Spectre delivers spectacle, but complex plot defuses fun
IT’S not easy being the postmodern Bond. The 53-year-old franchise is expected to hit the sweet spot between escapist fantasy and taut realism, Cold War nostalgia and 21st-century relevance, the pleasantly familiar and the thrillingly new.
Sometimes it works, as with the crackerjack reboot that was Casino Royale. And sometimes it doesn’t, as with the slough of despond Quantum of Solace.
And sometimes it’s a frustrating catch-all of this and that. Spectre is a solid Bond outing, with strong performances and eyecatching spectacle, but it spends so much time trying to fulfil its complex mandate that it’s never able to enjoy itself.
The pre-credit sequence is promising, mixing an elegantly choreographed chase with an inspired location shoot. During Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues an enigmatic baddie, but nearly flies a runaway helicopter into a crowd of civilians.
On his return to London, he is hauled up on the carpet by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) for his unauthorized extracurricular activities. M is having has his own troubles with C ( Sherlock’s eerie, elfin Andrew Scott), who wants to escalate levels of state surveillance and data collection.
Faced with bureaucratic interference and the possible cancellation of the Double-O program, Bond goes rogue, with the reluctant aid of nerdy Q (Ben Whishaw) and intrepid Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Heading to Rome to investigate a shadowy multinational crime conglomerate, James comes up against his own past.
The theme of childhood trauma, which gave some moody emotional heft to Skyfall, is badly mishandled here. Playing Bond nemesis Franz Oberhauser — I’ll leave it to superfans to decide whether he has another name as well — Christoph Waltz delivers some speeches with his trademark mix of menace and pedantic precision, and then disappears for over an hour, along with the story’s initial surge of energy.
Bond is left to tussle with Oberhauser’s less interesting henchman, a mute man-mountain (Dave Bautista) who looks like a side of beef in a suit. Their chase and fight sequences take in some spectacular scenery — a desert train in north Africa, a fog-bound lake in the Austrian Alps — but are scuppered by pedestrian editing.
The uneven set pieces are further deflated by the flaccid storyline. Oberhauser’s motivations start out as murky and distant, and when finally revealed, come off as almost comically anticlimactic. (Again with the daddy issues!)
It doesn’t help that Oberhauser’s explanation is accompanied by a torture sequence that involves a version of what is basically an “unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism,” as Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil would say.
Spectre’s problems don’t include Craig. In his four-film run as Bond, he has balanced exquisite tailoring with an edge of thuggishness, and self-aware irony with weary humanity. Here his intense physical presence is looking increasingly battered, offering a fitting finish for what is probably his last 007 outing.
Bond Girl Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) manages to be steely and self-determining in an underwritten part. There’s even — gasp! — a Bond Woman, the magnificent 50-year-old Monica Bellucci.
The difficulties really come down to director Sam Mendes ( American Beauty), always too conscious of his serious Oscar-winning pedigree, and the battery of six credited screenwriters. Straining hard after post-9/11 political subtext, they pump up the references to WikiLeaks and drone warfare, unconvincingly pushing 007 as a political progressive because he has the decency to look a man in the eyes before he kills him.
And that’s a rather disingenuous spot, trying to position a lone black-ops assassin as a champion of democratic rights and civil liberties. As M points out, in an unconvincing plea for oldfashioned British fair play, Bond’s licence to kill “is also a licence NOT to kill.”
(Memo to the Bond producers: don’t make that the title of the next film, no matter how postmodern things are getting.)
Daniel Craig as James Bond in