Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Spectre": review

Thursday evening, I finally sat down and watched "Spectre," the most recent James Bond offering starring Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. How can I put this delicately...? Sam Mendes needs to stay the fuck away from the James Bond franchise. Can I be any clearer than that? Mendes has done plodding, thoughtful films like "Road to Perdition" (Tom Hanks as an assassin on the run with his son) and "American Beauty"—cerebral, multilayered stories that, more often than not, explore profound human themes. This makes Mendes, in my opinion, the worst possible director of an action-movie franchise, but some idiot of a studio executive saw fit to allow Mendes to direct not just one, but two James Bond films. You may recall my dislike of "Skyfall," Mendes's first Bond effort. "Spectre" is that movie's spiritual brother in tone and pacing. There's an action sequence in Mexico City at the very beginning that might lull you into thinking this is going to be a very different Mendes product, but no—it's more of the same.

And yet it's not. "Spectre" has a bit of a retro feel to it, almost as if Mendes thought it would be safe to evoke the very silly Roger Moore era of Bond movies—the ridiculous devices supplied by Q, the cartoonish action sequences, the girls who fall in love with Bond after hanging with him for only a short while. In "Spectre," we see Bond using an airplane to chase SUVs down a forest path; the plane's wings snap off as Bond maneuvers close to the ground vehicles. Later on, we see a secret base blow up for no apparent reason: I understood why one building went down in flames after Bond escaped it, but why the rest of the complex suddenly went up is beyond me. We also see Bond driving on a nearly vertical wall, and then there's Léa Seydoux's character, who starts off hating Bond, but who eventually gets to a point where she professes her love for him. I can't even count how many times "Spectre" made me roll my eyes.

I mentioned above that Mendes normally makes multilayered films. He tried that here, too. "Spectre" has a large subplot involving the new M (Ralph Fiennes, who is one of the better things about this film) and his struggle with "C" (Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh), a government official who wants to merge MI6 with other parts of government and phase out the double-oh program in favor of erecting a massive surveillance state with the cooperation of eight other nations to form "the Nine Eyes." M is very much against this move, citing the human factor that the double-oh program provides, and coming out against the notion of a police state presided over by unelected guardians. So "Spectre" wants to be an issues movie as well as a (sleepy) action movie. That in itself is not a bad thing, but I didn't feel that the subplot was all that well integrated into the main plot.

Dave Bautista, who played the massive Drax in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and proved he had acting chops, is wasted here in the role of Mr. Hinx, a Spectre assassin who gets only one line. Bautista is a martial-arts expert, and I expected some better fight scenes between him and Daniel Craig. The scenes we get are brutal, but they're little more than wildly swinging fists and WWE-style body throws. Lots of scenery gets smashed up, and in Bond's final fight with Mr. Hinx, a train car gets half-destroyed, but the train chugs on to its destination without ever stopping. By this point, I had mentally checked out of the story. Gone were the grittiness and tight pacing of "Casino Royale"; all that was left was this weird combination of Mendes's attempt at a meditative tone and his simultaneous urge to evoke the Roger Moore era.

Several critics complained that Christoph Waltz, who plays Spectre honcho Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was guilty of overacting. I disagree. I thought Waltz made the best of a silly role, and his acting was, if anything, rather restrained, in my opinion—a far cry from the gleefully evil Nazi he portrayed in "Inglourious Basterds." Unfortunately, the preview trailers spoiled the mystery of who Spectre's leader was long before the movie hit theaters, so Waltz's appearance was no surprise at all. By the end of the film, Waltz's face has acquired the classic scar seen on Donald Pleasance's face in the old Connery films: once again, Mendes has taken Bond back to a different era when he really ought to have been looking ahead and forging a new path.

So all in all, "Spectre" was a jumble of themes that could have been explored more deeply (love, childhood, the surveillance state); it was helmed by a director who is, in my not-so-humble opinion, completely unsuited to the Bond franchise. It had some interesting moments, mainly thanks to Ralph Fiennes, but nothing about the film really gelled for me. It was slow-pokey, like "Skyfall," and it made the unforgivable mistake of relying on that old cinematic cliché: the third-act villain who has been there the whole time, behind the scenes, manipulating events. "It was me all along, James." One more eye-roll.


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