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SPECTRE Movie Review

The ghost of franchise past

Upon leaving the cinema a friend described Sam Smith’s Writing’s on the wall as the perfect song for the latest James Bond movie, Spectre. He said the song sounds exactly how you would expect a James Bond title track to sound, without doing anything original or interesting with it. It goes through the motions, rising and falling weightlessly when it needs to and then ending only to be instantly forgotten. And that is Spectre in a nutshell: James Bond as paint by numbers.

The formula has been there almost since the beginning: The maniacal villain, the formidable henchman, the two beautiful Bond Girls, the cars, the gadgets, and Bond, James Bond himself. Each film takes these pieces and arranges them in a way to seem new, but not too new, and tell a satisfying action and adventure story. And that is fine. Formula can be satisfying as long as the beats are delivered with some panache and actually mean something in the context of the larger story. Casino Royale presented itself as something of an origin for Bond which re-contextualized the formula. It dealt in firsts. That makes Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd not just another Bond Girl, but the first Bond Girl, and therefore boosts her importance. The film gives James an arc. It is not Bond going through the motions, but the formula that will come to recur through every future mission shaping Bond. Skyfall took the formula and used it to examine the relationship between Bond and most important Bond Girl in James’ life: Judi Dench’s M. Her boosted role in the film, and the fact that the villain was also tied into her story, gave everything an added weight. Casino Royale and Skyfall felt like they were playing with real stakes. Spectre doesn’t.

The plot revolves around a terrorist organisation slash rival espionage group that has been secretly pulling the strings behind all of Bond’s previous enemies, as well as MI6 on the verge of being dissolved by a bureaucrat obsessed with security. Bond, pointed in the right direction by the previous M, goes out on his own to find out who has been the author of his pain since the beginning, to paraphrase the villain.

The film opens in Mexico city on the Day of Dead celebrations and tracks Bond through the city, up onto a roof top and into an attempted assassination. This sequence, filmed in one long tracking shot, is extremely cool. Bond fearlessly strolling along a perilously high ledge is a great image, but it was not long before I realised that is all the film had to offer: a couple of cool images in an otherwise tired retread of Bond cliches.

Bond meets the first Bond Girl (a criminally underused Monica Bellucci), sleeps with her because that’s what he does, gets the information he needs, and leaves. She is in and out of the film within five minutes and leaves nothing of a lasting impression. Then we are introduced to Spectre, the shadowy organisation Bond is attempting to stop, and the film’s villains Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Hinx looks pretty cool, he’s big and full of swagger, and has metal thumb nails for eye gouging… but then he just turns out to be another generic henchman who didn’t even really need a name (It’s only in the credits I realised he even had one as no-one refers to him as Hinx for the film’s duration). There’s a car chase to fill the automobile advertising requirement which is dull, and then it is not long before Bond is off to meet Bond Girl number two.

This is where the real problems become apparent: A complete lack of chemistry. Lea Seydoux is Madeleine Swann and her role is to be won, imperiled, and saved. Her character is so thin she almost floats away, passive to the point of disappearing. There is no chemistry between her and Craig which isn’t helped by the script that doesn’t bother laying any of the groundwork to cement their relationship. Their inevitable roll between the sheets just happens, and then a later deceleration of love feels so false I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. This lack of chemistry applies to Craig and Waltz as well. Think back to Skyfall and how fun Bond’s interactions with the villain, Silva were. Spectre doesn’t have that same spark. There is a connection between Bond and Waltz’ Oberhauser that is there to give the film weight but it doesn’t ring true. The film retcons past events to make Oberhauser responsible for everything that has happened to Bond since the beginning, but never establishes how he is responsible. He just is because he says he is. The film is full of this type of plotting.

Despite all of this, there are still a bright spots in the film, mainly the performances of Daniel Craig and Ben Whishaw as Q. Whishaw plays Q with a charming mix of nervous energy and brilliant genius and his awkward interactions with Bond provide the film with its best gags. Craig has his version of Bond down pat by this point. His humour is never audience winking Roger Moore-isms, but is used to shield the cold, steely efficiency of a killer. It is the flatness of Craig’s delivery that elicits laughs. Interestingly (and somewhat frustratingly) the film diminishes the things that set apart Craig’s Bond from the others. In Casino Royale Bond is at the bar and is asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred and the look he gives the barman reads Who gives a shit? Here he delivers the famous Shaken not stirred line. That might not sound like much but it is indicative of how Spectre brings Craig’s Bond in line with the familiar idea of who James Bond is regarding the franchise as a whole. Craig is quicker with a smile and a quip. The same intensity is visible in those piercing blue eyes but it is softened. This doesn’t feel like Bond’s arc over the course of Craig’s four films, beginning as a ruthless killer and ending as the cock sure, charming quip machine, but as Craig deciding it is time to bow out and resetting the character to his default state.

For many, seeing the cars, the girls, the gadgets, the villains, and hearing the catchphrases will be enough to please. By some Spectre has been seen as a loving tribute to the franchise’s past, and that may well have been what Sam Mendes and his crew were going for. But acknowledging the past is one thing, rigidly following formula without a drop of inspiration is another. Spectre looks to the past to hide the fact it has nothing new or interesting to say.

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