Wednesday, November 11, 2015

SPECTRE Is Double-0 Disappointment


- I've gone on record as not being the world's biggest 007 fan. To me, the endless cycle of new Bond flicks is emblematic of studio filmmaking at its worst - a never-ending, self-perpetuating franchise that doesn't so much tell a story as it does create product for consumption. Worse, the Daniel Craig iteration of Bond has largely taken away a lot of what made Bond distinctive in the first place - gone (mostly) were the high-tech gadgets, campy villains, and over-the-top escapism of the classic 60's films. In their place: grittier, harder-nosed, more self-serious action that made Bond into a warmed-over Bourne wannabe. With that said, a couple of things had me excited about SPECTRE going in. One was the last Bond film, Skyfall. Skyfall was a surprise - director Sam Mendes brought visual style and flair back to the Bond franchise, turning in by far the most artful and aesthetically-pleasing, narratively-satisfying film since Craig took over the mantle. Secondly, this summer's superlative Mission: Impossible movie had me re-thinking my stance on these sorts of spy franchises. If MI:5 could give us such a fantastically-done, rip-roaring actionfest, then who's to say that the next Bond couldn't one-up it? The weird thing though is that SPECTRE invites direct comparisons to MI:5 in more ways than one. Unfortunately, the latest Bond doesn't really come out the winner in that head-to-head comparison. Playing out more like a series of barely-connected sequences than a cohesive narrative, SPECTRE starts off on a high note, but ends by eliciting eye-rolls.

But that opening sequence ... SPECTRE kicks off with an incredible action set piece in which Bond pursues his airborne prey through a crowded Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Amidst a city center filled with costume-clad performers and spectators, Bond crashes a fancy party, seduces a mysterious paramour, hijacks a hostile helicopter, dukes it out mid-air, and takes out enemy shooters in a dazzling display of cinematic firepower. The single-take shooting style employed by Mendes is breathtaking, and it's a reminder that yes, this guy is good. But it's almost as if the bulk of the director's energy was expended in that sequence. The film quickly deflates, and momentum stalls.

After a somewhat baffling opening credits / musical sequence (it involves a lot of sexy Octopus imagery - fans of weird Japanese tentacle anime should be pleased), the movie dives into a very convoluted, very haphazardly-constructed plot that mirrors that of the most recent Mission: Impossible film. As it turns out, a shady organization called Spectre is the shadow-Big Bad that's had its hands in the devious acts of many of the menaces that have previously plagued Craig's Bond. Don't try to piece together how that actually works in relation to the previous Bond films' plotlines. And don't think too hard on how Spectre's psycho-evil leader - played with sinister aplomb by Christoph Waltz - is doing all of his evil deeds as part of some revenge plot against Bond. In fact, don't think too hard on Waltz's character at all. In a move that will give some flashbacks to the big reveal in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Waltz's "true" identity is revealed to the audience as if it were some major plot point, when in fact the revelation has absolutely zero bearing on the movie's plot. I was willing to somewhat forgive this narrative laziness in Into Darkness, if only because I dug so much of the rest of the film. But here, Waltz's identity and motives land with such a thud that it derails the entire movie - because none of it has any weight. It's treated with a proverbial shrug by Craig's ambivalent Bond and the rest of his comrades-in-arms. As is the very idea that Spectre has been the secret perpetrator of all of the previous film's inciting incidents. And Waltz goes from shadowy, imposing figure to raving lunatic with the flip of a switch - you almost feel bad for the actor, because as good as he typically is, he really gets the short end of the stick with the laughably silly and nonsensical material that the film hands to him.

At least the movie's got the animal that is Dave Bautista as its ace-in-the-hole. The former WWE champion was a standout in Guardians of the Galaxy, and he's excellent here as a brutal bruiser who - in one of the film's best action scenes - engages in a bone-crunching, up-close-and-personal train-car brawl with Bond.  Bautista works well as the movie's villainous heavy hitter because his character isn't bogged down with needless baggage. He's an evil mo-fo who likes to hurt people - 'nuff said.

But man, Waltz's character is really at the root of what ails this movie. Spectre - the shadowy organization that he leads - is weak, and unbelievably uninteresting given that they're supposed to be a massive conspiracy of villainy. And Bond's lack of real reaction to Spectre or to Waltz's various revelations makes us equally hesitant to care. Similarly, the movie's requisite romance feels incredibly rushed and unearned. Léa Seydoux has the makings of a solid Bond Girl (even if her youth vs the increasingly craggy Craig makes for a bit of creepiness). But instead of making her an object of mere lust, the movie insists on making her an object of love. And the result is one of the most unintentionally funny utterances of "I love you" ever seen in a movie. The problem is that the two meet (Lea's Madeleine Swann is a target of Spectre because her late father ditched them ... or something), have an antagonistic thing going, survive an attempt on their lives, get busy, and then - it's love?! Especially given Bond's history of going through gorgeous women like M&M's, it's laughable that Swann so quickly becomes "the one" that he'll drop everything for. The movie's ending only reinforces this idea, in an eye-rolling denouement that calls to mind the all-too-tidy conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises. It's a double shame too because an early encounter between Bond and the Monica Bellucci's black-widow character Lucia Sciarra has more intrigue in a few minutes than the entire rushed relationship with Swann. But Belucci is quickly ditched for a newer-model Bond girl.

The movie's second half wants to be an extended homage to the campier Bond of the classic films. But something went seriously wrong in the execution of it all. Early on, there's a decent amount of intrigue as Bond infiltrates a secret meeting of Spectre, and Ralph Fiennes' M contends with the threat of Andrew Scott's C - a young upstart looking to dismantle the double-o program and replace James Bond with drones and automated weapons. At first, there's hope that all of this will add up to something. Scott is great at playing a nefarious wildcard (see also: his excellent turn as Moriarty on the Sherlock BBC series). And the prospect of Spectre is exciting. But the way it all unravels is pretty unsatisfying, with a weird, nonsensical progression from Point A to Point B. Case in point is when Bond arrives at Waltz's hidden-away desert lair in the movie's final act. Bond strides into this fortified base without any sort of plan, essentially begging to be captured and tortured. At the same time, Waltz seems all too happy to let Bond penetrate his inner sanctum and risk having all his decades-long plans go up in flames. I won't get into all the sorta-stupid stuff that happens from there - suffice it to say, the entire final third of the movie goes very much off the rails. One other casualty of all the jumpiness in the story progression is that the supporting cast feels very cardboard-ish in this one. This is another instance where SPECTRE draws unfavorable comparisons to the recent Mission: Impossible - but M, Q, and Ms. Moneypenny are mostly just props to be called upon by Bond as needed, with very little personality of their own (contrast that to MI:5, which really got a lot out of mileage out of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, etc.).

For the first fifteen minutes or so of SPECTRE, I was convinced we might get a Bond to rival Skyfall. But as I sat through the head-scratcher of a climax - where Waltz becomes a 60's Batman villain, Bond seems to barely register the scope of the conspiracy he's uncovered, and Sam Mendes seems to throw his hands up in the air and basically give up trying to make sense of it all - I was back to my not-so-keen-on-Bond skepticism. Newer takes on the genre - from Fast & Furious to Bourne to Mission: Impossible to this year's exceptional spy satire, Kingsmen - have made Bond all but obsolete. Especially when the films so awkwardly try to juggle modern sensibilities with 60's-era nostalgia, as SPECTRE does. A movie can't just be a greatest-hits mix-tape. Craig is a good Bond, and Mendes a talented director. But how much do we need to wring this franchise dry until it becomes utterly and completely creatively bankrupt? Perhaps Bond will die another day, but I say it's time that pop-culture moves on.

My Grade: C

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