SPECTRE Reconsidered

There are very few films that I see in theaters more than once anymore. Except for the occasional classic, a return visit to a theater for a contemporary film is rarely needed. I have a subscription service through DISH and Netflix and Amazon give me plenty of opportunities to see recent films again, without having to make a trip. There are however exceptions and one of the film series that I will take in as often as possible in a theater is James Bond.

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It is no secret if you have visited this site before that I am a 007 fanatic. I had a lot of fun last year coming up with 7 things I loved for each of the EON James Bond films. This was all in aid of the debut of SPECTRE, the most recent addition to the James Bond canon. As a fan there is always something satisfying about a new episode with 007, but it is also easy to be disappointed, especially in light of how great the previous chapter was. Inevitably, SPECTRE was going to suffer a little by comparison to the previous film. Bond’s ancestral home is destroyed, his Aston Martin DB5 is massacred, and his boss steps off the stage in a thrilling ending with a villain that was exceptional. It’s hard to find ways to make what comes next feel compelling. The screenwriters did find a hook to try and keep things at this heightened level, they make all of the events in the previous three Bond films the design of a secret organization with a strong hidden connection to 007 himself.

I suspect most Bond fans would have been happy to move on and start with some stand alone assignments. That’s exactly the way I felt at the end of Skyfall, we were at a new beginning. To quote Michael Corleone, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in again.”  SPECTRE ends up with a Jerry rigged connection to the three previous Daniel Craig films. I originally wrote that this was my biggest problem with the movie. I did not see the film as a failure, but I was less enthusiastic than I might have been. There was however a beacon of hope that might alter my opinion a bit. As an enthusiastic fan, I’d purchased a special pass that came as a steel engraved card with my name on it and the SPECTRE Octopus logo. It entitled me to see the film once every day, in any format that it was playing in at a Regal Theater. I took advantage of my financial commitment and as a result I have now seen the movie more than a half dozen times on the big screen. This has given me a chance to adjust to some of the rapid character points and clumsy plot development that I was originally hesitant about. It also gave me the ability to see a couple of things that are actually important to the ability of the Bond films to continue to entertain.

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Ever since the departure of Pierce Brosnan as Bond, the producers have tried to get Bond back to basics and turn the character into a more reality based character. Gone are the invisible cars and avalanche surfing days. They have been replaced by extensive scenes of torture and casual cruelty. Casino Royale features a grim Bond freshly minted into the 00 ranks. His opponent LeChiffre is a terrorist financier who manipulates the situation through a romantic mole. It turns out that there is a secret figure behind the plot that emerges at the end, Mr. White. In the follow up, Mr. White is a figure in a mysterious consortium called Quantum, and they have their fingers everywhere, including at the side of M. Suddenly, this organization looks like it will be the main opponent for Bond in future films. When we move to the third Craig film though, Quantum has disappeared and it seems like a rogue hacker that Bond is up against. According to the plot of the current film all of these are linked together under an umbrella organization, with a name familiar to Bond fans from the 60s.

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The conspiracy gets deeper, the violence levels affecting the general population gets greater, and Bond and MI-6 are

like the boy plugging the dyke with their finger. At this point the series is getting murky and it begins to feel a little like an X-Files episode with the tag line “Trust No One.”  I don’t need a jet pack or submersible car, but I would like a little fun to go along with the adventure. In going “Bourne” the producers were at risk of losing much of what made James Bond fun for several generations. SPECTRE does not return us to the parody days of Brosnan and Roger Moore, but it finally does restore a sense of humor to the movie series. So let me spend some time praising the virtues a a little levity in the newest film.

The cold opening has a couple of moments that bring a smile to our faces. Bond stalks his prey behind a deaths-head mask and suit and has a local beauty for cover while he does so. When he gets her to the hotel room and kisses her, we might be expecting a romantic clutch but instead when she turns back to him after climbing on the bed, she is taken aback by his near instant transformation into a regular suit with an angry looking weapon at his side. He steps out and says he’ll just be a moment. Finally a laugh in a Daniel Craig film. [To be fair there were a couple in Skyfall but this movie is clearly more engaged in Bond’s humorous side.] He does get a Roger Moore moment when as the building that he shot into collapsed and then triggered a similar collapse in the one he is occupying, he ends up landing on a couch after dropping a couple of stories, with a sconce in his hand. A second laugh in the pre title sequence, this might be a laugh fest.

We also get a return to the traditional byplay with Miss Moneypenny. They don’t quite flirt but it seems as if they could. When she delivers material to his apartment at night, there is a subtle joke about his lack of effort at decorating. When he reaches out to her in the middle of a car chase, at three in the morning, he comments on her having a male guest at her place at that time of night. This is the possessive James Bond we knew from the old days, paying attention only when it suits him.

Bond juxtaposes his bad ass assassin facade with a jesters grin when he dispatches two killers sent to kill the widow of his first target. She claims that it will be a no use for him to intervene because in five minutes there will be another killer at her door. His response “Just enough time for a drink.” A little gallows humor to ingratiate himself with a key informant. Thank you Mr. Bond. When he boldly bluffs his way into a secret meeting of the phantom group, he  calls the screener an asshole as he introduces himself as Mickey Mouse, oh yeah, in Italian. When the head of SPECTRE reveals himself at the meeting to James, he does it with a little cuckoo call. The bad guys have a sense of humor as well.

Only one moment of humor feels exaggerated in a way that is similar to a Roger Moore Bond. During the car chase in Rome, Bond’s DB10 ends up behind a slow moving mini-Fiat. The driver comically remains in front of Bond until pushed into a parking spot and then the airbag goes off. That felt very clown like. Bond’s exit from the car before he parks it in the Tiber river is also a bit over the top, but only in the same way that the ejector seat was in Goldfinger.  Most of the humor in the film plays off of the way Bond expresses himself. He remains cool and cocky, even when being tied up to be tortured. They don’t go quite as far as to make a joke based on the bad guy scratching his testicles (like they did in Casino Royale) but there is a moment of levity before Christoph Watlz reveals his character’s new name. Bond speaks softly and greets the white Persian cat that walks across his lap in a casual way. No joke, just a moment of incongruous levity.

A second issue that I need to reconsider is the title song. When I first heard the Sam Smith tune “Writings on the Wall”, I was underwhelmed. His breathy deliver and wan styling seemed too soft for a James Bond film. When you watch the opening credits and see the nude silhouette of Daniel Craig, surrounded by faceless girls and octopus tentacles, it is almost laughable.

But once you get over the novelty of that image, it is both frighting and sad, and that’s what the story is ultimately about. The sadness of uncertainty, especially about love. The tune becomes a haunting reminder of all the losses for Craig’s Bond, and the fear that he can never have the real love and stability that he professes to want. A lot of people have said that they see this movie as a remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They believe the relationship with Madeleine is doomed. If that is true, then the music has perfectly captured that notion. I’m not a 100% convinced but I am a lot closer to seeing this as a lesser Shirley Bassey effort rather than a miserable Madonna failure.

My final criticism in the original review was about the climax of the film. The damsel in distress card is played and that is such a conventional moment. It was also arrived at quickly and without much sense. Madeleine leaves Bond abruptly, disappears and ends up tied to the railroad tracks, oops, sorry, tied up in the building about to explode, and Bond has to find her. Their exit from the building is really solid however and the music score pumps up the boat/helicopter chase pretty well. I love the fact that M,Q, and Moneypenny have something to do at the end, but it is a little disconcerting that the new intelligence agency, that is supposed to be state of the art, has no alarms, guards or obvious security. The anti-terror squad shows up at a helicopter crash in less than a minute, but the head of the new inter-agency intelligence network takes a header 15 stories down into the lobby of the headquarters and no one shows up except our crew.

Finally, although it comes before the credits, there is a bit of a stinger and the producers know exactly where to hit a real Bond fan to make us want more. A miraculous resurrection is lingered over with a shot of the historically significant gear shift knob, and 007s oldest ally comes in to slap us awake at the exit. Cue the original theme played over the scene in perfect placement and now I want to see the movie again and I can’t wait until the next installment shows up.

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