Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Spectre (2015)

Spectre (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language

Score: 3 out of 5

Many people, myself included, had high hopes for Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond. The back-to-basics reboot Casino Royale was the breath of fresh air that the series needed after hitting one of its lowest points with Die Another Day, and while Quantum of Solace was a disappointing follow-up, Skyfall more than made up for it, proving that Craig's Bond was more than just a British Jason Bourne while delivering one of the most rock-solid Hollywood action films in a long while. The next movie, Spectre, seemed to have everything going for it. Not only was Sam Mendes returning in the director's chair after his amazing work on Skyfall, it also marked a comeback for the series that, thanks to some tangled rights issues dating to the '70s that have only just been sorted out, has been decades in the making. Yes, as the name implies, this is the movie where SPECTRE, the criminal secret society that Bond went head-to-head with several times in the old Sean Connery films, would be returning in a new, twenty-first century incarnation.

Unfortunately, Spectre doesn't quite live up to the promise. Don't get me wrong, it's still a decent Bond film, and everything that's been good about the Craig films so far is still present here. The action is once again very good, the locales and cars are once again exotic, and Craig once again displays why the role has made him a superstar. However, it's merely that, decent, never excelling the way that Casino Royale and Skyfall did. Pretty much all the problems go back to the script, filled as it is with weak supporting characters, an incredibly disappointing take on Bond's fabled nemesis Blofeld, and an extremely mishandled attempt to tie the previous Craig films into a single overarching story that, to be honest, was already wrapped up well enough with Skyfall. Still, if it's pure, old-school Bond action you're looking for, this film delivers, even if it's fairly middle-of-the-road within the series.

The film opens with Bond seeking to avenge the death of M (Judi Dench in a cameo) at the end of Skyfall, heading to Mexico City during the Día de los Muertos celebrations in keeping with her final orders to him. While stopping a group of terrorists plotting to bomb a stadium (and causing significant collateral damage in the process), Bond learns why M sent him down there: these guys were affiliated with a shadowy organization called SPECTRE that seems to be connected to all of his major assignments over the last several years. Traveling around the world with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former SPECTRE member who has tons of inside info on them, Bond discovers the organization's fingerprints all over an effort within MI6 to shut down the 00 Agent program and create an international surveillance/espionage network led by Joint Intelligence Service head Max Denbigh, aka C (Andrew Scott), who is currently in the midst of a power struggle with the new M (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Bond crosses paths with Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the head of SPECTRE who seems to have a great deal of personal history and animosity with him.

Before I get into the meat of why Spectre didn't quite work, let me be perfectly clear: I liked this film. Everything that's been great about Bond for the last several years is here in full form. Craig is a tough, authoritative, and steely presence as 007, clearly unlike past takes on the character but still recognizable. Sam Mendes shoots some sharp action scenes, ranging from fistfights between Bond and a SPECTRE henchman (played by Dave Bautista in a manner reminiscent of Richard Kiel as Jaws) to car chases in the streets of Rome to explosive battles in exotic locales. Said locales are shot with an eye for style, bringing to life the energy of Mexico City, the classical classiness of Rome, the frostiness of the Austrian Alps, the isolation of the SPECTRE base in the Moroccan desert, and the foreign-yet-familiar feel of Bond's home in London. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw were also standouts in the supporting cast as Moneypenny and Q, Bond's support who, in the Craig films, have taken a more active role in the series than ever before. On a purely visceral level, this film entertains, and its two-and-a-half-hour length felt epic rather than bloated.

There's just one problem, though. Everything I just said about this film applies just as well to Casino Royale and Skyfall, and while those films also succeeded in telling interesting stories with great characters, this one fumbles all over the place in that department. Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann is bland as far as Bond girls go; not only does the writing give her no real character to work with beyond just a pretty face who happens to know something about the bad guys, but she has little in the way of chemistry with Craig, meaning that I didn't buy their romance for a second as anything more than one of Bond's usual booty calls. They try to make it seem like it's something deeper, but it's undercut at every opportunity. She was gorgeous, but forgettable, and I found myself wishing that she had swapped places with Monica Bellucci as Lucia, who gets what amounts to a bit part as the widow of one of the bad guys Bond killed. Vesper Lynd she wasn't. It's in the meat of the plot, however, where things start going seriously haywire. The main story about SPECTRE infiltrating the world's intelligence agencies in order to implement an electronic surveillance system under its control is pretty much lifted wholesale from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, only handled without half the finesse or resonance; whereas that film was trying to earnestly warn about government surveillance and abuse of power in the bluntest possible terms, this one feels like it's just going through the motions with its subject matter. Max Denbigh is completely forgettable as a bad guy, not helped by the fact that he shares supervillain duties with Blofeld. And that brings me to the biggest problems in this film's story. Not only does Blofeld get far too little screen time, a criminal waste of Christoph Waltz's talents, the attempt to give him a personal connection to Bond and retcon the last three films to have his organization as the mastermind behind everything just flails in a mess of plot holes. Without spoiling anything, when he was delivering his big motive speech to Bond while he's got him in the obligatory death trap, I was waiting for Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott to march into the room and deliver to Blofeld the same epic speech dismantling his motives that she gave to the killer in Scream 3.

The Bottom Line:

Let me reiterate that I actually liked Spectre. It's entertaining, and as a James Bond film, it's serviceable. However, it never rises above merely decent, held back by a poor plot and a fairly dull Bond girl. Still, if you're seeing this, you'll get your money's worth as long as you lower your expectations from where Skyfall set them.

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