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October 28, 2015

Spectre (2015)
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz

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Synopsis: James Bond (Daniel Craig) continues following a trail of assassins which leads all the way to Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) – a man with some relevance to Bond’s own backstory, and who goes on to assume a more familiar villainous alias…

Review: Back in 1962, in the opening entrant to the Bond film series, the criminal organisation of Spectre was outed by the clipped diction of the macabre Doctor No as “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion.” Over 50 years on, and having just sat through over two hours of the series’ increasingly transparent three-yearly exercise in blandly aspirational, deluxe brand management par excellence, I’m inclined to reimagine Spectre as acronym for the mediocre input of regular executive hands on the film (producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, director Sam Mendes, and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) as: Special Executors of Clichéd, Tired, Rote ‘Entertainment’.

My first issue with Spectre is that…yawn…it’s still hammering away at this sentimental, “Bond as damaged goods” thesis, which totally misunderstands the key sentiment and lure of his character, as well as betraying the absence of originality in the creative minds of the storytellers themselves. As Hollywood has proved in the last decade or so with its increasing homogenisation around franchises, superheroes and ready-made texts and fables, ‘origin’ is the ironic tactic when you can’t be bothered to write something original, and you’re content to trot out the mediocre parlour game of reminding us how the hero came to be who they are. A classic case in point is Spider-Man: it’s only been 12 years since Tobey Maguire first incarnated the role cinematically, but not only have there been two further actors playing the role in that time (Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland), but in both cases, they’ve been part of a whole reboot and reloading of the Spider-Man origin myth. How cynical is that?!

That’s why I find Sam Mendes’ role in the turgidity of the last two Bond films particularly culpable. At least with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, although they are part of this origin drive, it was the first such reboot in nearly 50 years of Bond films, and it was to some extent a necessary recalibration from the sheer flatulence of Pierce Brosnan’s woeful Blair-era incarnation of Bond. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were also concentrically brutal, brilliantly-realised spy tales in their own right. With Skyfall though, it just feels like Mendes took the easy option, offering up an exercise in lazy storytelling at its worst, plundering the whole franchise, trying to “nudge nudge, wink wink” us with his camp revision of the histories of M, Q and Moneypenny, while also turning Bond into a sentimental Bruce Wayne-style figure with the ridiculously silly ending – “Welcome to Scotland” – and having the villains devolve from their sinister geopolitical aims, to being petulant, spiteful brats, seeking personal vengeance on Bond due to some inelegant, biographical conceit (in Skyfall, Silva is jealous of Bond being M’s favourite, and in Spectre, Oberhauser revised his name and killed his father who had been Bond’s ward in the wake of Bond’s boyhood orphaning). You only need to look at Mendes’ cinematic back-catalogue to know how meek, mainstream and theatrically unnuanced his films are (I assure you, if you re-watch American Beauty, you’ll be staggered at how unsubtle a work it is).

Spectre itself is boringly told – nothing more than a conveyor belt of action sequences cynically marking out the Bond ‘formula’. I’ve never seen a film set in Mexico City, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco as incurious about the visual and ethnographic potential of those places as Spectre is, but then again I shouldn’t be surprised, since James Bond has gone from a moderately paid civil servant who went under the radar but had a penchant for fine things, to today’s wet dream of a GQ colossus with his blandly aspirational lifestyle of an earnest gym-honed six pack, designer Tom Ford suits, an Aston Martin DB10, a Rolex watch, and he’s more in touch with his emotions as he stoically chokes back tears about Mummy, Daddy, Vesper and M. (Connery’s Bond would hate all this!)

Even the casting in Spectre is all wrong. How can they turn the Léa Seydoux of Blue is the Warmest Colour genius into one of the most uncomfortable looking Bond women of all time, and Christoph Waltz is completely incorrect casting as the key criminal kingpin to the whole Daniel Craig run. I think it was one of those decisions made by a cosseted American suit, whose stereotypical idea of European debonairness was inspired by Waltz’s colourful turns in recent Quentin Tarantino films. The irony being that Waltz is actually a very warm, genial and relaxed performer, and the most sinister villains should be the most cipher-like, the most faceless – hence the genius casting and brilliant understated performance of Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

There’s a reasonable likelihood now that Craig and Mendes’ time is done at the end of Spectre, and they’ve left the next Bond storytellers with the cinematic equivalent of a rugby ‘hospital pass’. Because those next writers, directors and actors are going to have to kick on with the business of actually telling a Bond narrative without any of the gimmicks of ‘origin’, sentimentality and false pathos. But as I identified recently in a scene that represents the best of Bond (his killing of Professor Dent in the first film, Doctor No), there’s a brilliant, laconic, ruthless spy in there, and his taut interactions with a threatening world are still waiting to be told. ( ). (October 2015)

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