Saturday, November 07, 2015
Spectre is meant to provide a Grand Unified Theory of Daniel Craig-era James Bond; it wants to be the film that both explains Bond the man and that connects the storylines from Craig’s previous Bond outings. Given the care taken by director Sam Mendes (currently overseeing the franchise) and the other filmmakers to serialize the last few Bond films, it’s then disappointing that Spectre turns out to be such a desultory offering. Mendes still knows how to pull off an action set piece, but two central performances display a surprising lack of urgency while the all hands on deck script huffs and puffs to give Bond his dark side. It’s impossible to say how much Daniel Craig’s public reservations about continuing to play Bond may have affected the making of Spectre, but maybe the Bond franchise should take the out given here and prepare to move on.
The British intelligence services are still reeling from the events of Skyfall. Judi Dench’s M has been replaced by Ralph Fiennes’s, a character who worries about the future of human intelligence in the new surveillance state. M has a new rival in a character called C (Andrew Scott), who’s pushing British participation in a new global surveillance system that will mean the end of Bond and his fellow “double-Os”. Does this sound familiar? The similarities of Spectre to elements of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Kingsman, and even Furious 7 suggest the need for a weekly conference call for franchise screenwriters. Omniscient surveillance will quickly become a hackneyed plot hook unless filmmakers figure out a way to put government overreach on a human level, and even Edward Snowden couldn’t do that. Where does all of this jockeying for position leave James Bond? We find him in Mexico City, where his efforts to foil a terrorist plot lead to a chase and a helicopter fight that disrupts festivities on the Day of the Dead.. Bond is grounded by an angry M but soon takes off for Rome to discover the meaning of a mysterious symbol he found in Mexico. A harried M can’t offer support, so Bond is on his own with only Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) aware of his movements.
A description of the plot of Spectre doesn’t convey the strange fitfulness of the film. Action sequences - my favorite being a plane vs. car chase over snowy countryside - alternate with slow scenes of exposition and an couple of rushed romantic interludes. (Monica Bellucci has a too-brief role as a not very Merry Widow.) When SPECTRE (the criminal enterprise, not the movie) reveals itself it comes in a scene that’s played so slowly it’s as if a sketch troupe had invaded the film and were rehearsing off book for the first time. SPECTRE is a clearinghouse for a variety of criminal activity; it’s led by a man called Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) whose favorite topics are global surveillance and the movements of James Bond. Waltz is the only actor in the film whose performance is worse than Daniel Craig’s. Oberhauser’s motivations are admittedly sketchy but Waltz seems too tired to find any wit in his role and in one scene is upstaged by a rolling office chair. Daniel Craig seems thoroughly disinterested in his work as Bond, and if his performance here is meant to convey the character’s soul-sickness then the choice doesn’t work. Craig does take energy from Lea Seydoux; she plays the daughter of a former SPECTRE agent and the way she allies with Bond on her own terms feels downright refreshing. Other bright spots include Dave Bautista as a SPECTRE heavy (his fight with Bond on a train is the film’s high point of physical exertion), Monica Bellucci, and Whishaw’s dry work as Q.
Wherever James Bond goes from here it is hard to see the franchise moving forward with Daniel Craig. The decision to give Bond a real backstory was a bold one, but Spectre offers little in the way of payoffs and it’s unclear what another Craig turn as Bond would offer either audience or actor. Let Idris Elba or Clive Owen or Hayley Atwell or Doctor Who be the next James Bond. The future is now.