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Josh Reviews Spectre

Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Flemming’s James Bond, is not a completely terrible film but it’s a huge missed opportunity for the franchise and is probably the worst of Craig’s four Bond films.  (That’s right, I think Spectre is weaker than Quantum of Solace.)  This film should have been the triumphant and thrilling return of the best and most iconic Bond villains — S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld — after forty years on the shelf, but instead it’s a humdrum head-scratcher and I am left wondering what the heck went wrong.

Spectre.cropped

Spoilers ahead, gang.

One of my favorite things about the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  I loved that Quantum of Solace directly picked up on the events of Casino Royale, specifically Bond’s grief at Vesper’s betrayal, as well as bringing back characters such as Mathis and Mr. White, who was revealed to be connected to a criminal organization called Quantum (or perhaps Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.).  (One of my complaints about Skyfall, which I enjoyed but didn’t view as the triumph that most everyone else seemed to, was that it was a stand-alone adventure that didn’t continue the development of Quantum.)

This sort of continuity in the Bond series feels like a radical new idea, but in fact it’s a very old one.  Though the series became famous for each film’s being a totally stand-alone adventure, the original Connery Bond films had a gentle continuity between them.  Characters carried over from one film to another (such as Sylvia Trench) and we gradually got to learn more about S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the criminal organization behind much of Bond’s troubles, and its leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

A turning point in the Bond series — and what stands as the series’ greatest missed opportunity (though boy does Spectre give it a run for its money) — is the abandonment of that continuity following the terrific cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  That film under-performed and audiences did not respond well to the newly re-cast Bond, played by George Lazenby.  And so while the follow-up should have been the grand culmination of the story that had been slowly developed over the course of the first six films, an emotional and epic climax to Bond’s fight with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., now taken to an intensely personal level following the murder of Bond’s wife, the producers made the decision to totally abandon that story and quickly do away with Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  From that point forward, the films became stand-alone adventures and, following a brief and stupid appearance of a Blofeld-like character in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, that was the last we ever heard of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

At some point along the way, what might have been the producers’ choice was taken out of their hands by the decades-spanning lawsuit that resulted in the Broccolis, the producers of the “official” Bond films, being unable to use Blofeld or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in their films.  That this lawsuit was finally, after so many years, resolved, and that this new Bond film would bring back S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in a big way (titling the film Spectre was a huge announcement of the film’s intentions), was a source of tremendous excitement for me as I followed the film’s development and path to release.

The downside of continuity between films is the increased pressure to deliver.  A mis-step doesn’t just result in one bad movie that can be ignored in favor of the next, hopefully better, adventure — it risks toppling over everything that came before.  One of the greatest successes in this area is Marvel’s The Avengers.  That first Avengers film isn’t perfect, but it’s so damn great in so many ways that I found it to be intensely satisfying and a near-perfect culmination of the story that had built through Marvel’s Phase One series of films.  Had The Avengers stumbled, it would have made the time we’d invested in all the films leading up to it feel wasted.  This problem has struck various TV shows that have embraced continuity and long-form story-telling, most notably Lost, whose terrible final season totally undermined my years of enjoyment of the story up to that point.  If the story’s climax isn’t satisfying, the whole undertaking is lessened.  (Getting back to Marvel Studios’ films, the pressure is building even more so to their still-a-few-years-in-the-future planned Avengers: Infinity War two-part film, which is being set-up as the climax of the almost twenty films that will have come before.)

There are moments of continuity within Spectre that were wonderful pleasant surprises.  I loved that the film picked up from the events of Skyfall with MI6 headquarters still damaged and abandoned.  I liked the notion that Bond is still grieving somewhat over the loss of M (Judi Dench) and I loved seeing her little British bulldog trinket still around.

But Spectre totally flounders the return of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld and, in so doing, not only completely fails as a film itself but also undermines the three films that came before by so totally blowing what should have been the exciting climax of those stories.  I hardly know where to begin.  Let’s start with the film’s ridiculous decision to call Blofeld by another name for the first three-fourths of its run time.  Pretending that Blofeld is some other character we’ve never heard of named Franz Oberhauser is as dumb as Star Trek Into Darkness’ pretending that iconic Trek villain Khan was someone named John HarrisonSpectre repeatedly and laughably makes exactly the same stupid mistakes that Into Darkness (by far the worst of all the Trek films) made, including the staggering failure of the ultimate reveal of the villain.  When Christoph Waltz whispers to Bond that he is actually Ernst Stavros Blofeld, it mirrors exactly the same terrible scene in Into Darkness in which Benedict Cumberbatch declares that he is Khan.  What are meant to be shocking moments totally fall flat, because in both cases 1) the audience knew the truth since long before the film was ever released (I mean, come on, this Bond film was TITLED SPECTRE FOR GOODNESS SAKE!! WE KNOW BLOFELD WILL BE IN IT!!), and 2) the name is entirely meaningless to the other characters on screen so what should be a dramatic moment is met with a shrug.

I hate hate hate the modern tendency to connect the origins of the heroes and the villains.  There is zero need to connect the youth of Blofeld to Bond.  It’s not dramatic or tragic.  Instead, it undermines both characters by tying their fates to silly coincidences.  Even worse, Spectre doesn’t have the guts to really go for this idea.  From the moment early in the film in which Bond is (oh so conveniently) given a photo from his childhood of an old man and two boys, I rolled my eyes and thought: uh oh, they’re making Blofeld Bond’s long-lost brother.  (That has actually been my fear for months, ever since that photo was included in the film’s trailers.)  Look, making Blofeld Bond’s brother is a staggeringly bad idea.  But if you’re going to do it, then DO IT.  The film doesn’t, though, it softens the connection to the point of meaninglessness.  Blofeld isn’t Bond’s actual brother, he’s just Bond’s sort-of-step-brother because it turns out Blofeld’s dad helped raise Bond after Bond’s actual parents were killed… but then evil young Blofeld killed his dad (and Bond’s, I guess, sort-of foster dad) and faked his own death.  Sigh.  Have the guts to make Blofeld actually responsible for Bond’s parents deaths!!  That would have given the film’s story some actual emotional weight.  Or, and here’s a better idea, don’t.  Don’t try to short-cut your way into making your villain super-evil by making him responsible for a childhood tragedy in the hero’s life.  Instead, actually DEVELOP your character by showing us why he is someone to be feared, why he is a true threat to our hero.  It worked for Blofeld in the Connery Bond films fifty years ago, so why not now?

The film tries to connect Blofeld to all of the bad guys in the first three films.  In theory, I like this idea.  Show us that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has been in these Craig Bond films all along, though we didn’t realize it.  That could have been cool.  But the film fumbles this revelation, too.  Blofeld TELLS Bond (and the audience) that Le Chiffre (from Casino Royale) Quantum and Greene (from Quantum of Solace) and Silva (from Skyfall) worked for him, and he hangs up (very silly) photocopies of characters from the first three Craig Bond films for Bond to see.  But Blofeld and the film never bothers to actually explain to us how this could be, or what Blofeld’s ultimate motivation was.  (Was it really just to torture Bond?  Can it be that that is all Blofeld has been after, for all these years?)  A clever script would have blown our minds by referring to elements of the first three films that we’d accepted without thinking, only to reveal how and why Blofeld had been involved behind the scenes.  But this film can’t be bothered to do that.  In one of the film’s worst scenes, Q analyzes a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. ring and suddenly a hierarchy of the evil agency pops up, super-briefly, on his computer screen, with Blofeld on top and all these other characters from the other films below.  What?  How does Q possibly obtain that evidence from the ring?  The S.P.E.C.T.R.E. hierarchy is embedded in the DNA found on the ring??  How in the world is that possible?  It’s lazy shortcut storytelling of the worst kind.  Hiding out with Madeleine Swan later in the film, Bond finds a VHS tape labeled “Vesper’s Interrogation.”  I briefly thought we might actually get to watch that tape and learn something new about Vesper and the events of Casino Royale.  But no, Bond just tosses the tape aside.  It’s there just as a lazy way to say to the audience: “Look!  All these films are connected!!  Isn’t that awesome??” without actually bothering to explain to us HOW or WHY that could possibly be.

Sigh.

So what did I like in Spectre?

While the unusual placement in the film of the classic Bond gun-barrel shots worked in the earlier Craig Bond films, which were set up as Bond origin-stories, I was very happy to see the gun-barrel shot back at the very beginning here in Spectre, just as the good lord always intended.

The whole opening sequence was pretty great, most notably the spectacular long take that opens the film, following a disguised Bond through huge crowds, through rooms, and eventually out a window and onto the rooftops.

I also loved the Aston Martin vs Jaguar car chase, as well as Bond’s fight on the train with Mr. Hinx (the character played by Guardians of the Galaxys Dave Bautista, though the character is not actually named on-screen).  That train fight was a nice homage to one of the most classic Bond scenes ever, from From Russia With Love, but it worked as a cool, tense scene on it’s own.  Dave Bautista was great in the film (except for his meant-to-be-funny-but-I-found-it-lame last (and only) line of dialogue).  He wound up being a more successful villain than the wasted and stranded Christoph Waltz as Oberhauser/Blofeld.

For what I believe is the first time in the Daniel Craig films, Bond orders a martini shaken not stirred.

What else didn’t I like?

Wow was the title song underwhelming, and the visuals were equally a mis-step.  The writhing octopus and women were laughable, not cool.  (A “hentai nightmare” as I have read it very cleverly described.)  Craig’s Bond films are two-for-four in terms of their songs and opening credits.  (Casino Royale and Skyfall were solid, Quantum of Solace less so.)

With the spectacular final scene of Skyfall declaring that the Craig Bond films were FINALLY done with telling Bond’s origin, and it was time for Bond to at last get to work, I was annoyed that this film picks up with Bond and M at odds and with Bond (for the billionth time in the series) again gone rogue and suspended from official service.  How about actually showing us Bond and M, Q, Moneypenny, etc., actually functioning as a team??  We actually do get to see that towards the end of the film, and it works pretty great.  I’d like to see more of that.  (Look how much better Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films have gotten recently now that they’ve focused more on the team, rather than just on Tom Cruise as a solo superhero!)  Please no more Bond-gone-rogue stories for a while, OK?

Why repeatedly mention 009 and not involve that character in the plot?  Surely other double-oh agents might have something to say about their agency getting shut down?  Also, while, as I just mentioned, I enjoyed Bond’s supporting characters (M, Moneypenny, Q, and Tanner) getting to go off on their own little adventure in the film’s third act, and while I liked getting to see M prove himself capable in the field (a clever idea begun in Skyfall), I was sad that Moneypenny — who was established as an actual field agent in Skyfall — had so little to do in the action, and in the film itself.  Come on, Moneypenny doesn’t have to be just Bond’s secretary!!  And, four films in, isn’t it time to give Tanner (played so well by Rory Kinnear) something to actually do in the story?

I loved getting to see Andrew Scott (so memorable as Moriarty on the BBC’s wonderful Sherlock series) in the film, but are we really supposed to then be surprised when this character turns out to be a villain in the end?  Come on.

I was hugely excited when it was announced that Monica Bellucci would be in the film, but she is hugely wasted in what is basically a five-minute cameo.  Big let-down.  And watching Bond take her clothes off while she is crying was deeply uncomfortable.

There is also, unfortunately, zero chemistry between Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux (as Madeleine Swann).  Ms. Seydoux does her best, but the film’s script gives her zero character, and zero reason to eventually decide that she’s in love with Bond.  It gives Bond even less reason to be in love with her, which totally undermines the ending.  (More on that in a moment.)

There are so many plot holes in the film.  How did M first learn of Sciarra?  How does Bond find Mr. White?  (Speaking of Mr. White, I was very pleased that this character from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace was brought back.  He’s proven to be important connective tissue between these films, and he’s played wonderfully by Jesper Christensen.  I just wish he had a more central role to play in this film, and perhaps had been more important in Bond’s discovery of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.).  How does Q put the pieces together about S.P.E.C.T.R.E.?  How does Bond find Blofeld’s secret desert lair?  What was Mr. White hiding in that secret room?  Why do the bad guys want to kill Madeleine?  And on and on.

I am mystified by the film’s ending.  Are we supposed to cheer Bond’s decision not to kill Blofeld?  It’s funny, the first Bond film I saw in a theatre was Goldeneye, and I remember being surprised at the end that he let Sean Bean die rather than try to save him.  That’s not what heroes do, I thought at the time.  But as I then went back and dug deeply into the Bond series, I realized that this action was very much in character for Bond.  Are we supposed to cheer Bond here for not killing Blofeld, a man the film tells us is response for every terrorist action in the previous decade??  It just feels to me like a cheap way to keep Blofeld around for possible future sequels.  I’d have rather seen Blofeld actually being, you know, the brilliant criminal mastermind he’s supposed to be, and having a plan of his own to escape Bond at the end, rather than surviving just because Bond had an out-of-character feel-good moment.

Then there is Bond’s totally out-of-left-field declaration of love for Madeleine and his appearing to walk away from the service.  What are we to make of that?  Remember, the vast majority of the Bond films, pre-Daniel Craig, ended with Bond basically telling his bosses to fuck off so he could go shag the babe.  Is that all this is meant to be?  The seriousness with which those final scenes are played makes it feel like, no, we’re supposed to buy into the idea that Bond has found happiness and now doesn’t need to be a killing machine for the government.  It feels hugely unearned, and I don’t believe for a second this is really an “end” for Bond.  So why waste our time with such silliness, other than out of a desperate need to find an “end” for this movie?

Some other thoughts:

The film never establishes if the evil organization is called Spectre or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.!  In my mind, it is most definitely the latter, which is why I have written S.P.E.C.T.R.E. rather than Spectre throughout this review.  But really this is just my fanboyishness acting up.

Where the heck is Felix Leiter??  Why was this great character (played so memorably by Jeffrey Wright in the first two Daniel Craig Bond films) abandoned after Quantum of Solace??  He’s hugely missed, by me at least.

What was up with the film’s opening title card about “the dead”?  That intrigued me, and I wondered if this film would have chapter titles pop up at different points (which would have been cool, and very unusual for a Bond film), but that didn’t happen.

Have I mentioned how terribly wasted the great Christoph Waltz was in this film?  He’s brilliant casting for a 21st century Blofeld.  But the film abandons him.  Seeing a white cat in one scene (totally randomly!!) and seeing how he gets his iconic facial scar were not nearly enough.  (Really, do the filmmakers think we care how he got that scar?)  Show us WHY this character is scary and dangerous.  He’s supposed to be the head of a super-secret, enormous criminal organization!  So show us how brilliant this character is.  Show him being ahead of Bond at every turn.  Show us something about who he is and what he wants.  What are Blofeld’s goals?  What is his motivation?  Are we meant to believe he turned into a super-villain because he was jealous, as a kid, of his sort-of step-brother for two years?  Come on.  Show us the power of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and how the agency knows everything and is everywhere.  Show us that every member of this secret evil organization is a bad-ass.  There’s a moment in Blofeld’s lair (which is supposed to be an homage to the classic volcano lair from You Only Lives Twice but winds up being a lame retread of Greene’s desert HQ from two movies ago) in which all the people working at computers jump to attention, dressed in black, and I thought: “cool, they’re all ninjas!”  But then… nothing happens and we never see those guys again.

Sigh.

To see the return of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. — something Bond fans have awaited for decades — so badly fumbled is a huge disappointment.

James Bond Will Return, inevitably.  Will the next Bond film star Daniel Craig again, or a new Bond?  I’m not sure, but after Spectre I hardly care. Either way, the series once again needs a major course-correction.  It’s disappointing to consider that, despite how much I still love Craig in the role, he’s really only had one truly great film — his first one, Casino Royale.  That film tricked me into thinking that this new era of Bond movies would be more intelligent and more sophisticated, but the reality of the films that followed has been rather different.

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