BOND: Revisiting SPECTRE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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BOND: Revisiting SPECTRE

Matthew Kresal's been here before.
In 2012, Skyfall became the highest-grossing James Bond film and a bit of a critical darling, as well as the first Oscar-winning entry in the series since 1965. In that light, it's perhaps unsurprising that the question asked was "what next?" Filmgoers would have a three-year wait to find out with the release in the autumn of 2015 of the franchise's twenty-fourth entry, Spectre. The answer would prove, to some controversy, to be equal parts look backward and forwards.

On paper, the film had a recipe for success. Sam Mendes returned to the director's chair, and much of the Skyfall writing team (Neal Purves & Robert Wade and John Logan) returned alongside Jez Butterworth. So too did Skyfall's composer Thomas Newman whose score had received an Oscar nomination (something this reviewer suspect was owed more to Newman's past work than perhaps the strength of the score itself). All together and working to tell a story that would feature the return of an iconic organization from the franchise's early history (and long tied up in a series of rights issues dating back even earlier). What could go wrong?
Perhaps ironically, the script. Despite the return of the same writing team from Skyfall and the addition of Jez Butterworth, the script lacks a sense of polish at times. True, it does an admirable job of tying together the entire Daniel Craig era and retconning the Quantum organization from the first two of Craig's Bond films. Yet, the basic idea of what the film is doing is resurrecting elements unused in decades and bringing them into the present day. Given the legal issues around the SPECTRE organization throughout the franchise's history, one can't blame Eon for wanting to get a hold of them, even if one can fault them for using it when it wasn't a necessity. All of which leaves script and film alike feeling as though they're doing little more than retread old territory and attempt to give it a new face, something that has often produced less than stellar results in the past, such as A View To A Kill three decades before.

That sense of deja vu extends to many of the action sequences, as well. From the overblown opening chase around Mexico City's Day Of The Dead celebrations, to a car chase through Rome that evokes many of the Bond vehicle chases of the past and a series of gun battles, Spectre puts all of the best action tropes of the series to good use. The problem is that, like the script, it does competently but without much feeling. The fight on the train heading into the film's final act feels like a pale imitation of the train fights seen in From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me, for example. There are efforts made to go for scale, including staging a world record explosion that feels underwhelming, coming across like a green screen moment instead of a practical scene done for real.
Where Spectre's script is more successful in continuing the threads started in Skyfall. Namely, in exploring Bond's past and its implications on his present self, something which allows the writers to use elements of Fleming's original Bond works (including references that nobody but those who've read two of the Fleming short stories will likely catch onto). It also continues the thread of MI6 and the 00-agents relevance in a world of hacking and drones, becoming a running sub-plot in a series of conversations between Ralph Fiennes as M and Andrew Scott as British government official Max Denbigh. In some ways, Spectre is best viewed not in the larger frame of a nearly sixty-year-old franchise but as part of a duology with its predecessor. Viewed in that light, many of the choices made in its making (many of which remain controversial in Bond fan circles) make more sense, though that doesn't redeem the film entirely.

Though there's no doubt that Spectre was well made, perhaps unsurprising given it was the most expensive Bond film yet produced. The production design from Dennis Gassner is superb, evoking not just the film's varying locations but also, in a couple of instances, bringing the essence of the Ken Adams sets of the 1960s up to date. Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography makes the film a visual feast, continuing the visual pallet of shadows and silhouettes that was so much a part of Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes, along with editor Lee Smith, likewise does a fine job of keeping the film moving so that it never feels dull or lifeless despite being the longest Bond film yet made. All of which comes together neatly in places, such as the still impressive opening shot that might well be, on a technical level at least, one of the most majestic pieces ever put into a Bond film.
The casting, too, remains solid. Daniel Craig showed in his previous outings that he had gotten a firm grasp on James Bond, which makes his performance here, his first in any film post-Skyfall, intriguing, combing all the best elements of his Bond performances to date. There's his agility in the action sequences that suits him well, but also a more sensitive side that surfaces, perhaps more here than in Skyfall, where Bond's past comes back to haunt him in more ways than one. Something also brought to the fore as Craig gets the chance to explore Bond's romantic side, thanks to the inclusion of a new love interest, a welcomed development after the last two films. Overall, there's a more confident, relaxed feel to Craig's Bond this time which serves both actor and film well.

One place where the film perhaps improves over Skyfall is in its leading female character in the form of Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann. Swann certainly fits the more traditional Bond girl mold of a love interest, albeit without many of the cliches that go along with the role as she's intelligent and capable. In some ways, Swann is a mirrored version of Bond himself, as she, like Bond, is forced to confront elements of her past that have remained buried for so long. It is those elements that Seydoux plays marvelously as the layers to her character surface throughout the film. The icing on the cake being that Seydoux and Craig share some excellent chemistry, which makes their relationship and the film's closing minutes feel more satisfying than they might otherwise have been.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of casting was Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as the film's villain. Waltz's villain certainly didn't disappoint though the character's identity was discernable simply by looking at the film's title. Even so, and again showing something of the Fleming influence on the film's writers (minus one controversial plot twist, at any rate), this version of the character may be the closest one to the books. Waltz's portrayal is never over the top or camp but cold and calculating. He's not a physical match for Craig's Bond, but he is every bit his intellectual equal, if not his superior, something that Waltz seems to instinctively sense. The result is a solid performance, undermined to an extent at the script level by one poorly thought out twist but still captivating to watch.

In the final analysis, the successes and failures of Spectre lie in a lyric from Sam Smith's opening titles song: "I've been here before." For all of its impressive production values and casting, it's one of those Bond films that feels as if it's playing it safe, retreading old territory while also tying together elements from previous films. That isn't to say, as some have certainly claimed, that this is the worst Bond film since Pierce Brosnan's Die Another Day. Spectre isn't that, by a long shot, especially if viewed as the second half of a duology with Skyfall. In the end, perhaps, Spectre is a decent Bond film, but one can't help but feel that it squandered some of its potential, too busy looking to the past and not enough to the future.

Previous "BOND: Revisiting..." articles
Dr. No - From Russia With Love - Goldfinger - Thunderball - You Only Live Twice - On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Diamonds Are Forever - Live And Let Die - The Man With The Golden Gun - The Spy Who Loved Me - Moonraker - For Your Eyes Only - Octopussy - A View To A Kill - The Living Daylights - Licence To Kill - Goldeneye - Tomorrow Never Dies - The World Is Not Enough - Die Another Day - Casino Royale - Quantum of Solace - Skyfall

Never Say Never Again - The Other Casino Royals - Quentin Tarantino's Casino Royale

The James Bond Films That Never Were: The 50s & 60s - The 70s & 80s - The 90s to Today

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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