building and, uh oh, it’s collapsing.

The building smashes into Bond’s, and he leaps to grab a ledge just as the roof cantilevers into the floor below. In a terrific stunt; the roof crashes and Bond slides down it in one shot. He leaps down another level and falls safely onto a couch.

He ain’t done. Sciarra runs through the streets to the plaza, where there’s a big concert going. A helicopter lands in the middle of all those people. Bond chases Sciarra onto the chopper and starts fighting. Fighting inside a small helicopter is a bad idea, unless you like doing flips and stalling the engine when you aren’t strapped in.

Bond likes these things, and he trades blows with the white-suited man before he kicks him out and goes to work on the pilot. I wondered why he didn’t just make him land somewhere. Roger Moore would do that. But Craig’s Bond is pissed. He throws the pilot out and flies the chopper across the city to safety. His ladyfriend is left hanging.

The Day of the Dead opening was a terrific kickoff to the longest Bond movie in history.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Léa Seydoux portrays Dr. Madeleine Swann, daughter of Mr. White, who we thought was the source of Bond’s problems, but was really just another stooge. Bond promises to protect Swann in exchange for information about Oberhauser. 

Swann hates her late father and refuses to deal with Bond. But when Hinx shows up to snatch her from the One Percent mountaintop clinic, she changes her mind. Wait, actually that made her more opposed to Bond’s help. But she eventually decides to help, because she really is caught up in a world bigger than her.

The filmmakers develop Swann more than most Bond Girls (trademark Eon Productions). Swann gets drunk in Tangier, and, falling asleep, laments the current course of her life. Yeah, that’s not much, but it really is more than usual.

Swann learned some tricks from her father. She can handle a gun, despite hating them, or perhaps because she hates them. One trick she probably didn’t learn was how to wear a silver dress, because she nails that on the train to the desert.

Many a Bond Girl has fallen for Bond after initially resisting him. Swann is no different. She claims to be in love with him by movie’s end, which I found preposterous. Life and death situations can do that to people, I guess.

Henchmen (5/8)

Dave Bautista, former UFC legend, dons a very large suit to play Mr. Hinx, a name I only learned when I looked it up. Bautista doesn’t get a word in until he is milliseconds from death. He lets his dual-barreled hand cannon speak for him.

Hinx debuts in the Spectre meeting, auditioning to replace the deceased Sciarra. Someone asks him about his credentials. He smashes the other job candidate’s head into the exquisite wood table, lifts it (the guy’s head), and slowly inserts his metallic thumbnails into his eyes. Hire that man!

Hinx is as skilled at henching as he is silent. He matches Bond skills driving high-performance cars through Rome’s slippery stone streets. He tracks Bond to the mountaintop Hoffman Clinic for the Ultra Rich and Socially Inept, survives flying through a windshield, and takes a shot in the arm (the hindering kind) while fighting Bond.

Hinx is a classic Bond villain–he doesn’t speak and physically terrifies. All his hulking and brooding and smirking comes in impeccably tailored suits.

Andrew Scott took time from his role as ubervillain Moriarty to play a henchman. He plays C, the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence and frat buddies with the UK’s Home Secretary. Having watched the BBC’s latest Sherlock iteration, I am familiar with the quirks and terrifying gaze of Scott’s Moriarty. I needed a few scenes to adjust and remember that this was a different character. Blofeld was the Napoleon of Crime in Spectre.

C exudes weaselly bureaucrat who wants to unite intelligence gathering across nine countries and bring their populations under total surveillance. M opposes this for being undemocratic, but he’s mostly powerless. Politics, am I right?

Scott gives us one Moriarty stare-light after he’s revealed as a colleague of Blofeld’s. And when he tumbles from his office level to the floor of the CNS building, and his death, I half expected him to come back after faking his death, because Moriarty would totally do that. I don’t think he’ll be back for the next Bond, though.

Stunts (6/6)

Bond movies always save their work for the stunt actors. First on the list must be the brutal train fight between Bond and Hinx. Trains are great places for fights for the same reasons as planes are, but with the stakes a little lower. You can open a train door and throw someone out without having the train crash, but it’s still dangerous.

Hinx breaks up a sexy drink scene to smash the table used by Bond and Swann. Hinx is very Jaws-like in his mass and taciturnity. He absorbs blows from trained assassins like mosquito bites. Doesn’t stop Bond from trying. Hinx smashes a metal pole with his fist. He sends Bond crashing onto tables and through walls.  The fantastic Hinx-Bond fight on the train should be remembered.

Climax (2/6)

Spectre tricks us with a false climax. Blofeld brings Bond and Swann to his secret compound, and of course he reveals his hideout and devious plan to both. Blofeld latches Bond to a chair and starts to torture him. We all think this is it for the movie.

Blofeld drills into Bond’s brain, for untold reasons. He tries to break the nerve which allows for facial recognition, but fails that. He points the tiny drills at Bond’s eyes, muttering something about eyes as metaphors.

Bond gives his explosive watch, the single gadget Q let him have, to Swann, who has just professed her love to him. With seconds to spare, she slides the watch toward Blofeld, and it detonates, but not before Bond tells him, “time flies.”

Bond and Swann escape into the desert as 007 guns down a dozen henchmen. Why are these guys wearing black in the desert? The heat probably affected their aim. They all miss, and Bond doesn’t, although he takes care to shoot the men farther from him.

Luckily for Bond and Swann, most of Blofeld’s facility is flammable. The watch explosion triggered a larger explosion that destroyed the entire facility in one massive detonation. Thankfully, the production team did not shy from large explosions, and the Spectre facility dies in one big, smoke-filled blast that fills the screen.

Bond literally says, “This isn’t over yet.” Message received, 007; I’ll just get back in my seat. They go back to London to meet with M. The whole Nine Eyes thing is going online in JUST MINUTES. M and Q are in C’s office, overwriting the code for the surveillance program so the whole world won’t be under Spectre’s tentacles. M and C fight, ending with C’s falling over the edge of a railing and down, down, down, onto the floor.

Bond, meanwhile, is infiltrating the ruined former headquarters of MI-6. On a wall of the etched names of those who died in the explosion Silva set off in Skyfall, someone has written, Joker-like, “James Bond” in red at the list’s end. Some arrows guide the agent through the halls and the wires presently crisscrossing the building.

Bond passes holding cells, now empty save for the photos of lost loves and conquered villains. The pictures really tie the films together. Bond finally finds his prey. Blofeld stands in a room, not facing the entrance but a side wall. He stands statuesque, as if he forgot that Bond was hunting him and that was the whole reason for his being there.

Bond shoots at Blofeld. The bulletproof glass stops the rounds. Blofeld taunts him a little bit, in the way brothers taunt, and gives him three minutes to escape the building. Oh, and one other thing, Dr. Swann is hidden somewhere inside. That Blofeld, he’s so devious! Blofeld starts the timer, which will detonate and demolish the building’s ruins.

Bond finds Swann of course, who was watching the countdown. Blofeld, in his luxury helicopter, watches Bond watch him. He’s got a thing for voyeurism. Bond and Swann flee the building by way of five-story fall onto a net luckily constructed for their benefit. The building detonates in a wide shot just as Bond speeds a boat onto the Thames.

Bond ain’t done. He’s after Blofeld, who thinks he’s getting away and that Bond is dead. Swann drives the boat as Bond draws his handgun and shoots at Blofeld’s helicopter. If this sequence reminds you of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, you aren’t the only one.

Bond hits the chopper and it crashes on a bridge. Bond stands over Blofeld as he crawls from the wreckage. Will he shoot the villain in sight of M and the bobbies? He thinks about it. Blofeld eggs him on. Bond says, “I’m out of bullets,” as he unclips the pistol.

Faced with one more choice, Bond must decide to which end of the bridge to walk. Will he choose M?Will he choose Swann? in the final scene, Bond drives down London in the restored Aston Martin, Dr. Swann in the passenger seat.

Spectre offered dual climaxes. Having Bond tell us that it’s not over yet felt forced and unnecessary. Concluding the film inside old MI-6 instead of the desert data center didn’t improve the film, nor did it worsen it. Trying to elevate C to co-villain status forced the film to conclude along the Thames, when perhaps the danger would have been more real in the Moroccan desert.

Jokes (2/4)

Mendes and writers John Logan and Neal Purvis found plenty of room for jokes. The highest rate occurred during the Rome car chase. Bond, having “borrowed” a slick new car from Q’s Garage (airing Sundays on BBC America this spring), doesn’t know how its gadgets work.

Hinx follows him in similar low-slung sports vehicle, and Bond needs to get rid of him. First Bond arms the rear guns, only to learn that the ammunition was not loaded. Drat. He flicks one of the switches and activates a blast of the Chairman of Board crooning “New York, New York.” Good for a party, not for a car chase.

Bond must slow for an old Italian puttering in back streets in a Fiat. The super spy rams the Fiat as Hinx approaches, and sends him softly into a parking space, kindly blasting the airbag into the guy’s face.

The movie’s best joke? M breaks into C’s office and tells him the jig is up. C pulls a gun on M and squeezes the trigger, but M removed the bullets. Duh. M says, “Now we know what C stands for.” We all had a good laugh at that. “Careless.” Did M know he was making a joke? I can’t decide. He’s smart, but he’s also stuffy and English. No matter, I laughed.

Setting (4/4)

Spectre‘s settings shine as brightly as the sinister gleam in C’s eyes. Tangier was my favorite. It wasn’t Casablanca, but it sure reminded me of Casablanca. London, Rome, and Austria also play a role, and they are all beautiful and filmed beautifully. Exotic locales are one of the attractions of Bond movies, and they always get it right.

Austria shines as the most attractive, even in the snowy winter. It’s peaks and alpine trees are too spectacular to be ignored. Bond flies his plane through the forests, and the trees take off his wings. He crashes the wingless plane through a barn full of firewood in a terrific stunt.

London we’ve seen. Rome we’ve seen, but not as evocatively lit and at night. The whole city looks orange, probably from the lights but also the old stone monuments that proliferate in the Eternal City. Compare the beauty of the walls lining the Tiber to the squalid concrete canals channeling the Los Angeles River we have seen so often in car chases in movies set there.

London, surprisingly, provides the best backdrop for Bond’s exploits. The Thames becomes a shadowy, secretive channel full of nooks and crannies. MI-6, literally underground since Silva blew up its headquarters, seems at home scurrying along the banks of the ancient river in grey boats under grey skies.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema draws out a key color in each setting. Rome is all orange, its lights and buildings. London is grey, as it always is. MI-6 is a puke-yellow, more ancient ruin than recently functioning building. Austria is white. But Austria is often white because it is covered in snow. Maybe he doesn’t get credit for that one.

Commentary (1/2)

Much like in the previous Bond film, Someone is dying to shut down Bond and his double-O buddies. This time it’s the Home Secretary through his agent, C. M confronts C several times, often with the lower hand.

M asks C if he’s ever had to kill a man. “Sometimes,” M says, “a license to kill is also a license not to kill.” No computer can know what human brain can know, and they aren’t good enough to be the only eyes in the nation’s intelligence head. People still have to do it.

If people still have to be spies, might they have to be other things too? Can we tolerate a world in which machines and robots do all our work? Do we, or can we, want to become Eloi? That’s the question at root of the drones vs. double-Os debate between M and C.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Long gone are the days of throwing around women because they are in the way. Bond is a relic of the Cold War, but his ideals might have updated. He’s so stone-faced that it’s hard to tell.

Others

  • (-1) It’s crazy that Swann would fall in love with Bond after so little time. But it’s also crazy that she would do it when a villain is drilling into Bond’s nervous system so he won’t recognize her.
  • Rome’s streets have very poor traction.
  • Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” neither wowed me nor bored me. I would place it in the middle third of Bond songs, so no points either way. Perhaps if Smith’s voice did not turn me off so much, I would feel differently.

Summary (46/68): 68%

Bond’s longest venture yet might be Craig’s last bow. The script seemed penned to that effect. Blofeld survives, and with his famous scar, but Mr. White is dead and the villains of Craig’s movies are brought back, figuratively, for some psychological torture. If we see no more of Craig, Spectre will help us remember him as the #2 Bond.