Thursday, 12 November 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: Spectre

Before Casino Royale came out, I was worried they were going to screw it up. Not because Pierce Brosnan was not in it and Daniel Craig was -- I was more concerned with the story. Brosnan's last movie had been terrible, and I had heard that the same writers were adapting the book, which was one of my favourites of the series. I was afraid that they would wind up clogging the movie up with ridiculous gadgets, moronic characters and terrible puns. I was afraid they would neuter what made that story great -- the relationship between James Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Somehow they managed to avoid this, and actually gave this relationship and these characters so much more in the way of depth and nuance that this aspect, more than anything else, elevated the movie far above any of its predecessors.

I love Casino Royale. It stripped out all of the ridiculous gadgets and the puns, and presented Bond as a human being who could bleed and feel. While I had enjoyed the previous films, I never related to the character of Bond (or anyone else in the series, for that matter). Casino Royale managed to develop its main characters and their relationships, while never sacrificing the things that make Bond great (beautiful locations, action, and humour). Beyond the whole Bond series, it's one of my favourite action movies, up there with Die Hard.

While I continue to like what Daniel Craig has brought to the role -- the physicality, the gravitas, the ultra-dry wit -- the movies that succeeded his debut have been hit-and-miss. There are things I like in Quantum of Solace, but I still find it kind of a chore to sit through. The action sequences are numbing, and every other scene is cut so fast it took a few viewings to tune out the tinkering and get invested in the story. While it was stylistically more my taste, with some great scenes and performances, Skyfall felt like a retreat back to formula. Going into Spectre, I was hoping that the movie would get back to the simplicity and visceral impact of Casino Royale -- with a focus on Bond the man rather than Bond the gadget-sprouting superhero.

While not a disaster, Spectre turned out to be what I was afraid Casino Royale would be -- a potentially fascinating relationship-driven story watered down by adherence to the well known formula. Let's start with what I liked (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW).

First and foremost, while it is nowhere near as strong as it could be, I enjoyed the rapport between Bond and Lea Seydoux's Madeline Swann. It was an interesting spin to have her as the daughter of one of his previous antagonists, since it gave Bond a female foil who could meet him on even terms. This set-up was different enough from Vesper Lynd that it made the possibility of Madeline being the one to save Bond welcoming to me. We'll get to the execution of this relationship when I get to my negatives.

Most of the supporting players get more to do, especially Ralph Fiennes as M and Ben Winshaw as Q. As someone who enjoyed Q's absence from Craig's early films, I was dubious of the character's return but so far Winshaw's performance and the way the screen-writers have utilised him has won me over.

The return of recurring villain Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) was extremely well done. Based off the trailers, I was worried that they were going to soften him too much -- he is so cold and callous in his previous appearances, any drastic deviation from this characterisation would have felt out of character. However, it worked: the fact that he is in the process of dying horrifically probably helped a lot in this respect.

Dave Bautista was a very good henchman, and made for a worthy addition to Craig's rogue's gallery. He's never had to face off against a real bruiser before, and their train fight was the highlight of the film, action-wise.

The injection of humour was also very well done: the beat with the couch at the start, the repartee with Q, the C word business -- all great, and well timed.

While I was concerned initially, the Aston Martin chase was fun -- I really liked that all of the gadgets did not work. I always like it more when Bond has to get out of jams on his own wits, and the super car was well used.

And now onto the other side of the coin.

My main problem is with the third act. Blofeld is brought in far too late to have any impact, and the attempt to make him the mover and shaker behind Craig's previous movies feels wedged in. His backstory with Bond, which is clearly meant to be the movie's 'OH SHIT' moment, does not add anything to the story because there has been no build up to it.

Billy Wilder once said that if a story has problems with its third act, the real problem is in the first act. Spectre does not do enough set up in its early scenes to make the final half hour pay off the way they want it to. This extends to the central romance with Madeline -- the script speeds through the arc of their relationship so quickly that Bond's final choice feels totally inexplicable. This brings me back to what Casino Royale got right. That movie had an extremely simple premise: Bond just has to win a card game. While it made the contest between hero and villain more immediate and visceral, the main benefit was to the love story between Bond and Vesper. While the card game is well done, it is the developing bond between Bond and Vesper behind the scenes which is the strength of the movie. Here both A (the mission) and B (the love story) plots are linked and inform each other.

By contrast, the action of Spectre is so vast in scope and scale that the characters get lost. The time needed to build up the love story between Bond and Madeline is further sacrificed in favour of following the traditional beats of the Bond formula. The section with Monica Bellucci is completely superfluous -- she is a great actress and to see her in such a small, expository role really highlighted the limitations of following the formula so closely. Honestly, it would have made more sense if Bond had been following Mr. White in the pre-credits sequence, and then met Madeline at the funeral. That way, you get to that relationship faster, get a nice hopefully-not-heavy-handed info dump about what the heck the plot is (really all they'd have to do is watch Captain America 2 and then they'd be sorted), and then spend more time charting how Swann and Bond's relationship actually develops.

Moneypenny's part in the Craig movies has never made sense to me. While Q and M have always had functions in the movies, Moneypenny always felt unnecessary. Her role was never expository and she never provided in-the-field assistance in the same way that Q would occasionally do. After her active role in Skyfall, I expected Naomi Harris to get more to do in this film - but no. By the halfway point, both Harris and Seydoux have basically been reduced to background colour. Once again, the formula sidelines great actors in conventional roles which have no real narrative purpose.

While there are other things I could go on about (the weird pacing; Thomas Newman's banal score), I'll put a pin in it there.

Ultimately,  Spectre is too busy getting the formula right that it neglects to develop its story and characters. While the excuse could be made that it is just a Bond movie, the argument could also be reversed -- because while there are many bad Bond movies, there are also many good and even great ones. I recommend seeing it, but I really hope Craig makes another one to go out on, because this is a bit of a soft landing.

Final ranking

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
2. Spy 
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
4. Spectre
5. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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