Saturday, November 7, 2015

SPECTRE: Or, a franchise in peril


I sat there at the conclusion of the opening pre-credits sequence, numb and confused. “What did I just watch?” Sam Mendes is a ‘serious filmmaker’ and thus he tried to do something impressive by starting the film with a nearly unbroken take taking us through the crowded streets of Mexico on the Day of the Dead (I’m guessing there’s a break somewhere we can’t see). In the process, he created something that I believe is a first for the Bond series: a suspenseless opening salvo. The only suspense here was in the waiting for something to actually get excited about, which never materialized. I had been eagerly anticipating this film for months, even more so when Christoph Waltz’s casting was announced. But less than fifteen minutes in, I was already having serious doubts. Then as the credits rolled, those doubts got much, much worse.  


WARNING: Here there be spoilers...

Faces of past Craig-era characters swam on the screen and the parade of names that included one of the tell-tale flaws in any big production: multiple writers. Four, in fact. My heart sank further. Then as the film moved past the credits and we are presented with a “voice from the grave” video of Judi Dench as M sending Bond on yet another mission, my eyes rolled. A failure to try to establish a continuous narrative in the prior film is being compensated for by the most tired of plot devices. I knew, long before the tired and clichéd line “You’re best chance of survival is to stay with me”, that this was not going to be a good film (and that was not the only clichéd line here). And by its conclusion, all of my nascent fears had been confirmed: the franchise has gone off the rails.

I could do a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong, but Matt Zoller-Seitz over at rogerebert.com has done a better job than I ever could. So read his take, and I’ll add what I think are a couple critical elements he probably just didn’t have room for.

The excitement is missing

The road to nowhere leads to me.
If you spend time thinking even the slightest amount about the set-piece action sequences in this movie, they don’t make any sense and are unremarkable when they aren’t… well, boring. The car chase is a prime example. High-powered six-figure sports cars jet down the roads and alleys of Rome and in the process… Nothing happens. They don’t knock each other around, topple fruit carts, or anything that would make us think they were even trying to raise the bar on a storied action-film tradition. They just… drive.

Later, Bond tries to rescue Dr. Swann by… bringing a plane down on top of the car she is in? There was no way for him to control the tattered remains of the vehicle he plowed through a barn, but he’s trying to save the girl in the process? And why is he beating the crap out of the helicopter pilot in the beginning sequence? He only wants to kill the assassin and get out alive. What more does the pilot offer? And the railcar fight with Bautista’s character ends with Bond then getting romanced in his suite. Um, isn’t he a little sore after being thrown through multiple walls? What happened to the battered and bruised Bond of Casino Royale? It’s all just rather silly when you give it the minimum amount of consideration.

Bond has become… well, a real dick

The notion that Bond was ever anything other than a misogynist was supposedly being remedied in Quantum of Solace by showing him as a broken man trying to heal the wounds caused by Vesper’s betrayal and demise. Whether you like the approach or not, that was the route they took. But now in successive films, Bond has not only become a misogynist again, but a manipulative and rapacious one at that. In Skyfall, he did a little B&E and coerced an Asian prostitute into having sex with him, and here in SPECTRE, he drops in on a grieving widow to first threaten her and then to seduce her as a precondition to offering her protection. Bond isn’t suave anymore, he’s creepy. He’s a predator in the worst way, taking women who are in compromising positions, and further compromising them. Fleming would be rolling in his grave at this portrayal of his creation.

The narrative doesn’t work

So Vesper betrayed Bond to Mr. White, a.k.a. The Pale King, in the Quantum organization, which murdered Le Chiffre. Quantum was destroyed by Bond in the second film of this iteration, but the third film’s villain still has some connection, but apparently there was never a Quantum? The Pale King worked for SPECTRE the whole time? And then was poisoned by them for… what, exactly? The classic Bond films (including Casino Royale, which I’ll put in that echelon) were decidedly simple: maniacal villain with big plans that Bond needs to foil while rescuing a damsel in relative distress. We have the outline of that here in SPECTRE, but with a whole lot of unnecessary window dressing that doesn’t make any sense. But then it gets worse.

Oh, please - like you didn't know
who I really was?
Most now know that Bond was an orphan, his parents killed in a climbing accident. So if Skyfall was his family home, at what point was he supposedly living with Oberhauser? And Oberhauser’s childhood jealousy caused him to kill his father and pursue a lifelong vendetta of indirect, anonymous violence against Bond? They are trying all too desperately to make everything personal with Bond, and in the process, are sucking the joy out of the Bond-Blofeld enmity. It might have worked if at the end Bond appeared to be showing pity in sparing Blofeld, but he just seemed to give up. It felt utterly unrealistic that this rage-driven vigilante who hunted down everyone else so ruthlessly would just turn the other cheek on Blofeld.

The Bond girl really doesn’t work

Lea Seydoux is just another in a long line of Bond girls that just don’t convince you of anything. She hated her father the ruthless hitman for bring such violence into her life and home. But she says ‘I love you’ to Bond within two days of meeting him. Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist was more believable than this. Let’s stop and take a step back. This must be an emotionally damaged woman, given her family history and this reaction. But one of two things are happening here: either Bond is becoming a serial monogamist, as Hugh Grant so aptly described himself in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or he’s an even more depraved and despicable predator than I originally thought.

Where, exactly, did they stop off to buy the dress?

He not only takes advantage of women in desperate circumstances to achieve his ends, but will entrap any doe-eyed lass and use her up until the villain kills her. We never saw this kind of Bond before. You  never ever got the impression that either Bond or these women were in it for the long haul (the obvious exception being Tracy in OHMSS). This new approach is unsettling, and believe me I am no feminist sympathizer when it comes to the Bond films. It was necessary to the believability of the Bond character that these be strong women who would put up with Bond for so long, but only so long. It wasn’t just that Bond grew weary of them, but that the excitement of experiencing a plot for world domination wore off and life went on. Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in Tomorrow Never Dies illustrated this quite well as the only Bond girl we've met after they broke up.

Craig is starting to damage the Bond brand

I say this delicately, because the man has real talent, and showed he could play the role well in the flawless Casino Royale, but Craig has some kind of view of the Bond character that does not align to the traditions of the role, and he is forcing that on us whether we want it or not. Craig had a hand in writing QoS and takes some responsibility for its incoherence, but it is unclear if the alcoholic and unhinged take in that film was his doing. A lot of people liked Skyfall, and though I was not among them, I thought it to be a dramatic improvement over QoS, but still a pale shadow of Royale. But here he had a hand in producing and what shows on the screen is inclusive of his vision of the character. Everything from the selection of the director, to the casting of leads, to the narrative arc we have endured is part of what Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, along with Craig, see as Bond. But the portrayal itself is all him, and it isn’t pleasant. And I’m starting to think that is exactly what he wants.

Given everything I’ve outlined above, and what Matt Zoller Seitz astutely describes in his review, I am not at all optimistic about where this latest film will lead the franchise. Craig is supposedly on board with the idea of more films, and one must assume Waltz signed a multi-film contract, but there has been chatter of shaking things up again. Idris Elba asBond is just one example of the rumor mill’s output. Great actor, but why must we continue to reshape characters in some new world view? Bond is Bond, and we love him for that. But for me, Daniel Craig stopped being Bond a long time ago.

A better Bond? Nicholas Hoult has my vote.

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