Saturday, November 14, 2015
But it's not Skyfall. And lest there be any confusion, I should say from the outset that not only did I think Skyfall was a great James Bond film - perhaps the best ever - but a great film, period. When I put together a list of my top ten films of the past decade a year or so ago, Skyfall was on it. And while Spectre may grow on me upon subsequent viewings, I don't see it making an appearance on any similar upcoming lists.
In tone and structure, Spectre is similar to its immediate predecessor, but even darker - both in content of story and the palette of color used by Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. If anything, the film is too dark, lacking a sequence with the boldness of the images and colors seen in both the Shanghai and Macau sequences of Skyfall. Even the outdoor, lighter setpieces - the opening sequence in Mexico City and the later scenes in the desert lair of Blofeld - are dominated by beige tones.
Mendes and his scenarists clearly wanted to create works that lent the Bond canon a sense of epic drama. There are moments of humor in Spectre, mostly thanks to Craig's expressions and the droll nerdness of Ben Whishaw as Q, but for the most part this is deadly serious stuff. One can debate the wisdom of trying to use this film as a framing device for the three Craig/Bond movies that preceded it - personally, I doubt the plot details of each film transposed with this one would stand up to scrutiny, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief - but it's evident that Mendes and crew were after bigger game with this one. Whether they actually hit it or not is in question, and in one sense, the result is that the story being told in Spectre feels unfinished, as if it were the middle movie of a trilogy.
The movie also suffers greatly from the absence of Judi Dench as M. There's nothing wrong with Ralph Fiennes' performance, but what Dench brought to the role (in the very different sets of Brosnan and Craig Bond films) is very clear now that she's no longer there. Spectre tries to generate the same kind of M/Bond tension as its predecessors, but the dynamic falls short of what Dench was able to achieve in a series of performances that now feel almost like atonement for five decades of "Bond Girls."
But no James Bond film would be complete without Bond Girls, and Spectre is no exception. Monica Belluci isn't in the film long enough to make much of an impression, and Naomie Harris' Moneypenny is completely wasted this time around - she basically has nothing to do. Fortunately, after an hour or so we are treated to the appearance of Lea Seydoux, who can rightly take a spot as one of the greatest Bond Girls ever. Her Madeline Swann is no wallflower, and no bimbo - she is clearly the equal of James Bond at every turn, and Seydoux and Craig generate quite a bit of chemistry in their scenes together - particularly in one scene on a train, when for a brief moment Seydoux actually brought to mind the luminous Grace Kelly (and there can be no higher praise from me).
A great Bond film also rests on the success of its villains, and unfortunately this is another area where Spectre falls slightly flat. Dave Bautista proved in Guardians of the Galaxy (not to mention the WWE) that he can bring a sense of humor to an purely action-oriented role, but you'll see nothing like that from him in this one. It's not his fault; apparently, he was brought on board simply to be a big, strong guy who can kill people with his bare hands and drive a fast car very well (but not well enough to catch James Bond). And Christoph Waltz, whose Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds was only one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema, falls almost completely flat as the mastermind behind Spectre, and "the architect of all of James Bond's pain." I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but the character and the performance almost verges on boring.
With all of these complaints, it probably sounds like I hated the movie, but that isn't the case. As a director, Sam Mendes brings an incredible sense of style to every project he works on, and even though his being tabbed to helm two James Bond films once seemed like a stunt, I now hope he decides to do another. There are little visual feasts in nearly every segment of the movie (notwithstanding my earlier complaint about lack of color), and even though the story is at times muddled, the narrative never fails to move forward with pace and even panache.
Other good things? Andrew Scott, who has done so well as Moriarty in the Cumberbatch/Freeman "Sherlock" series, is excellent as the auxiliary villain, and the rapport between M, Tanner and Q as they struggle to keep themselves relevant is never less than entertaining (and at times much more than that). And, hey - you can say that Daniel Craig wears a suit better than just about any man on the planet, but what he has brought to the role of James Bond has really been equaled only by the originator of the role, the legendary Sean Connery. And that's fine company to be in. Whatever it takes to be James Bond, he's definitely got it.
So - at the end of the day probably not a classic, but still worth your time and money.