Men­des pushes up Bond rate

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODMOVIES - GE­OF­FREY MAC­NAB

WHAT al­ways haunts new James Bond movies is the mem­o­ries of their pre­de­ces­sors. Spec­tre, out on Fri­day, comes three years af­ter Sky­fall, the most suc­cess­ful 007 film at the box of­fice.

It is ob­vi­ous di­rec­tor Sam Men­des and his col­lab­o­ra­tors are des­per­ate to push Bond to new heights. They are in­dulge in bet­ter stunts, more com­plex plot twists and greater emo­tional in­ten­sity.

Early on, they suc­ceed bril­liantly. An as­ton­ish­ing pre-cred­its over­ture sees Bond, on a rogue mis­sion to Mex­ico, among the rev­ellers in skull and skele­ton cos­tumes dur­ing the Day of the Dead. There are echoes here of Or­son Welles’ Touch of Evil in a rov­ing se­quence that runs for min­utes with­out cut­ting be­fore cul­mi­nat­ing in ex­plo­sive fash­ion.

Other stop-offs in­clude Rome, the Sa­hara, Tang­ier (for the Bog­art flavour) and, good for the snow scenes, Aus­tria.

There is an old-fash­ioned feel to the film-mak­ing. One rea­son that the bud­get is so vast (re­port­edly close to $300 mil­lion) is Men­des pre­fer­ring wher­ever pos­si­ble to film the stunts for “real”.

When Bond is strug­gling for the con­trols of a he­li­copter that is whirling out of con­trol over Mex­ico City, or treat­ing a plane as if it is a souped-up snow­mo­bile or rac­ing through the al­ley­ways of Rome while mak­ing small talk with Moneypenny, the se­quences look “real”. Thomas News­man’s stir­ring mu­sic adds both to ex­cite­ment and the grandeur of the sto­ry­telling.

There is plenty of hu­mour here but, as in all the best Bond films, it is un­der­stated. Even the mi­nor char­ac­ters are vividly drawn. Q (Ben Whishaw) is more prom­i­nent than in Sky­fall and shows a Padding­ton-like sto­icism when he is forced into the field. Naomie Har­ris’s Moneypenny man­ages to sug­gest there is more to her life than just Bond. We see Ralph Fi­ennes’ M out­side the of­fice too, hid­ing away in Rules Restau­rant (also a key lo­ca­tion in Gra­ham Greene’s The End of the Af­fair).

Death is very much the theme in what is one of the more mor­bid en­tries in the Bond se­ries. “Look around you, James. Ev­ery­thing you be­lieve in – a ruin!” he is taunted. It is made clear that Bond is a killer, but also, in his more re­flec­tive mo­ments, he feels re­gret for some of his ac­tions.

There is an un­usual dark­ness in the ro­man­tic scenes. Bond is in­volved in the death of peo­ple close to both the Ital­ian widow Lu­cia Scia­rra (a strik­ing cameo from 51-year-old Ital­ian diva Mon­ica Bel­lucci) and the beau­ti­ful young doc­tor Madeleine Swan (Léa Sey­doux).

It is in­trigu­ing how Men­des switches film-mak­ing styles as he changes lo­ca­tions. The scenes in the villa in Rome with Bel­lucci are shot as if some­thing out of Bernardo Ber­tolucci’s The Con­form­ist, with mir­rors to the fore and the use of dark gilt fur­nish­ings. When it looks as if Bond has a build­ing about to fall on top of him, Men­des moves into the realm of Buster Keaton-style slap­stick.

As ever, there are those in White­hall who feel that Bond should be con­signed to the scrapheap forth­with. An­drew Scott (Mo­ri­arty from Sher­lock) plays Max Den­bigh (“C”), the new boss of the Cen­tre for Na­tional Se­cu­rity, who be­lieves in mass sur­veil­lance and wants to get rid of the “dou­ble 0” sec­tion al­to­gether, takes a dim view of Bond’s gal­li­vant­ing and Errol Flynn-like ap­proach to spy­craft.

You can de­tect the note of de­fi­ance in the ap­proach fol­lowed by Men­des. They are go­ing back to Bond’s roots, mak­ing ex­plicit ref­er­ences to char­ac­ters and themes in ear­lier 007 films, rather than try­ing to rein­vent the char­ac­ter.

Where the film risks com­ing un­stuck is in its prob­ing into Bond’s own past. There are sev­eral ref­er­ences to his child­hood and an ac­ci­dent on the slopes in­volv­ing his par­ents, which left him “a poor lit­tle blue-eyed or­phan”. Uber-vil­lain Ober­hauser (a purring and malev­o­lent Christoph Waltz) uses Bond’s mem­o­ries to tor­ment him.

In the fi­nal parts of the film, Men­des strug­gles to over­come the for­mu­laic na­ture of any Bond film. Spec­tre might be the ul­ti­mate crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion, but the scenes of Bond be­ing tor­tured aren’t that dif­fer­ent from sim­i­lar se­quences in count­less other Bond films.

Char­ac­ters stub­bornly re­sist the film-mak­ers’ at­tempts to give them depth. Sey­doux’s Madeleine is a doc­tor who, in one sur­pris­ing scene, at­tempts a lit­tle psy­cho­anal­y­sis of Bond. She has had a tor­mented child­hood her­self; knows how to use guns and is self-reliant and highly in­tel­li­gent. None­the­less, by the fi­nal reel, she has been trans­formed into yet another damsel in dis­tress, just as one-di­men­sional as the comic book heavy played by former wrestler Dave Bautista.

Try as he might, Men­des sim­ply can’t make Bond into a con­vinc­ing tragic hero. It doesn’t help that this is a movie aimed at a fam­ily au­di­ence. This means that even in the most bru­tal scenes, for ex­am­ple when one char­ac­ter has his eyes poked out and his head slammed on a ta­ble, the vi­o­lence will al­ways be shown only dis­creetly.

What he has de­liv­ered, though, is a vivid and tremen­dously well­crafted ac­tion thriller, seeped in 007 his­tory and tra­di­tion.

Bond may throw away his gun at one stage, but we are left in no doubt that he will soon be back. – The In­de­pen­dent

Spec­tre.

SLAM­BANG AC­TION: Daniel Craig in Di­rec­tor Sam Men­des has failed to de­liver Bond as a tragic hero, but he has made a tremen­dously well-crafted ac­tion thriller.

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