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by Sam Mendez
"What did you score in your rotten tomatoes evaluation?"
'Spectre' the latest installment of the James Bond franchise is busting box-office records and getting five-star reviews from the Guardian and even good marks from Mark Kermode. Funny then, that I sat in a cinema where the audience was audibly unimpressed, laughing at the wrong places and making snide comments. Upon leaving the cinema the person I went with expressed the opinion "That was a pile of poo." I thought that was an unfair judgement, and still do, but arguing the case with them brought my own reservations to the front of my mind. Even before they had expressed their opinion, I had admitted that "I'm not leaving this cinema feeling that I've seen a blockbuster movie." Nor were the other moviegoers. Perhaps if I'd seen it at one of the sell-out screenings in Birmingham's bijoux cinema, 'the Electric', I'd have felt differently, but there's no denying that something has a strong smell: the critical acclaim and the audience reaction/experience are not lining up.
Let's start with what's good. The opening pre-credits sequence is fantastic. The film opens with a promise to take itself seriously by writing "the dead are alive" across the screen before dumping us in Mexico city for the day-of-the-dead festival. I'd gone to this movie partially to try and analyze what it is about Bond that still endures in this age when we've all got gadgets and can all fly to exotic locations. Part of the answer is that if most of us went to the festival, we would go as tourists, but Bond, fluent in the language and with a beautiful senorita on his arm, experiences it as a participant. Bond fits in wherever he is, his experience of the world is more authentic than ours, indeed, it's the filmic versions of the festival that seem real to us, if we went to Mexico to attend the festival ourselves, it would seem somehow unsatisfying, unreal, fake. Craig, though he's not my favorite Bond, is probably the actor who performs the role best, managing to project attitude even from behind a mask that covers most of his face. When he 'just steps outside', nonchalantly assembling a weapon, he's the consummate secret agent, a cold-bloodied anti-hero who would probably be a villain if his antagonists weren't even worse. Ending with a fist-fight in a helicopter that's spiraling out of control over the festival crowds, the opening is a breathtaking statement of intent that has the audience ready to see the Bond magic kicked up a gear.
Unfortunately, that's not what happens. This is a movie created by someone who is a master of the visual medium and who can create set-piece dramatic scenes, but who cannot string all those together into a narrative. It is a symphony composed by someone who has mastered movements, and thinks all they have to do is string a bunch of those together.
Trouble kicks in as soon as we hit the credits sequence, and Bond is a unique franchise in that the opening credits *matter*. Sam Smith's "Writing on the wall" washes in one ear and out the other. It lacks any hummable hook and none of the lyrics stick. It does nothing to build expectation, excitement, or menace. Once the last note passes, you've forgotten it already. And this is a big problem because music is one of the pillars of the Bond franchise: The trailers used a reworked version of the "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" theme tune, and that was enough to make me want to see the movie, but this music never appears in the production, not that I noticed, leaving me feeling cheated. It's not just the score that's a problem in the opening credits either: there's too much of an attempt to hark back to 'classic' bond title sequences of the past: female silhouettes drifting by in slo-mo. I've got no problem with sexy silhouettes, but if you're going to do them, do something interesting with them, don't just reprise what's been before. The use of an octopus coiling around everything seemed lumpen and unsubtle, and more than a bit ridiculous. 'Tentacles everywhere' is a played-out metaphor if ever there was one. I've got nothing against sexy octopii, but if you're going to do them, do something interesting with them, don't just reprise what's gone before.
Then it's back to London and a dressing-down from Ralph Finnes 'M'. Craig is masterfully insolent in this scene, playing the obedient footsoldier while making it deftly clear that he's anything but. But I don't buy the new 'M'. He's a hollow man to me, just another guy in a suit to shout at Bond. So far his portrayal of 'M' has not developed the stature or heft to fill Judi Dench's sensible heels. 'Course, I may not be giving this 'M' a fair crack of the whip, maybe he needs time to settle into this role, maybe, deep down, I'm unfairly blaming him for, you know, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LAST M.
Look, there's lots wrong in the script and plotting of this movie, which I'll get to later, but let's deal with the elephant in the room, because I've got to get it out of my system. Let's plunge straight into what continues to ruin this Bond incarnation for me: it's ongoing misogyny. I can hardly type the word without a sigh, because it's a ridiculous word now. In the last ten years a new wave of radical gender feminists have reduced feminism to a laughing stock. As we watch them lining up online to defend Bahar Mustafa's right to #KillAllMen, or see Guardian columnists asking for a year in which men are not allowed to publish anything, or just go on twitter and gaze open-mouthed at the never ending tide of hatefulness being vomited up by the new left, it's very hard for anyone to make a serious argument about gender-roles any more. As feminism degrades into what it's detractors always said it was: an ideology of hate, the language itself becomes poisoned. One is afraid even to use a term like misogyny, for all anyone has to do to shut you up is raise and eyebrow and say "Ah, you're one of THEM. Let me guess, it's 'The Patriarchy', right?" And let's be honest, you don't want to be linked to THEM, so you avoid occupying the space that THEY have seized control of. Thus I think 'Skyfall' rang the bell on our entry into a new post-feminist era, at least in the Bond franchise, where things can start to be turned back, because no-one dares object too loudly.
But, whatever the risks of using a discredited terminology, it can't be denied that Sam Mendez has taken MI6 back to being a mans, mans, mans world. At least in this outing the female characters get out alive, but that is largely because they've been reduced to traditional roles. Action bond-girls of past eras, like Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin, or Hally Berry's Jinx, or even arguably Aki and Kissy Suzuki from 'you only live twice', now seem like they belong in a completely alternate reality. The new franchise has no-one comparable, unless they're in "Quantum of Solace", which I've not seen. Moneypenny, who started out as a field-agent in Skyfall, is now reduced to being Bond's secretary. He phones her during a car-chase and asks her "Can you look into this for me?" getting her to do his paperwork. One almost expects him to ask her to pick a birthday present for Mrs Bond, he being too busy to attend to such trivialities. The hint of toughness that we see in Moneypenny's character at the start of Skyfall is completely erased, and she's now a similing, wide-eyed ingenue who'll do anything he asks, a kind of surrogate wife. At least she doesn't have a crush on him, when it's revealed during one of his phone-calls that Moneypenny has a man of her own, it's Bond who shows a hint of jealousy. But even this doesn't wash. What does it mean for Bond to be jealous? This guy goes through women like kleenex, so 'jealousy' on his part can only be anger at not having ownership of the full set of female characters.
This is a further problem when revenge for the deaths of previous women is his life is used as a motivating drive for Bond. Frankly, it's amazing he can even remember their names, much less be angry at how they met their end. Indeed, in the roster of lost loves Skyfall's Severine is completely forgotten. I guess she was just a quick lay, not marrying material like Vesper Lynd. The series tries too much to have it both ways, where Bond cares deeply about the women in his life, while simultaneously demonstrating the same concern towards them individually as Homer Simpson does to his beloved donuts. Where Homer, finding himself in hell, was strapped to a machine that delivered and endless supply of donuts into his maw, Bond would presumably be forced to bonk his way through an unending supply of beauties until he feels nothing and cannot tell them one from another, much like the audience feels. If Bond were truly in mourning for Vesper Lynd, wouldn't it be more radical for him not to lay hands on another woman until he'd taken his revenge? It's hard to buy that someone's haunted by a past love, when they're bedding anything that crosses their path. One could almost imagine the villain taunting Bond with claims to have killed his one true love, while Bond embarrassedly admits that he can't remember who the Villain is talking about.
But okay, I get it, the seduction scenes are a core part of the Bond formula, and we can't give them up even when he's supposedly in mourning, although in that case it might be an idea to downplay the whole 'mourning' plotline. However, it's not the womanizing I have a problem with, it's what the women have been reduced to. 'Skyfall' saw the character assassination of Judi Dench's 'M', for my money the best female character of the series. It's worth noting what Ms Dench did for the 'M' character, for the series owes her a debt in this regard. She got off to a shakey start, it must be admitted, with some lumpen feministing one her first appearance, calling Bond a 'misogynistic dinosaur'. Script-writer's please note: this is not the way to mark a change of direction. You don't have the characters explain it to us this blatantly, it's cringe inducing, rather you have it develop organically out of their interactions. This is something that 'Skyfall' got right: the decision to eschew gadgets is captured in Q's comment "What do you want, an exploding pen?" But anyways, after an uncertain entrance, Dench took ownership of the 'M' role in a way that created 'M' as a character in their own right. Previously 'M' had just been MI6 wallpaper, a guy in a suit gave Bond his assignments and occasionally shouted "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" at him. Dench's 'M', shrewd and played with just the right amount of sulphur, turned a piece of narrative furniture into a genuine role. And this was a vital role in the franchise, as it was about the only relationship Bond has with a woman that's based on professionalism and mutual respect, instead of based on how she looks in a bikini. Yet, by the end of 'Skyfall' 'M' is not only dead, but condemned as incompetent out of her own mouth, in an unforgivable betrayal of the character and all she stood for. She's replaced with a man and the only other MI6 female, Moneypenny, gives up dangerous fieldwork to take up her 'proper' place behind a desk.
"Spectre" continues this trend. The five female characters are
The first three are, in my opinion, all very incidental, including Moneypenny. Ms Belluci's widow character is too, but is worthy of some discussion, I feel, in that she's an older woman (closer to Mr Craig's age) who nevertheless gets to be a Bond girl.
I've been surprised to hear some women reviewers disparaging Ms Belluci as 'looking too old' (most men, I assume, know not to say such things). Personally I liked seeing Bond with someone who didn't look as entirely airbrushed as most Bond girls: I've got nothing against the perfect girls, but it's interesting to see someone different once in a while. And, for me, Ms Belluci completely rocked her black high-heeled widow's weeds: she still has it. The scene where she walks through her house to what she expects to be her assassination with a kind of resigned carelessness was beautifully done. But she really didn't get to do much else after that, and the last moment we see her, kneeling on a bed in stockings and corset, felt like some kind of clunky product placement, with the woman as product. Again, there's nothing wrong with Monica Belluci in stockings and corset, but it's how it's done that matters. This came across as an unexpected playboy shot stuck in the middle of the movie. Later on, when we see Lea Seydoux sashay down a train-carriage in a spray-on ballgown, the feeling is different. It's not jarring, and Ms Seydoux owns the scene, making it one of sexual empowerment rather than one of objectification. If we were going to see Ms Belluci in a corset, then it should have been done like that. One can't help that feel that Ms Belluci was an opportunity lost, just looking at pictures of her at the recent BAFTAs, done up in full "Elvira, mistress of the night" mode, with pendant earrings that look like weapons and a penetrating gaze, one has a glimpse of what could have been done with this actress. Obviously she'd make a great villainess, but that's too obvious and easy. For my money she'd have made a great 'M' (why can't M have an Italian accent, eh? eh?). But no, she's just another disposable conquest for Bond.
Lea Seydoux's portrayal Madeline Swan has been much praised, but for me it's yet another example in this movie, of an actor keeping an uninteresting role aloft through sheer brute force of their performance. Dr Swann is another woman initially sold to us as being 'able to take care of herself' who nevertheless frequently behaves like a woman-child, particularly when drunk. Unlike Vesper Lynd, who had a forceful personality from the get-go, Dr Swann seems a little blank, and it's tough to say why Bond is so taken with her. She does kinda save his life twice, though not very competently (I've yet to see a woman fire a gun in this incarnation of Bond, and hit the target, perhaps that too only happened in Quantum of Solace) but her contribution to the plot is weak. She's mostly there as a love interest, and to be rescued by Bond in the final scene. Other than that she follows instructions from Bond in one scene, so is not acting on her initiative, and in another manages to 'provide a distraction' (because she can't shoot straight) that gets Bond out of an immediate fix. She's very much a girly-girl character from a boy's own adventure.
To illustrate just how badly women fair in the new Bond: There was a Bond-themed advert shown before the movie, involving a woman water-skier who gets inadvertently roped into a Bond chase, and I thought she showed more initiative in dealing with the situation than any of the women in the recent movies. But it's not just that they're limp and useless and pushed to the sidelines, the women in these latest movies have been actively disrespected and degraded.
Okay, let's move on to other things. Christoph Waltz puts in a fantastic performance as the lead villain, who yes, is exactly who you thought he was, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Waltz plays him with the same chilling friendlyness that we saw from Javier Bardem's Raoul de Silva. Waltz's Blofeld is sinister precisely because he seems so mild-mannered. He never loses his temper, even in extremis, and always seems to be enjoying some private joke. In performance, and in visuals, this latest portrayal of him can't be faulted. When we first 'see' him in Rome, it's in a scene reminiscent of 'The Godfather'. Making an entrance that forces everyone to stand in deference, he announces "don't let me interrupt you" after having completely done just that. He's entirely in shadow, seated arrogantly as any potentate, betraying no reaction to things people tell him, making them sweat. Then he will pause to make whispered conversation with two advisors stood at his elbow. Like I say, visually, and in terms of acting, it can't be faulted.
But in terms of script, it can. This biggest of Bond villains is revealed to be Bond's step-brother, set on a career of crime in opposition to Bond because he refused to share the attention of his father (who he eventually murdered in revenge). This is limp. This is the kind of lazy writing that we see in so many reboots. Since Star Wars everyone feels they have to provide a "Luke, I am your father" big reveal, whether it's that two characters are related, or that The Doctor is half-human, or whatever. The supposed link to Bond does nothing to expand Blofeld's character, in fact it lessens him, this arch-villain is motivated by nothing more than petty sibling rivalry. Script writers need to step away from the Freudian pseudo-analysis and think bigger than 'unresolved childhood trauma' for the backstories of their characters. We already played that game with the Bond/de Silva/M Oedipal conflict stuff in 'Skyfall'. Also Waltz's dialogue, though very well delivered, is lacklustre. There's nothing to match the brilliant "we are the last two rats" de Silva/Bond scene in "Skyfall". There's no "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!" one liners that stick in the mind, to be quoted for years afterwards. Blofeld, the definitive Bond villain, doesn't even get to say "You only live twice, Mr Bond."
But we never get much sense of the SPECTRE organization itself, and Blofeld's claim to have "orchestrated all your pain", to have actually been the Eminence Grise behind all that happens in the previous movies, rings thin. Specifically he claims to be responsible for the deaths of Bond's women, but it's a little difficult to see how he was behind the death of Versper Lynd, which seemed to be the result of many random factors working together, including Lynd's final decision to refuse Bond's attempted rescue. Furthermore, the evil plan to monitor all the world's communications by selling world governments a backdoored surveillance system, does not seem sufficiently evil for a Bond villain. This is pretty much what our governments, via NSA and GCHQ seek to do to us anyway, so our governments have set a bar in wickedness that Blofeld really needs to rise above for us to take him seriously. While I'd normally applaud someone making the case against blanket surveillance of the citizenry, Spectre never explores this threat in any real depth, and so it remains unconvincing as an evil plan. Yes, SPECTRE is staging terrorist atrocities to persuade governments to implement it's surveillance system, but somehow it's just not enough, perhaps the plot is just undersold.
Ben Wishaw reappears as Q. He's fun to watch, but all through the film I had trouble believing his loyalty to Bond. Bond doesn't really treat him with much respect, and to be honest if I was Q I'd quickly be wanting to see the back of 007. It's tough to understand why Moneypenny and Q are as faithful to Bond as they are, he treats Moneypenny a little better, but Bond comes across as an office sociopath without the charm. There's just something missing in his interaction with his colleagues.
A major miss-step for me was that, after 'Skyfall' did away with gadgets, 'Spectre' brings them back in a particularly ridiculous form. Somewhere between no gadgets and X-files tech, there's a happy medium, but this film missed it. Bond is injected with nanotech 'smart blood' that allows him to be tracked from anywhere, via satellite apparently. This had the fragrance of techno-bullshit. Some kind of sub-dermal implant would have been believable, but I guess it would have been too easily removed. But this daft technology serves almost no purpose in the film anyway, it solely exists to force Q to lie about Bond's location to M, thus demonstrating Q's loyalty. But Bond has accepted a watch from Q (with a 'loud alarm') so that could have had a bug in it, which would have spared us the smart-blood. I think it's unlikely that even a watch could be trackable from orbit (would the transmitter be powerful enough, especially around all the radio noise of the modern world?) but I'd have been more prepared to believe it than 'smart blood'.
But the biggest problem with this film is that it's too self-aware: it's part of the Bond chain, and it knows it. Too many sequences call back to previous Bond outings and other 'thriller' movies. Perhaps the fact that the 'Day of the Dead' sequence puts you in mind of 'Live and Let Die' is co-incidental, but the visit to an alpine clinic a-la "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" surely isn't. The SPECTRE scene in Rome felt like a hat-tip to The Godfather series, and the final 'trapped in ruined MI6 headquarters' scene, though it's not actually a hall of mirrors, surely owed something to 'Enter The Dragon'. The overlong car chase in the Austin Martin DB10 links back to the DB5 in any of a dozen bond movies starting with Goldfinger. There's the obligatory 'Casino Royale' torture scene (it's not enough anymore to just tie bond in the path of an industrial laser, the villain has to watch him suffer), the 'From Russia with Love' fight-on-a-train and a paragliding escape that reminds one of the jetpack scene from 'On her Majesty's Secret Service'. There's a feeling that the film is pressed for time to get through all the winks and nods and shout-outs that it needs to. In all this, there's a lack of any real depth, or of anything novel that we've not seen before. The only thing missing is a tank full of pet piranha.
But then it goes and breaks the rules of the canon. The final scene of this movie should have featured Blofeld sailing away: the reoccurring villain always escapes so we know he'll be back. But instead Bond manages to take him into custody in an ending that the film just didn't need. Admittedly, by the time we'd arrived here we'd demolished MI6 headquarters, which did seem kindof brave as it puts Bond firmly in a parallel world to our own, but by the end of the film Bond has pretty much retired, and that feels wrong. This all adds up to looking like the director destroying the theatre so he can't be upstaged by the next act. He leaves the franchise having deprived it of the most iconic 'M' we ever had, having demolished MI6 headquarters, having retired Bond, and generally leaving a lot of stuff that's going to be awkward for the next director to work around.
All in all, the film has some good set pieces, but it's a let down after the high standards set by Casino Royale and, yes even though I had issues with it, Skyfall.