Thursday, November 12th, 2015 https://adamkhan.net/rambles/spectreview
h brother, wherefore art thou? For the James bond novels and movies, their being modern tales of a man about town, of a knight about the world, rules out their being family sagas. Witness Day 6 of the trendsetting 24, wherein the villains turned out to be Jack Bauer’s brother and father: this development effectively ended the series, jumping the shark without the spectacle of selachii nor even of jumping. Just as in Skyfall we should not be returning to some haunted-looking house where James Bond improbably spent his childhood, so in Spectre Ernst Stavro Blofeld should not be Bond’s long-lost foster-brother.
Why is getting Bond wrong this way such a destroyer of worlds? Because we’ve been led to understand that we’re joining a hero on a voyage out in this gloriously many-faceted world. If it turns out that we never left the cave of his own family, we’re cheated as badly as if discovering Bobby Ewing’s still alive. Indeed the everyone-is-related tendency is possibly worse than the everything-was-just-a-dream trope because it’s subtler; we don’t quite know why our epic romp has deflated to an incestuous Möbius Strip. In Star Wars (which incidentally does straddle both the knight’s tale and the family saga), R2D2 and C3P0 are the comic chorus, showing up since time immemorial wherever life’s fateful action occurs. This time we’ve followed them to Luke Skywalker, agent of great change. But then in the prequels it’s decided that C3P0 was in fact manufactured merely a couple of decades ago by Luke’s father Annakin. Suddenly everything in this world seems to have sprung from the Skywalkers, and no longer are there worlds upon worlds outside our tight focus on this vanguard, notwithstanding all the digital celebrants tacked on to cheer victory.
I think I know why the Spectre screenwriters plot family drama into it: to lend some emotional credence to a character they fear lacks any. What currently intimidates Eon Productions is not blaxploitation, kung-fu or outer space, but the Golden Age of Television and its hours of character development made possible by entire-season binge-watching. But they reason too much the need; the world is more than enough. There is already ongoing tragedy in James Bond’s life due to his present, not his past: because he’s so good at his job and it’s so vital, he’s a danger to anyone close to him. The bad guys certainly bloviate on this point, but like Bond’s throwaway summary of Blofeld’s nefarious plans, this serves merely to trivialize the issue. They’re telling not showing.
Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens in France with Bond, dedicated ornithologist that he is, tailing a woman. The beach where he sits reminds him of seaside holidays, and, “It was all there, his own childhood, spread out before him to have another look at.” But after a moment he shakes himself out of it. “Today he was a grown-up,” and that’s it, we—and presumably he—never return to his past (nice that Fleming has Bond use the child term “grown-up” for “adult” when talking to himself). “He was here, he had chosen to be here,” Bond tells himself. The past is relegated to its proper place: that which brought him to be the man who may please the gods today. Similarly at the opening of For Your Eyes Only we have Roger Moore’s wordless remembering at Teresa’s grave and in Diamonds are Forever Connery’s ferocity as he hunts down Blofeld for killing her. And that’s it. Even before the opening credits, we’ve “lit a cigarette, pulled [our collective] shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file.” One more thing here: in OHMSS it is Blofeld’s undoing that he allows James Bond as Sir Hilary Bray of the Royal College of Arms to rootle around in the past. Investigating genealogical avenues: Bond considers these “idiotic activities”.
It’s also unnecessary because we love the pragmatic vivacious extraverted instinct; we aspire to it, feel it the correct way to live, touching and smelling and doing our best to interact fully and gracefully with this world right now, enjoying for instance a spontaneous grape after some mortal hand-to-hand combat in faraway Japan. As Matthew Sweet recently noted in the BBC show Premiere Bond, these films are not so much about dispatching bad guys as how to check into a hotel. Like us, James Bond is a free man, unfettered and alive. Underlying his government-issued license to live and let die is his God-given right to live and live well—met also in his particular case by the special rights accrued by knightly courage, chivalry and fealty.
Television also explains the repeated references to characters from all Craig’s 007 outings, shoe-horning all four films into a single story arc. While this was cool in the Spiderman 2 main titles, and fine in Spectre’s, it’s done to death within the movie proper; contrast with how deftly the continuity issue is handled in OHMSS with Lazenby’s fourth-wall breaking first line, “This never happened to the other guy.” Here, not only is it unnecessary, it inaugurates a squirmy feeling of repetition.
Repetition. While I like James Bond movies to be long, this shouldn’t be due to living through things twice. Did we really need to visit two of Mr White’s remote hideaways and their attendant secret passages? Sure, they’re different, one in snowy Austria and the other in sultry Tangier, but for me at least this is the point where the movie flags. Anyway, there’ve have been too many secret passages lately (I’m thinking of Tony Stark’s franchise-withering little “Yay” in Avengers: Age of Ultron).
I found the women pretty unmemorable. Rosamund Pike smashed it in Die Another Day, so beautiful though slightly strange in that her hairline is closer than usual to her face. She even out-acts the lead with some wonderfully fresh delivery (”I know all about you — sex for dinner, death for breakfast.”) Gorgeous Gemma Arterton was also great as the clipped Strawberry Fields who comes around rather quickly in Quantum of Solace. And Eva Green is persuasive and memorable as the truest one yet since Diana Rigg’s Teresa. But in Spectre, Naomie Harris, serviceable as Moneypenny, may look great but she’s insipid, and Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann doesn’t make much impression. Partly this is due to the writing; despite wanting nothing to do with intrigue, her reason for tagging along with Bond—to understand why her father was drawn to evil organizations—feels like something forced through the screenplay’s cogs.
I did love the location for the clinic. This is perfect Bond: cutting-edge modern architecture in beautiful scenery. And the heroine’s name referencing Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is cute; since the story lacks any discernible resonance with Proust’s trilogy, I presume it’s merely a highbrow reference rather than the usual dirty postcard pun because why not; fine with me.
But my, what sharp little flaws in the writing it’s got. When Bond dismisses Blofeld’s plans as simple, it may have been intended to insult him, but it also insults the audience; we’ve been led until then to be impressed by SPECTRE. I was reminded of Q’s contempt for gadgets in Skyfall — “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more…” — which seemed to heap scorn on the James Bond films themselves. Well, that was quick: the climaxes in Spectre use such similar and simplistic devices that it’s pitiful: in one climax an exploding watch, in another removing the bullets from the bad guy’s gun in a repeat performance of Casino Royale’s teaser. (Question: How did Connery get away with being similarly disparaging, saying “I’ve spent my time teaching — not doing…” in Never Say Never Again, as if the character’s been away for 15 years? So hurtful to Moore. Answer: Connery as Bond can get away with anything.)
When we were young, a relatively child-friendly international caper film like James Bond was likely our first glimpse of superlative locations. Once we’re older, in this ever-changing world it’s likely we’ve been ourselves to the city Bond is at, and we’re spotting what we recognize and what we did there. The car chase in Rome is at night, and the bitch arguably looks best that way, her sculptural treasures lit up along the bridges. The sequence down alongside the Tevere seemed reasonably accurate geographically; they start at the Vatican and head downriver towards Trastevere. And there’s the brief spectacular glimpse of the city from Via Garibaldi atop the Gianicolo; they could have done a nice helicopter shot of the partially tree-covered chicane here instead of the cliched Colosseum shot. I liked how the security guard called him stronso — nice authenticity. There’s been quite a lot of Italy in the Daniel Craig movies, the most evocative probably being the Rene Mathis residence in Quantum of Solace. But the best thing about all this for me was Bond’s mention of the car being at the bottom of the Tiber. It’s not an anonymous river, nor does he call it what the locals do, the Tevere, showing off his knowledge as perhaps Roger Moore would have done in competition with Agent XXX. Instead it’s like this river is part of the British, the Western, the universal patrimony; certainly the abundance of great English-language histories of Rome — Gibbon, Toynbee, Syme — and the tradition of the Grand Tour make it logical that an Englishman would feel as familiar with it as with the Thames. Perhaps I’m reaching on tippytoes here, but using that single word was so much more revealing and exciting than the silly secret panels in Mr White’s two hideaways.
This is why I’m uneasy about the heavy use of London as a setting in these movies. To be sure, it’s a world-class destination and therefore worthy of inclusion, such as the river chase in The World is Not Enough teaser. But these are not introverted movies, they are not a celebration of being home, they are a celebration of being out in the world, or of making the world one’s home. It’s different for an American imitator such as Jason Bourne, Carrie Mathison or Ethan Hunt to be in London (though interestingly not Jack Bauer, who does seem to be more about being home; even New York in Day 8 didn’t feel right; it needs to be LA, baby). What a relief to see Bond among Austrian hills in this movie rather than the Scottish ones of Skyfall.
Like in Skyfall, the villain’s entrance is spectacular indeed. Javier Bardem’s long insouciant walk down his mad computer room is chilling as he tells the story of the rats. Even as each subsequent scene with him diminishes him somewhat, Bardem nonetheless remains imposing to the end. Christoph Waltz’s introduction works equally well due to the palpable fear and hush in the imposing boardroom when he enters. We expect a Scarface baseball-bat moment and it does come but masterfully with a twist: it’s not he who does anything horrible but instead it’s our new henchman Mr Hinx while Blofeld simply presides.
It’s alright that Waltz is of slight build and slightly asymmetrical in the shoulders (in fact I’m thinking in retrospect that this mild disfigurement is probably for the part). We know, oh how we know, from Inglorious Basterds how menacing he can be merely speaking quietly when well written and directed. But in Spectre his menace dips precipitously in each succeeding scene. Actually the film’s entire ending is somewhat of a fiasco, though that’s too exciting a word. The Rolls Royce in the dusty desert complete with the immaculately-suited chauffeur is just right, but after that, things collapse. I suppose it’s cute that this torture scene endnotes the one in Casino Royale, bright and pristine where that was dark and clammy, horrors done to the treasured temple rather than the hallowed testicle. Then, after the boring exploding watch and the truly impressive explosion, Bond says, “This isn’t over yet,” and I wonder how much of the audience felt, along with me: Oh dear, isn’t it?
There were certainly pleasures along the way, such as revisiting the James Bond tradition of dinner aboard a lovely locomotive complete with lovely dessert postponed for a tight onboard fight so as to finally dispatch the main henchman. On one hand, Mr Hinx was persuasively strong, outclassing even burly 007. But the splintering and collapsing of every wooden wall on the train was probably a mistake: it shouldn’t feel like a set, we want this wood to feel rich and solid. And then he was gone. We should probably have had many more scenes with this guy and fewer of Bond looking at secret computers and pieces of paper. Hinx should also have had a marvellous malevolent trick like Oddjob’s hat and Jaws’s teeth [Update: I’ve since heard he had metal fingernails, but didn’t even notice this.] Certainly Dave Bautista could have handled it; his comic timing in Guardians of the Galaxy is at least as impeccable as that of his impressive fellows, and in the publicity video about the Rome car chase he talks mischievously about how the hero of the film is chasing James Bond. All in all he was slightly wasted; certainly he was more memorable completely blue in GotG. Thinking The Spy Who Loved Me, he should have been more Jaws, less Naomi the chopper pilot.
The best-written part was Ben Whishaw’s Q. Back in Skyfall his stature, competence and cool utterly collapse after their initial museum meeting, which I felt harmed the story. Here too he’s fumbly and worried about his job, but that is how he’s introduced, and as we go we delight in the warmth, sophistication and wit of his voice and manner, so overflowing in Paddington. He’s a keeper. (Whishaw for Bond?)
Let’s take this home. Remember Roger Moore’s pad in Live and Let Die? This is a man who delights in life, in bringing back like a honeybee some of the riches he’s noted on his missions. The main event is the full-blown espresso machine (a La Pavoni Europiccola), today de rigeur in self-respecting kitchens, but back then ridiculous to Bernard Lee’s fusty M—after all the preparations and hissings, he quips: “Is that all it does?”). With its richly-carpeted wide hallway, this was a joyous haven and futuristic demo of a home (though I’d completely forgotten the ghastly kitchen tiles). Contrast with the tasteful and contemporary but uninteresting Daniel Craig flat with its typical sash windows. Moneypenny wonders if he’s just moved in; is this a nod to Homeland’s Peter Quinn and his cell-like devastation? Perhaps to Steve Jobs with nothing but a lamp and the floor because no furniture was good enough? Or is this merely a guy who doesn’t really care much about these things? Or about anything? At any rate it’s clearly not a work of delight and ingenuity, though I guess it’s a plausible living room for this cool sweater-wearing Bond when he’s at home. It just doesn’t give us much. [Update 2016 Jan 30: As quoted by John Griswold in his Ian Fleming’s James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming’s Bond Stories [affiliate Amazon link to book], the novel From Russia with Love mentions a long sitting room and a bay window, so this new flat is actually more true to the books.]
I haven’t even mentioned the teaser because although it’s impressive—that first shot that makes the Goodfellas and Boogie Nights openings look like fast-cut editing—it feels like it belongs in a different movie. Though perhaps it does encapsulate the film in some way: it starts strong and evocative, but by the end I’m wondering what the heck the pilot is doing while the guys fight in the back.
And the song is the new worst of the bunch, taking over from Quantum of Solace’s, though I can’t bear to listen to it again so can’t be sure. [Update: Okay, so it’s growing on me just a little bit.]
Most inspired moment: “Stay,” almost Raiders of the Lost Ark territory.
It’s telling that even before Spectre was released, the main media story was who’s going to replace Daniel Craig. The man has done well but I think we’re hungry now for a Bond who, while his fight goes on and on and on, is not only on the side of the angels but better shows us how to enjoy their gifts. Craig’s 007 has often done this—playfully upgrading hotels on Strawberry Fields, standing with satisfaction over Mr White. And I loved the cuff adjustment used in the trailer for Skyfall — better even than Brosnan’s Goldeneye tie adjustment while hurling a tank through Moscow. But I think the rope has swung; we want a Bond who gives the other guy hell, not himself.
- Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, the most arch, entertaining one I’ve read: Human Bondage. And he makes the good point that if all roads lead to Oberhauser, who will in turn trump him in future installments?
- My old friend Carsten Knox at A Flaw in the Iris: So Big, So Beautiful, But a Bit Blah
- Jonathan Romney, grown-up in Film Comment: Film of the Week
- Joe Morgensten deliciously unabashedly hates it in The Wall Street Journal: A Dim Ghost of 007’s Past
- SPECTRE (Is Balls) – The Weekly Planet Podcast. Review starts at 24:36, hilarious riff on Blofeld’s life purpose at 53:20.
- Obviously a long-time aficionado, Mark Steyn worries for the series. Plus he deals with the issue of the infinite regression of bad guys more adroitly than does Anthony Lane.