Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Spectre' review

Following up Skyfall was never going to be easy.

In 2012, Skyfall was a renaissance for the James Bond franchise. For me, it was the first time that I truly understood James Bond. I understood the mythos, I understood the appeal, and I became steeped in the cultural history of the character. After Skyfall, I watched several of the Bond films and amassed a rather large collection of the flicks. Today, I still count Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond among my favorite films. After the hard-edged fiasco that was Quantum of Solace (even compared to some of Roger Moore's cheesiest outings, Quantum is one of the worst Bond films), Skyfall combined everything that I ever wanted in an action film with the classic elements of James Bond that we've come to know and love. The setpieces were phenomenal, Javier Bardem made for a terrific villain and most importantly, the movie had its heart and its soul in the right place. It's one of the best Bond films ever made, it made $1.1 billion worldwide and is pretty much universally loved by fans. Sometime between the immediate aftermath of Skyfall and the commencement of filming on Spectre, Craig and director Sam Mendes had to have asked themselves: "How the hell do we follow this up?"

While Spectre will surely continue to be a divisive film for Bond fans, in many ways, it's exactly the film I wanted to see in the aftermath of Skyfall. It's as slickly made as any of the modern spy flicks, but it maintains the classic Bond feel that we all know and love. This is Daniel Craig's most fun outing for sure, and there's plenty of wit and charm to go around. The action is intense, the pacing impeccable and everyone fills their role perfectly. So why are so many fans and critics unsatisfied by this outing? I'll get into that later, but I'll cut to the chase for now- Spectre is a legitimately great action film.

Spectre takes place some time after the events of Skyfall, which saw the death of Bond's old boss M (Judi Dench). When we find Bond, he's in Mexico City, tracking down Marco Sciarra as one final assignment from M. Bond takes out Sciarra, but in the process, he makes a big mess out of Mexico City. His new boss, M (Ralph Fiennes, formerly known as Mallory in Skyfall), grounds him, but Bond his other ideas. During his fight with Sciarra, he acquired a ring that leads him into a web of terror and deceit. One thing leads to another, and Bond ends up in the clutches of SPECTRE, the world's leading terror organization.

Meanwhile, Denbigh aka C (Andrew Scott), the new addition to the Whitehall Brigade, is attempting to kickstart the Nine Eyes program, which would give England and eight other countries access to unlimited surveillance information. M, Q (Ben Whishaw) and Mrs. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) keep everything at bay on the homefront, while Bond finds himself running from bulky henchmen, having sex with beautiful women and moving closer and closer towards the leader of SPECTRE. Y'know. The usual Bond stuff. All of this leads to a showdown between Bond and Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), SPECTRE's mastermind, who may have a connection to Bond's past.

If you find that synopsis to be incredibly vague, that's because it is. Everything in Spectre is so twisty and possibly revealing that I figured I might as well avoid any spoilers. But that's the general gist of the plot, and it plays out in a very Bond-y way. The structure of Bond films is well known at this point, but the cool thing about the previous Craig films was that they completely avoided that structure. And it's equally refreshing that the film returns to the tried-and-true formula this time around. Opening scene. Rendezvous with the Whitehall Brigade. Sex with the first Bond girl, who is never to be seen again. Intro to the main villain and henchman. Action scene. Meets second girl. Flirting, investigating. Sex. Finds way to villain's lair. Torture scene. Escape. Final action scene. All of the pieces are here and director Sam Mendes executes them with precision. What I've always admired about Mendes' take on Bond is that he knows how to mix the bombast and grit of modern action films with the classicism of the Connery films. And that means that Spectre has the element of absurdity that was missing from the recent installments. Which is why some of the fans and critics turned on this one.

In today's modern action world, everything is taken pretty seriously. Unless something is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, like Kingsman, we expect a certain level of intensity from our blockbusters. And with franchises, people expect each installment to be true to the ones that came before it, unless it's explicitly pitched as a reboot. In reality, Spectre is a throwback to the Bond films of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. But people were expecting Skyfall Part 2. This is not Skyfall Part 2. There are callbacks to Casino, Quantum and Skyfall, and there is a strong connection between all four films, but tonally, this is something very different. And for me, it's exactly what I expected at the end of Skyfall.

Let's think about the end of Skyfall. Bond has just been through hell. Over the course of the film, he gets shot, is told how he's not up to speed anymore, faces off against his worst villain and witnesses the death of the woman who has practically been a mother to him. But in the final scene of Skyfall, notice the difference. There's a new M. Q is back. Moneypenny is back. It's all in place. Bond is Bond again. Gone are the pseudo-Jason Bourne days. Moody Bond is done. He's back to the old school. Daniel Craig has become the James Bond that we all imagine in our mind. At least that's how I always interpreted the ending.

Some have complained that if we were finally seeing the James Bond that we know and love, why does Spectre make such a desperate attempt to connect all of the previous films? Well, that's a fair point. Spectre does have some big stretches here and there and some things that don't make sense. But the great thing about this film is that it strikes that perfect mix between fun and serious. There are intense themes here and some pretty good stuff about our surveillance state and the post-Snowden age. But unlike something like The Dark Knight, it's not all doom and gloom. Spectre is outlandish and crazy, with some truly ridiculous action scenes and some absurd twists. But that's what James Bond is about. Sam Mendes has struck the ideal mix of classic Bond and modern sincerity to create the action hero that fits this time.

It doesn't hurt that Mendes is an incredible director who has assembled a terrific ensemble of writers, actors and technicians to create one of the most visually striking Bond films ever. Let's just start with the opening scene. It's one long, uninterrupted tracking shot and it's legitimately exhilarating. After that, we move to the action scene in a helicopter, which is pretty incredible in its own right. It's a brilliant way to open a movie and it just shows how deeply Mendes and writer John Logan understand Bond and the appeal of the character. The action is great throughout, but nothing quite reaches the heights of the opening scene. Beyond that, the technical elements are all strong, and from Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography to Thomas Newman's score, everybody is at the top of their game.

Craig delivers an effortless performance as the superspy, which strikes the perfect mix between suave, debonair and intense. I love how the Whitehall Brigade is more involved this time around, and while some have complained that M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner still don't have much to do, it's better than anything that they got in the previous Bond films. The Bond girls are solid this time around, with Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann getting the most screentime. Seydoux is a good actress and Swann is an interesting character. I'm not sure if her relationship with Bond is developed as well as it should be, but it was serviceable for this film. And finally, there's Christoph Waltz. When he was announced as the villain for this film, I was so excited. And unfortunately, he's underused. Still great, but underused. But for now, I'm hoping that we get to see a lot more of this character in the future.

Spectre is not without its share of flaws. At 148 minutes, it's a very, very long film and one that runs into some slow patches. The scene at Oberhauser's lair is tonally odd and the torture scene that follows is pretty poorly done. And in addition, Oberhauser's relationship with Bond is undercooked, never quite having the impact that it should. Basically, this movie is a little rough around the edges, with certain elements that don't work as well as needed.

That being said, I'm not going to find any more nitpicks. Because I absolutely love Spectre. It's not nearly as good as Skyfall and it's deeply flawed, but it's classic Bond and is filled with everything that you love about the character. Mendes, Logan and Craig understand Bond and inject Spectre with such a defined flavor that makes it fun to watch. The story has its share of problems, but for every misstep, there's a great moment or an exhilarating setpiece or a terrific one liner that redeems the mistake completely. The lengthy runtime flies by and no matter how wild things got, I was constantly entertained. If this is Craig's last run as Bond, he's gone out on a high note. But there's room for him to do one more. And all I can say is that I sure hope he does.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.6/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Variety, Business Insider, The Guardian, Joblo

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