Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spy Another Day

Year: 2015
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
Run Time:  2 hours 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Now, please keep in mind that I haven’t watched a James Bond movie since I was 14, so maybe they’re all brainless and repetitive and I had too much in common with them to notice. But considering that Goldfinger flits by at 1 hour and 50 minutes and the superspy’s latest effort – Spectre – rolls in creaking and groaning at 2 ½ hours, I daresay the original films didn’t take themselves quite so seriously.

Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. Spectre is the 24th entry in the James Bond franchise, the fourth for Daniel Craig since Casino Royale rejuvenated the series back in 2006. It’s also the first to appear on the pages of this blog, and it makes a game attempt to ensure that it’s the last. I have enough fondness for the previous entries that I look forward to reviewing them one day, but Spectre’s strip-mining of Bond’s past glories is a recipe for half-baked rehash that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Coming soon: the Popcorn Culture Cookbook.

I’m going to streamline the plot as much as possible, because to go into detail would require an atlas, unflagging interest in the high-end car industry, and several gallons of Absolut. Here goes: James Bond (Daniel Craig) is an MI6 agent investigating an evil syndicate known as Spectre led by the shadowy Hans Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), based on a clue left for him by the late M (Dame Judi Dench, in a cameo that she could have done from her living room).

Meanwhile, the current M (Ralph Fiennes, who I do believe was just trying to tear England apart with a group of wizard Nazis, so this is awkward) is battling through tangles of red tape thanks to C (Andrew Scott), a government official who wants to shut down MI6 and commence surveillance of the world’s digital traffic in alliance with several major world powers, bringing espionage into the 21st century. It is up to M, his secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and gadget guru Q (Ben Whishaw) to preserve the old ways and avoid going the way of the Walkman.

Oh, also Bond hooks up with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a previous bad guy who we’re expected to remember. They scoot across the globe, sticking together even though they have the chemistry of Elton John and a pair of sensible slacks.

I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words, how wonderful life is now you’re – eh, who are you again?

Spectre is a dense amalgamation of previous Bond films, both within the Craig tetralogy and the franchise as a whole, coming full circle within the reboot continuity while reintroducing classic characters and concepts. But as much as it’s beholden to the letter of the James Bond traditions, it fundamentally fails to capture the spirit, which flits away like a butterfly, always in sight but just out of reach.

Take the opening pre-credits scene. Bond takes a woman into his Mexico City hotel room, tells her he’ll be right back, and slips out the window. Thus ensues an explosive action sequence, taking Bond through crumbling mortar, the thrumming Dia de Los Muertos parade, and into the air over a teeming mass of bodies while a percussive drum beat smashes into and merges with the classic James Bond theme.

It’s stylish, high octane perfection, but instead of Bond dusting off, casually adjusting his tie, and returning triumphantly to his lady, we cut immediately into Sam Smith warbling “Writing’s on the Wall” over a singularly uninspired credits sequence. Look, as much as Bond’s I Love Lucy chocolate conveyor belt of conquests is haphazardly misogynistic, it’s all part of the came charm of his character, and the missing button from that scene cuts Spectre off at the knees.

Plus, that lady probably racked up thousands in minibar charges while abandoned in that room for hours.

Admittedly there are a handful of moments that embrace the campy appeal of the character, many of which are pretty unequivocally the best moments in the film. However, the degree to which you are asked to turn your brain off is in direct conflict with the length and girth of the stick up Spectre’s ass. In grand Christopher Nolan tradition, Spectre shrouds itself in dark, gritty realism that blocks out the fun factor as effectively as a smothering layer of gold paint. In fact, the Dark Knight gloomsmith was actually approached to direct this film, so that should tell you where returning director Sam Mendes’ (of American Beauty, somehow) ambitions lay.

The amount of time Spectre spends on its knees kissing your boots, begging, groveling for you to take it seriously is its very downfall. It’s never a good idea to approach a Bond flick with an eye for realism, but with this particular entry – and its plot holes big enough to host bar mitzvahs in – it’s cinematic suicide. The second you boot up your brain, the threadbare patchwork of the plot unravels in your hands, leaving you to stare in perplexion at a disheveled mass of thread.

Of course, this is a spy movie, so a certain amount of narrative tomfoolery is permitted (arbitrary countdowns, Rube Goldberg death traps that permit the hero ample time to escape, and the like). It’s all in good fun, but Spectre’s deficiencies sink much deeper than the average espionage flick. Characters mysteriously vanish never to be heard from again, plot points are introduced but never followed up on, and many of the blistering actions sequences take place in preternaturally empty environs. Spectre’s Ghost Train rivals even Halloween II’s Silent Hospital in terms of normally bustling locations that appear to have been abruptly abandoned, leaving only the core cast and maybe a handsome porter for decoration. It’s like they filmed on the Bermuda Triangle or something.

Or maybe the European extras were just all on vacation.

There’s a lot wrong with Spectre, nearly all of which is showcased in the interminable third act (when only two trailers played before this film, I knew it was a portent of doom for my bladder). A vast majority of the plot is pointless wheel spinning and wearisome monologues that leave your adrenal glands parched and shriveled. 

Perhaps it would work better if it balanced on a different central couple, because the crude archetype that Madeleine is brutally crammed into during the finale is hardly appropriate for her character or her shallow relationship with Bond. Watching her blankly go through the motions of a more developed plot only draws attention to the anemic characterizations that populate the film.

Christoph Waltz gives a game attempt at overcoming the peculiar inadequacies of his character, who is rejected from the plot like a bad skin graft. But there is only so much menace he can breathe into the banal, chinos-clad villain with sharply defined motivation but a wicked plan so vague that one can only assume he’s working from a first draft.

But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about: the action. It isn’t particularly original, but it’s as dazzling as altogether too much money can buy. There’s only so many times I can watch a secret agent discover a hidden door or punch an indestructible henchman (this time a totally wasted Dave Bautista) in the face, but this is the one element where Spectre totally embraces its over-the-top pedigree. Armed with his pistol that has the range of a rifle and the delicacy of a dart, Bond sweeps through the massive, inexplicably varied setpieces with relative aplomb.

It’s not enough to fully redeem the film form its monotonous, triumphantly silly depths, but it’s a totally adequate night at the movies. It will hold your attention more often than not, and in today’s climate sometimes that’s the best you can get. If you come into Spectre with an open mind, it does give you some bang for its buck. While 300 million bangs can be exhausting, it’s still quite a spectacle to behold.

TL;DR: Spectre is an acceptable trifle, but a plodding, unsatisfying James Bond movie.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1367

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