Mendes pushes up Bond rate
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
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.