Saturday, November 7, 2015

SPECTRE - Of the Past

It's ironic that a film series as long-running and influential as the adventures of James Bond should be defined by how it reacts, but the Bond movies have always been cultural omnivores. Not only do the films play to the tastes of the time (the series has catapulted from spy fiction, "blaxploitation" cinema, and space opera to violent 80's action, digital warfare, outright farce, and grounded rebooting over the years), but has also been a series of reactions to the previous film of the series.

Used correctly, this can lead to a distillation of the character appropriate for post-USSR espionage (see: Goldeneye) or the 00 version of Batman Begins (Casino Royale). Unfortunately for SPECTRE, the 24th entry, the "wisdom" gained from looking outward and inward seems to have gone something like this:

"Hey, people loved Skyfall - let's do all those themes, beats, and stakes again!"

"Yeah, but audiences really like MARVEL movies - let's also rip off big chunks of that Captain America sequel that had a S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-esque organization hiding in plain sight."


...Yeah. It doesn't work out too well.


Now, full disclosure - this is my favorite action movie series ever. Full stop. I love Connery in "serious pulp adventure" mode in From Russia With Love and in goofy "ninjas storming a volcano" mode in You Only Live Twice. I love the gut-punch at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I like the goofiness of Roger Moore and the intensity of Timothy Dalton. Goldeneye is possibly my favorite film of the series, and I can even watch Die Another Day without falling asleep or wanting to punch things. And as for my feelings on Craig's other Bond outings? They're pretty positive as well.

So take that on board when I say that SPECTRE just made me feel bored and...well, depressed.

Hey, remember how the ending of Skyfall set everything up just right so that Bond could be the established professional that he was from Dr. No onward? Well, director Sam Mendes and his writing team apparently thought it would be a better idea to have Bond be some variation of rogue/retired (AGAIN!) and have the central conceit of Bond's character be all "this time, it's personal" (AGAIN!) while M is having to defend the 00 program from people who think it's outdated (AGAIN!) all while the longest Bond film in history meanders through a series of plot points that make only marginally more sense in context of the movie itself than they do when the film also tries to tie them to the other Craig Bond films.

Which it does awkwardly at best (its primary tool here is repeatedly showing Bond/the viewer black-and-white photos from Casino Royale and Skyfall, because they basically want you to forget Quantum of Solace ever happened), more often serving to remind you that you're stuck watching SPECTRE when you could be watching those better Bond films instead. Daniel Craig is obviously trying for dramatic weight, but more often than not he just comes off as bored (he literally walks stiffly through one late-in-the-film action scene - and not in a "cool" way), with none of the cocksure arrogance of his first film, the near-psychotic drive of his second, or even the experienced winking swagger of his third. Not that any of the other actors are better served (Monica Bellucci is utterly wasted, and Dave Bautista only barely fares better), but the biggest crime is how the film handles its namesake, the villainous head thereof.

And this is where I issue a great big old

**********SPOILER WARNING**********

Though if you saw the trailer, you probably figured most of it out already.

Just in case anyone is unclear, SPECTRE (originally an acronym for the "Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, but here just means...something...scary?) is to James Bond what Hydra is to Captain America (and yes, they really do borrow that entire plot from The Winter Soldier). And their head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is Bond's most famous arch-nemesis. Here, he's played by Christoph Waltz, a fact that the filmmakers decided to turn into a "surprising reveal" by outright lying when questioned and claiming he was playing Franz Oberhauser (not Blofeld - which he is). Of course, when the "twist" comes, it doesn't mean anything to James Bond or his allies because no one in any of the other films (or even earlier in SPECTRE itself) has so much as mentioned Blofeld's name, so this moment the film treats as dramatically weighty is only there to remind fans that "Hey, you know this guy - he's important!"

Because, you know, that worked SO WELL in Star Trek Into Darkness.

And since Sam Mendes only seems to know how to do character drama by way of giving characters mommy and/or daddy issues, Blofeld has created SPECTRE and targeted Bond for tragedy in his previous adventures (which makes no sense) because, when the newly orphaned James went to live with the Oberhausers - AND I SHIT YOU NOT, THIS WAS A THING SOMEONE WAS ALLOWED TO WRITE IN THE SCRIPT THAT ACTUALLY MADE IT ALL THE WAY INTO THE MOVIE - little Franz thought his daddy loved James more.

Putting aside the fact that this is A) laughably stupid and B) REALLY laughably stupid, it's also utterly missing the point of Bond and his rivalry with Blofeld. They were two men on opposing sides of the Great Game - just guys doing their jobs - who's rivalry became more and more personal as each continually thwarted and hurt the other. That's interesting, that allows for growth and unexpected change in dynamics. The murder of Bond's wife by Blofeld felt like such a hammer to the character because it was unexpected. It was crossing a line. It was making things personal - not in the first movie involving SPECTRE, but the sixth. Going "personal" immediately means you have nowhere more personal to go, and Bond has been "personal" so intensely in all of Craig's films that it's ceased to have any dramatic heft.

What's most frustrating is that there are moments where you can see the skeleton of  a good movie, but it's been weighted down by too much crap thrown at the wall from too many directions for anything meaningful to stick. If SPECTRE were "only" a mediocre or bad Bond movie, that wouldn't be so horrible. The series is famously inconsistent, and even the outright wretched ones (Diamonds Are Forever) will find fans or meaningful redeeming qualities. But SPECTRE isn't just a bad Bond movie, it's one that wastes your time as if it were itself a third-rate villain, lowering you into the tank of man-eating story cliches by the Unnecessarily Slow Dipping Mechanism of dull actions scenes (seriously, remember how punchy and character-focused the action in Skyfall was? Apparently Mendes forgot how to do that) and meaningless globe-trotting, droning on and on at you about how important it is, unaware that its brand of exposition has been parodied for decades. The movie only has 5 on Casino Royale but feels twice as long. And when SPECTRE finally putters to a stop, it leaves a sour taste that taints all of Craig's other films so that even the good ones feel lesser for its existence.

And while a Bond film that is stupid OR bloated OR nonsensical OR boring OR thematically redundant can be salvageable (or at least serviceable), one that is all of these things at once isn't an adventure worthy of 007. It's not even an adventure at all.

It's a tragedy.

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