Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)


SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The opening sequence is excellently staged and visually stunning. A prologue set in Mexico City, it features thousands of extras in fabulous Day of the Dead costumes and beautiful make-up. The first shot lasts 234 seconds, finds James Bond in the crowd then seductively follow him into a hotel, up in a lift, into a bedroom, out onto the balcony, across rooftops and finally into his sniper position. There appear to be three ‘hidden’ edits, but the audacity of the scene – the scale, the ambition, the done-for-real image of Daniel Craig jumping from one building to the next – is sensational. The whole sequence is graceful and intriguing, and the music is terrific too. Sadly, the rest of the film just can’t live up to it. Spectre is a basic story about bad guys wanting surveillance technology – hardly cutting-edge stuff. And despite a countdown to the system coming online, no one is really under any immediate threat so there’s precious little tension. It’s A-to-B plotting with Bond stumbling from one vague clue to the next, and there’s some remarkably unpolished dialogue. The fatal phrase “As you know…” is said twice, while Moneypenny gets a clunker in a scene with Bond: “I think you’ve got a secret, and it’s something you won’t tell anyone.” Also, whereas Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall had self-confidence and took risks, this nervously plays to the crowd. For example, it keeps reminding you that you’re watching a film. For geeks, there are *numerous* nods to old Bond movies (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die…); for Joe Public, there are cheesy gags involving sofas and Frank Sinatra songs. After the panache of the earlier Daniel Craig films, it’s disappointing to see the series run home to mummy. It’s Bond, so of course it’s watchable. But it’s also riddled with problems. Seven cuckoos out of 10.

Bond: We see his London flat, which is sparsely furnished. (“Have you just moved in?” asks Moneypenny.) For the first time in the film series there’s significant discussion of what happened to 007’s parents (they were killed in a climbing accident). We also get a look at a psychological-assessment form Bond’s filled in: he’s answered ‘Do you feel scared?’ and ‘Are you regretful?’ with two out of 10; but ‘General temper/mood’ gets six. In this film, 007 never seems to be hurt physically – even when repeatedly battered by a sumo-sized henchman or, you know, *actually tortured*. It’s a shame after the work the other Daniel Craig films did in making Bond less of a cartoon superhero. Given the chance to kill the main baddie at the end, Bond pretends he’s out of bullets, walks away and resigns from MI6. He then drives off into the sunset, perhaps marking the end of Craig’s tenure…

Villains: Assassin Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) features in the pre-titles and is killed by Bond. Andrew Scott plays Max Denbigh, the smarmy head of the Joint-Intelligence Service, an organisation made up of the merged MI5 and MI6. His official code name is C, which is used by the heads of the real-life MI6. Right from the word go it’s clear he’s bad news – and not just because they’ve cast Moriarty from Sherlock. In Rome, Bond spies on a gathering of criminal cartel Spectre. There we meet Franz Oberhauser (a fruity Christoph Waltz), who was Bond’s foster brother during childhood. We’re also introduced to Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mostly mute man-mountain of a henchman. Thanks to something he overhears at the meeting Bond then tracks down Mr White (Jesper Christensen), the shadowy bad guy who worked for Quantum in Daniel Craig’s first two movies. There’s an attempt here to retcon the previous three films and turn the whole post-reboot era of Bond into one grand, unified story arc. It’s not convincing, especially when it comes to the events of Skyfall, while the unpopular Quantum of Solace is notably referred to less often than the others. When Oberhauser re-enters the story at the 97-minute mark (yes, 97 minutes – of 142), it’s at his desert retreat. The fact the base is hidden inside a crater should tip you off what’s going to happen next: he reveals that he’s rechristened himself Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He has a white cat and everything, and plans to control the global flow of surveillance information (yawn). After being caught in an explosion, he ends up with a distinctive scar on his face. The fact that Oberhausen is actually Blofeld was the worst-kept secret in geekdom, but it’s a strange thing to hold back. The reveal has no power in the story. (Man we’ve never heard of now uses different name! Film at 11!)

Girls: In the Mexico City scene, Bond is with a beautiful woman (played by Stephanie Sigman) but we never learn anything about her. His investigation then leads him to Sciarra’s widow, Lucia. Monica Bellucci is appropriately sexy in the role, but it’s a nothing character. In the film for just seven minutes, she sleeps with Bond and helpfully gives him his next clue. After an hour, Bond meets Dr Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), who’s Mr White’s daughter and a psychologist working at an institute in the Alps. She has a few nice moments but – despite all the usual PR guff about her being different from all the previous Bond girls – is a very passive character. She’s a damsel who needs saving/protecting; stands around while men discuss the plot; then wanders off simply so she can get captured. Looks great in an evening gown, mind. There are also a few mentions of the much better Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale – not a helpful comparison.

Regulars: The MI6 team established in Skyfall is back. M (Ralph Fiennes) is again tremendous and soulful. Q (Ben Whishaw) is again classy and funny. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) is again difficult to like – it’s an example of a film thinking a strong female character has to be cocky and cold. Also returning is Rory Kinnear for his third appearance as MI6 chief of staff Bill Tanner. No disrespect to Kinnear, an actor I like very much, but why go to the bother of reintroducing Moneypenny and then keep Tanner? Having both is redundant. She has nothing to do after the 45-minute mark and it’s embarrassing how she’s reduced to holding folders and sitting in cars. Early on, an uncredited Judi Dench cameos in a video the previous M recorded before her death. She sets the plot rolling without actually giving Bond the key information he needs. Felix Leiter gets a mention. As well as Blofeld in his first Bond movie for over 30 years, his cat also returns.

Action: The pre-titles sequence has a big explosion, a collapsing building and a punch-up in a helicopter. A car chase is Rome is skillfully combined with a conversation about the plot (love the shots of Moneypenny on the other end of the phone, looking in her fridge as she chats to Bond). However, the action takes place in bizarrely empty streets. Rome, one of the world’s busiest cities, is *deserted*. The same problem exists elsewhere too – Bond’s bruising brawl on a train with Mr Hinx doesn’t attract a single other passenger or conductor, while the film’s final act must be the quietest that central London has ever been. In Austria, Bond (in a plane) chases Mr Hinx (in a car). The destruction of Blofeld’s Moroccan base features the biggest explosion ever carried out for a movie – it used 8,140 litres of kerosene and 24 charges, each with a kilogram of high explosives. The film’s final half-hour includes a car crash, lots of running around the old MI6 building in Vauxhall, and a helicopter smashing into Westminster Bridge. Nothing in the film matches, say, the flamboyance of Casino Royale’s foot-chase or the grandeur of Skyfall’s climax.

Comedy: The first laugh comes when Bond slides off a building and lands on a battered old sofa. (When I saw this film at the cinema, a guy behind me laughed so hard I assume he’d just discovered how a joke works.) When Bond visits Q’s lab, Q prepares an injection. “Now, you may feel a little–” he says. Bond yelps in pain as the needle hits. “–prick,” finishes Q. A moment later, Bond is shown a flashy Aston Martin DB10 but then told it’s for 009; instead Q just gives him a watch. “Does it do anything?!” deadpans an angry 007. In a scene where she finds a present from Bond on her desk, Moneypenny is asked by M if it’s her birthday. “No, sir,” she replies, then adds to herself: “That was last week.” During the Rome car chase, Bond tries activating one of his Aston Martin’s gizmos – but accidentally switches on some camp music. In a hotel room with Madeline, James playfully aims his gun at a mouse (“Who sent you?” he says). If you’re a Bond nerd like me, a safe house called Hildebrand will make you chuckle. Near the end, M gets the best line in the film. Denbigh (aka C) has been revealed to be a traitor and pulls a gun on M. He suggests that M stands for moron, but then discovers his gun isn’t loaded. M smiles: “And now we know what C stands for…”

Music: A second James Bond score from Thomas Newman. It’s really good – especially during the action climax when it’s relentless and a bit Dark Knight-ish. The theme song, Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith, is amongst the most boring pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Personal connection: I first saw this film at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with my pal Fraser Dickson on Thursday 29 October 2015.

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