Monday, 23 November 2015

Spectre (2015) - Movie Review

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single film franchise that’s more iconic than the exploits of agent 007. The actors, the girls, the gadgets, the quips, the cars, even the booze; all of it has reached a phenomenal level of cultural relevance. It is almost to the point where, a thousand years from now, future civilisations are going to assume that British people did nothing but drink rocket fuel martinis and snark at each other all day… okay, bad example. What I’m getting at with all this is that, with each new instalment, there is an automatic expectation that comes with them. Now, bear in mind that anything and everything that is said here is from the perspective of a very recent casual fan of the series; hell, the first Bond film I saw in cinemas was Skyfall. To be fair though, that’s a pretty damn good place to start. But how does its sequel turn out?

The plot: On the last requests of M, James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been investigating an assassin and the organization he’s attached to. Meanwhile, because he’s been going off the grid to do this, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is coming to blows with the head of the newly formed Joint Intelligence Service named C (Andrew Scott), who wants to terminate the double-0 program. As Bond connects with Dr. Swan (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of an old ‘friend’, he comes face-to-face with the leader of the organization Spectre named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who it seems has been following Bond for quite some time now.

The acting stays good from our returning cast: Daniel Craig is well and truly comfortable in his role and carries off everything Bond is as well as ever, Ben Whishaw delivers plenty of dry wit as Q and honestly makes for the best part of the film, Naomie Harris is still strong and capable as Moneypenny, Jesper Christensen is almost unrecognizable but still intimidating as Mr. White and Ralph Fiennes gets to flex some action spy muscle this time round as M. Then we get to the new cast, and it’s a mixed bag: Monica Bellucci as the B Bond girl fulfils her duties but doesn’t really leave much of an impact unlike her predecessors, although credit where it’s due in that she’s the first B Bond girl not to die, Andrew Scott’s casting is a bit suspect from the offset but he does well as the two-faced C, and Léa Seydoux, while giving a good performance, honestly feels like a step down in terms of A Bond girls, being less assertive and more just along for the ride.

Then we get to Christoph Waltz as the shadowy head of Spectre. Now, upon first hearing that Waltz would portray a Bond villain, I joined the rest of the world and applauded the decision. The man has done great work as a villain before in Inglorious Basterds, the previously reviewed Big Eyes, even in weaker works like The Green Hornet. However, when it comes to this film, the man doesn’t work. The thing is, while he may be perfect to play villains, he is dreadfully miscast when it comes to playing this villain. Waltz works best as the more bombastic antagonist, destroying the heroes and the scenery in equal doses. Cold and calculating, he isn’t, and as such he falters a bit when portraying Oberhauser. Every scene he’s in, it feels like he’s holding back, as if Mendes specifically told him to go against his type regardless of how hazardous it ends up being to the overall production. As if to highlight this, there is a brief flash of the Christoph Waltz audiences should have gotten near the end, where he gives in to the madness. Beyond that, he’s too subdued to be as effective as he should have been. After how fantastic Javier Bardem was as Silva in the last film, this is a major step down.

However, miscasting the villain might well have been the worst thing that could’ve happened for this film, considering where it stands in the new Bond canon. This is meant to serve not only as a sequel to Skyfall, but also as a closer to dangling plot threads from Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace as well, tying the actions of Le Chiffre, Greene and Silva together with Bond in the middle of it all. Now, previously, a weaker villain wouldn’t have mattered as much: Chiffre wasn’t meant to be a dominating opponent, as he was under pressure as well, and Greene was just playing second batsman in an otherwise weaker entry anyway. Given how Skyfall is the most isolated of the new Bond canon, Silva being an amazing villain doesn’t factor in too heavily either.

Oberhauser has a lot of weight put behind him: The manipulator of every major tragedy Bond has faced so far, the leader of an organization set to gain surveillance of every corner of the world and someone with personal history with Bond himself (the explanation for which is everything I hoped we wouldn’t get in Skyfall, given the orphan angle Craig’s Bond has been given). Waltz’s portrayal, to put it simply, doesn’t work as a satisfactory payoff to all of that build-up. The most we get is some Saw-esque antics peppered throughout, but even then it feels off. If a twist came that Andrew Scott or even Ralph Fiennes was the real leader of Spectre, I would’ve been more than happy because both of those actors are more than capable of pulling off what Oberhauser was clearly supposed to be. To quote a far superior spy film from earlier this year, the Bond films are only as good as their villain.

As much as we consider the James Bond franchise to be influential and one of the most iconic series in all of cinema, it has become more than a little reactionary of late. Back in Pierce Brosnan’s era, because of the increase of extreme sports-related action films like XXX, the action scenes grew increasingly more ridiculous, to the point where Bond ended up running from a giant laser fired from an orbital satellite. When Bond was rebooted in 2006, it took inspiration from the Bourne series of films and became a more gritty take on the gentleman spy, which was honestly the best move that they could’ve taken given how Brosnan closed out his era with the aforementioned Jumping The Laser moment.

Here, it seems like the Bond films are taking inspiration from the other big action spy franchise of today: Mission Impossible. Specifically, the idea of making Bond go rogue and against the wishes of his employers, something literally every MI film has done to varying extents. Add to this the main scheme involving Spectre gaining an omniscient presence through a high-tech surveillance network, which is getting increasing prevalent in our post-Wikileaks mindset, and the formula feels like it’s slipping through the cracks a little. That, and it’s showing signs of regressing to the Quantum Of Solace invinci-Bond action setpieces, which I can only hope is a fluke. Don’t get me wrong, said setpieces are very well done and thrilling, but they don’t play to what makes Craig’s Bond work as well as it does.

All in all, this is a serious let-down; not just as a follow-up to Skyfall, but also because this is meant to serve as a massive revelation to a story that the last three films have been building up to. While the acting is great for the most part, the writing is serviceable and the action scenes are impressive, the weakness of the villain ends up dragging the entire film down around him. This was a surprise in the worst way possible, as there should never be a situation where Christoph Waltz fails to portray the bad guy.

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