Tuesday, 24 November 2015

SPECTRE

(SPOILERS)


This features few of Skyfall's faults, but also lacks some of its virtues. First of all, the Doomed Secondary Bond Woman I discussed in the Skyfall piece doesn't die, but unlike Bereniece Marlohe, Monica Bellucci is unable to bring her character to life in such a short amount of screentime. The point that Lucia is not going to go the same way as Solange and Severine could have packed some dramatic punch, and the buildup to her thwarted murder, as she downs a drink and strolls outside to the strains of opera pursued by hitmen, has potential, but we don't get to know her before hand and afterwards we just get a rather perfunctory scene in which Bond tells her Felix will look after her, and then she's forgotten.

Christoph Waltz, similarly, doesn't get the opportunities that Javiar Bardem had in Skyfall. With the exception of his observation of what happened to the blinded SPECTRE member, he never really has any moments that give the audience the shivers. He also lacks Silva's strong motivation. The "Bond's foster brother" back-story sounded a bad idea when it was first announced, and it unfolds exactly as one expected: the clunky coincidence that the world's greatest secret agent and the world's greatest terrorist knew each other as children, and the unconvincing idea that disliking your younger foster brother could motivate you to become a supervillain who stands against everything you've somehow predicted your younger foster brother will stand for when he grows up. Adding to the problem is the fact that Bond never really seems fazed by any of it, and Blofeld turns out not to have any juicy gossip or insIght - all he reveals is that his father adopted Bond and young Franz resented it.  The former we knew from the Fleming source (the Hannes Oberhauser background comes from his short story Octopussy) and the latter from the official announcement that Weitz would be playing a villain named Franz Oberhauser (who could only be Hannes's son). The torture scene is never quite as tense as Casino Royale's because, in the latter film, things are all the more terrifying because Le Chiffre's motivations for torturing Bond are so credible: we realise that Le Chiffre's in as frantically dreadful a predicament as Bond (something both actors really sell). Here, there's the nagging feeling that Blofeld is being nasty for the sake of it, which jars in the much more adult world of Craig's Bond, where everyone has a convincing motivation. Blofeld putting up photocopied pictures of faces from Bond's past - especially when they have already been referenced visually and by name in several scenes, and Blofeld has already explained his connection to them - is equally shallow. The film would like to create the impression of  Blofeld squatting in the shadows throughout the previous three films, manipulating with his many tentacles as in Daniel Kleinman's title sequence, but given that Vesper committed suicide as a result of a predicament she was trapped in before meeting Bond and Silva had his own reasons for revenge against M since 1997, Blofeld's claim to have caused the end of "all the women in your life" is clearly nonsense. The decisions to make Skyfall entirely stand-alone, to leave unexplained what happened to Quantum's members (such as the opera attendees in Quantum of Solace), the lack of any memorable agents of Quantum other than Mr White (who doesn't really become interesting until SPECTRE), and the lack of explanation for the change in names (was Quantum a subdivision, or just a different name for the same organisation?) don't help. A few clarifying lines could have given the first three films a solid backbone before we got to the climactic chapter.

Blofeld deserved better. I want every Bond villain to resemble Rupert Murdoch to some extent. I want them to reflect what's most toxic about our world. Silva, memorable though he was, was disappointing in the sense that he represented nothing. Blofeld and SPECTRE, on the other hand, remain potent symbols. After numerous "dastardly foreigner" stereotypes, and the straightforward "evil commies" of SMERSH, Ian Fleming (of all people!) finally created a villain and villainous organisation that embodied Capitalism. The screenplays, direction and design of From Russia with Love, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice understood this. It's impossible to hear Blofeld's description of his three Siamese fighting fish - ("the other waits until the survivor is to weak to defend himself. Then like SPECTRE he strikes") - without thinking of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.

But in this movie, it never quite stings as it should. Two recent examples of how to write villains in hero narratives seem to trump it. One is the Sherlock episode "His Last Vow." It's an odd series for me to cite admiringly, but the scenes where the rightwing media mogul Magnussen asks Sherlock to let him flick Watson's face to demonstrate his total power over him and urinates in his fireplace had what SPECTRE's Blofeld scenes lack. The second is from Netflix's Daredevil series. When Fisk, in his climactic fight with Matt Murdock, howls with rage about how he wanted to save this city and Murdock has taken this away from him, he's frightening because his rage seems plausible, and this makes Murdock's determination to take him down all the more exciting. It's a shame the final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld doesn't have this edge. Remember Edge of Darkness - please remember Edge of Darkness.

A more successful aspect of the film is Denbeigh. In particular, the following  exchange between Tanner and Bond - "He went to school with the home secretary." "Of course he did" - tested very well with me. One thing I'm always hoping these films will reflect is that our response to terrorism is as much the enemy as terrorism. SPECTRE is perhaps the most topical of the Bond films, hitting the cinemas the same time as the Conservative Government's Snooper's Charter was shamefully unopposed by Labour. Obviously, the idea of the Double-O Section as an alternative to Denbeigh's surveillance nightmare is a comforting fantasy (M's speech about how a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill because "to pull that trigger you have to be sure" might articulate a valid point against drones, but it also romanticises men with guns.) However, the Double-O Section is entirely fictional, and so romanticising it feels less dubious than romanticising MI6 as Skyfall did. We know Bond doesn't exist: his roots are in mythology and his potential comes from what he tells us about narrative rather than how intelligence services operate, hence the lack of actual spying and detective work in these movies. Audiences don't leave these movies feeling that Intelligence operatives should fly helicopters upside-down over crowded squares, drive tanks through St Petersberg or shoot down helicopters onto Westminster Bridge, but as with Skyfall it's different when you start talking about MI5 and MI6 in general, and on this occasion we  leave feeling that governments and their intelligence services should be accountable  to the people rather than the other way round.  In some ways, it's a shame that it isn't Denbeigh who turns out to be Blofeld rather than Oberhauser (the idea of Blofeld having gone to school with the Home Secretary and having the Prime Minister's backing would have been wonderfully subversive) but it's great to see an exciting movie that climaxes in the destruction of  one of David Cameron and Theresa  May's goals, and to see the series place itself on the side of Snowden. Particularly satisfying are Bond's "No I think I'll call you C - C..." And  M's "And now we know what C stands for..." delivered impeccably by Craig and Fiennes. Just hinting at that filthy word... Conservative.

In another sense, the Daniel Craig movies have not lived up to Casino Royale (which is particularly disappointing given that Casino Royale felt more like a terrific start to a series of movies than a self-contained movie). There's a marvellous scene in that movie in which Bond, confident Le Chiffre is bluffing, plays his hand and loses. He sits staring at the cards for a while, then goes and tries to brazen it out with Vesper, asking for more money. She refuses. He insists he can beat Le Chiffre. "I'm sorry James," she says. "Sorry? Try putting that in a sentence. Sorry Le Chiffre's gonna win? Continue funding terror and killing innocent people? That kind of sorry?" snaps Bond, in his first moment of genuine panic and deepest moment of disclosure in the whole series. Vesper points out that he has lost because of his ego, and now that ego can't take it. Bond, all grace gone,  sneers that she's a bloody idiot. He then returns to the bar, crushed, says "do I look like I give a damn?" when asked if he wants his Vodka Martini shaken or stirred, then grows steely, grabs a knife and finally resolves to kill Le Chiffre as a last resort. The gamut Daniel Craig gets to run in this scene - cocksure, punctured, attempting to regain his poise, punctured again and forced to reveal his deepest fears, lashing out with impotent anger, stripped of his illusions and finally acting out of desperation - is something no actor as Bond has ever had the chance to pull off, but disappointingly it's also something Craig hasn't been allowed to do since. There's no scene in SPECTRE or its two immediate predecessors quite as good.

The relationship with Madeleine comes close to giving Craig this opportunity, and Lea Seydoux is marvellous (and much stronger than the slightly overrated Eva Green) but there's still nothing quite as memorable as Bond declaring to Vesper that he loves her "enough to quit and float around the world with you, until one of us finds an honest job. But I think that's gonna have to be you because I've no idea what an honest job is. Like you said, you do what I do for too long and there won't be any soul left to salvage. I'm leaving with what little I have left." When Bond responds to Madeleine's questions about why he chose this life with "I'm not sure I ever had a choice...anyway, I don't stop to think about it..." and the meaningless piece of trailerspeak "it was either that or the priesthood", it feels like business as usual, with Bond dodging the question and donning the familiar taciturn mask. Still, Craig-Bond realising he does have a choice after all does have some emotional kick, particularly after three films with endings in which Bond vows to put his job first, and it ends the film strongly, with a glorious shot of Bond and Madeleine  in the DB5. The moment when they first see each other on the train in their gorgeous new outfits is beautifully shot and played, as is their first love scene as a response to having just avoided death (hitting that same Fleming-esque note as the moment in Casino Royale where Bond's response to having nearly been killed is that he's famished).   

The film sees violence in terms of gender: Madeleine needs rescuing twice, and has to follow Bond's instuctions and look away when the footage of her father's death is played. It's a shame she doesn't play a more dynamic role. The film borrows a character arc from The Bourne Supremacy: you always have a choice to put the gun down, and like Bourne, Bond is told this by a woman (as he was told by Vesper in Casino Royale). It's difficult to assess how wise it is to see violence in gender terms. On the one hand, violence can be seen as the result of  patriarchy, which would justify portraying the feminine perspective as the opposition to it. On the other hand, there is a danger that this denies the richness of human experience and individuality - women can, after all, be just as messed-up as men - and in cinematic terms, makes for less exciting roles for women. However, a more subtle touch comes after Madeleine has just demonstrated that Bond doesn't need to teach her how to handle a gun: her recollection of the time an assassin came to the house but didn't know her father kept a pistol under the sink. We're not told who went for the pistol. Here the suggestion is that Madeleine has rejected violence precisely because she is not innocent of it.

For all its faults, this is an extremely entertaining movie, partly because the action has a surer touch than in Skyfall: scenes never end deflatingly as with Silva's arrest or the inquiry shootout. The pre-credits helicopter fight and the Bond\Hinx brawl are stunning, and the Rome and Austria chases are both solid. The humour is delightful throughout - Bond and Q together, the Aston Martin's gadget failures, Bond and the protein shake, the C-word gags, the reminders that Q and Moneypenny both have lives too - applying the rule of the Craig era that it should come from character interaction and character detail rather than old-style quips and familiar routines.

Sam Mendes, this time with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, continues to add scenes of cinematic splendour in between the action. There's a gorgeous opening tracking shot, making superb use of Mexico City's Day of the Dead festival; a lovely scene between Bond, a drunken but feisty Madeleine and a mouse; an inventively horrible torture scene; one of those always satisfying "the only thing that can get Bond out of this is that gadget we mentioned briefly" moments (one of the reasons Q works so well as a figure is that he sets up Chekhov's guns which pay off at particularly tense moments, always adding an emotive thrill), a shocking moment of violence in Rome that provides a deeply chilling introduction to both Mr Hinx and the brutality of SPECTRE (albeit one which has no place in a 12a film), the marvellous idea of placing Blofeld's base in a crater made by a meteorite, and a splendid final scene for Mr White.

The climax wobbles a little: we've seen so little of the inside of MI6 building and rarely seen Craig-Bond in it, so his hunting of Blofeld through the wrecked and waterlogged remains doesn't quite have the "Batman returns to the ruins of the batcave" vibe it seems to seek. We've come to expect better at the climax of a Bond movie than such an old-fashioned Perils of Pauline moment with Madeleine, merely tied-up in a building about to be detonated. Bond shooting down the helicopter onto Westminster bridge is very satisfying, though, as is his decision not to kill Blofeld. The resurrection of the DB5 at the end is as inspired as its destruction was in Skyfall. Ultimately, this is the first of the Craig Bond films to tell a traditional Bond story - an ending in which Bond gets the girl, a supervillain, a supervillain's lair, a car with gadgets, a gadget which saves Bond's life when things are going wrong, the gunbarrel placed at the start, Moneypenny and Q as familiar figures and a terrifying henchman are all back for the first time since Die Another Day. However, it skilfully assembles these elements within the parameters established by the previous three films: the gadgets are not over-the-top, the humour less cheesy, the violence is harsher, the setting is strongly post-9\11, the nature and ethics of British intelligence is under question and M, Moneypenny and Q are characters embroiled in the drama - and with lives of their own - rather than walking on briefly to enact familiar roles. The Craig films have grown up enough to have fun.

As for Bond getting the girl at the end, the Craig era's commitment to emphasising drama and characterisation more strongly than before means that Madeleine's absence from the next film seems unthinkable, in contrast to the previous films where audiences instinctively understood that things had been reset with each film and so never queried what had happened to the previous leading lady. Like Casino Royale's cliffhanger, this sets an interesting challenge for the series. A recurring leading lady offers great potential for character development of a kind the series hasn't seen before, as does the idea of Bond in his first ever continuing relationship. I'm looking forward to seeing Dr Swann again. And maybe they'll get Blofeld right this time.

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