Tuesday, October 27, 2015

'Spectre' (2015) directed by Sam Mendes

With Spectre Daniel Craig surpasses Connery and is now officially the best James Bond ever. Save for the stumble of 2008's Quantum of Solace, Craig's films have delivered CPR to an ailing franchise that was in serious danger of disappearing up its own arse in a flurry of crap jokes and crap CGI.

For my money Skyfall was an all-time series high; a critique on the very idea of James Bond, not to mention being sumptuously gorgeous and brilliantly performed. Three years later we're back with the same director, screenwriters and aesthetic sensibility. So, is this as good as Skyfall?


But don't get me wrong, it's a very, very good movie. The conceit is that the actions of the three previous Craig Bond villains have been orchestrated by globe-spanning ultrasecret organisation SPECTRE. Beginning with an astonishing set piece action sequence in Mexico City, Bond travels to Italy, Austria and Morocco in hot pursuit of the organisation and its shadowy director (Christoph Waltz).

Meanwhile back in London M16 is facing big changes. They're being merged with M15 and are now under the command of Whitehall wonk Denbigh. He's masterminding a global, multinational surveillance network that will combine the intelligence gathering resources of the world superpowers into one system. The individual agent is, as Denbigh puts it, "prehistoric", arguing that whatever a lone gunman can do a drone can do cheaper, safer and more efficiently.

This is a post-Snowden critique of intelligence work; shrewdly pitting the 'old-school' of M, Moneypenny, Q and Bond against their modern counterparts. Given how much quasi-illegal snooping these characters usually do dividing everyone up into good spies and bad spies is a teensy bit hypocritical, but seeing Bond essentially going toe to toe with modern GCHQ is so fun so I'll allow it.

Naturally, the globetrotting story takes us to some gobsmackingly pretty locations; all shot with a compositional rigour that's the equal of anything in modern cinema. It's a cliche to say that every frame is a painting - but seriously - every single shot stuns. Whether it be a monochrome Bond framed between Brutalist pillars and giant cross, an abandoned desert train station, a low-lit Roman garden or a gently jangling luxury train carriage - it's the movie-going equivalent of sipping fine wine.

The beauty is evident from the first couple of minutes; Mendes orchestrating a brainmeltingly complex, Scorsese-bothering one-shot that zips through a busy Dia De Los Muertes parade, through a packed hotel, ducking into a elevator, through a hotel room, out the window and along the rooftop. It's a dizzying statement of intent; the film eager to impress us the audience first with its cinematic credentials, then with its explosions, collapsing buildings and easy sense of style.

A cinematic bounty like this is nothing to be sniffed at, and in combination with Craig's magnetic Bond, an excellent supporting cast (with particular credit to Léa Seydoux's cool-as-ice Bond girl) and a graceful yet tense score by Thomas Newman, makes for 148 minutes that fly by in the blink of an eye.

Yet it's not quite as good as Skyfall. That film had something important to say about Bond; dissembling him into his constituent parts and trying to figure out what makes the character still popular 50 years after Dr No. It boldly met the character's latent imperialism, misogyny and establishment credentials head on, ending with a character boiled back to his essentials and stronger than ever before.

But you can only pull that trick once every couple of decades. Spectre finds itself with comparatively little to add to on its central subject. There's a thematic line that runs about three-quarters through the film of Bond as the walking dead; a man thats immersed himself in violence so long that he has become a figurative angel of death.

After all, he opens the film dressed as a skeleton, casually (and repeatedly) states his profession as 'killer', is referred to as a relic of the past and is continually shot in monochrome, Craig's scalloped features lit to give the impression of a skull. Disappointingly this imagery peters out in the final act with no symbolic resolution - something Skyfall managed in spades with its low-key Highlands church showdown.

This feeds into the nagging feeling that the final act isn't as it should be. Belief begins to strain a bit as Bond enters a bizarrely convoluted puzzle/bomb sequence that never quite gels as well as it should. It ends on a perfunctory note, quickly wrapping up its ambitious story of global surveillance networks and omnipotent crime gangs and zipping off in a swanky car as if everything's hunky dory. That said, it's never dull - it's only when you sit back for a moment that you spot the fraying in the narrative seams.

One element of Skyfall that Spectre does successfully develop is exploring classic Bond imagery. Christop Waltz' baddie has a genuine straight-up evil lair, complete with needlessly complex torture device and legions of uniformed goons. He even wears a Nehru collar and pets a white cat! You'd think that Austin Powers would have conclusively rendered this stuff laughable, but Spectre plays it straight and pulls it off beautifully.

This era of Bond is the best the series has been in 50 years. Craig has surpassed Connery, delivering a Bond that's vicious, erotic and empathetic; able to make us laugh and switch to utterly menacing at the drop of a hat. In Mendes we have a director who can successfully marry dramatic pathos and things going kaboom - who treats the material with intelligence and style. Together they've made Bond a series that's not just respected for its action credentials and inbuilt cultural cachet, but a genuinely exciting cinematic event.

If, as he insists, this is Craig's final Bond, then he's left the series in better shape than it's ever been. This is top flight movie-making.


Spectre is on general release now.

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