spectre

Note – this review will contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!

Production of James Bond films has slowed since the 1960s. When the series began, Sean Connery knocked out five in as many years. Roger Moore couldn’t quite keep up that pace, but still managed seven in 12 years. Pierce Brosnan largely managed to evade the legal difficulties which kept Bond off our screens for six years prior to GoldenEye and so starred in four films over a seven year period. Poor old Daniel Craig has taken eleven years to create as many adventures – so each one needs to be worth waiting for.

Prior to sitting down to watch Spectre (at the BFI IMAX at midnight!) I rewatched the previous three movies. Briefly, Casino Royale was slightly better than I remembered – the double-crossing at the end isn’t as confusing as I thought and the mix of human drama and bonkers action works brilliantly. It’s still a shame that the goons who retrieve the cash at the end are so anonymous, and we never meet Vesper’s boyfriend, but it’s basically brilliant. Quantum of Solace was even worse than I remembered – an unfunny, frantic, borderline nonsensical mess of a movie. And Skyfall was every bit as good as I remembered – astonishing action sequences, nifty plotting and fabulous performances. So Spectre had a lot to live up to.

One of the pleasures of Skyfall was the way in which it reassembled the Bond “family” – installing a new more traditionally avuncular M, casting fresh young faces as Q and Moneypenny and returning rogue agent 007 to the fold. Whereas the first two Daniel Craig movies were about the new rookie finding his feet and the third was about a damaged agent returning to the fold, Spectre just has to be business-as-usual, which is potentially slightly trickier to make interesting, although it should make it easier to get straight on with the thrill-ride. It’s disappointing then that early on, we spend so much time replaying tropes from the earlier Daniel Craig movies, Skyfall in particular. Bond is going rogue, again. Bond’s bosses are unable to track his movements, again. The double-0 programme is under bureaucratic threat, again. A shadowy organisation has people “everywhere”, again and so on.

The other major feature of Spectre is its desire to turn the four Daniel Craig movies so far into a coherent saga. Quite why this was felt necessary is not clear to me. Casino wiped the slate clean and started from scratch and everybody loved it. Quantum attempted to turn the Casino villain’s plan into part of a grander conspiracy and everybody hated it. Skyfall totally ignored the previous two films and everybody loved it. How Michael G Wilson and co. drew from this the lesson that what the public wants is for the films to all connect up is anyone’s guess.

The plan starts early with glimpses of Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem floating past in the opening titles – which, by the way, are spectacular, rendering even Sam Smith’s wailing dirge of a theme song acceptable, which is quite a feat. The problem is that reminding us of characters from past adventures is all the movie ever really does to build its multi-part saga. We are apparently meant to think that if Christoph Waltz only mentions Raoul Silva then we will forget that every single thing Javier Bardem does in Skyfall is connected with his being an embittered ex-secret service agent with a personal grudge against M, and we will instead start to remember that his actions were a carefully calculated part of a masterplan being developed by a vast international conspiracy. Sorry, movie. No dice.

The problem is even more significant when it comes to Dominic Greene and the already fairly muddled events of Quantum of Solace. Possibly the Eon team attempted to get back the rights to the name “Spectre” in 2008 so that they could identify the villain’s organisation with that moniker, and when that failed, they used the word “Quantum” instead, tying it in with one of the few remaining Fleming story titles. But we are now meant to believe that the all-powerful, all-encompassing Quantum is itself a mere subsidiary of the even more all-powerful and even more all-encompassing Spectre – Google to the new film’s Alphabet Inc. I for one don’t buy it.

And in fact the problem is even worse because we also have Andrew Scott running around trying to create his own all-powerful and all-encompassing secret organisation – so we have three independent grand conspiracies, all of which overlap and intersect in poorly-defined ways. I long for the days when all we had was one mad man who wanted to blow up the world.

The general feeling that the people trying to stitch these films together haven’t actually watched them recently is compounded when Q makes a tart reference to the mess 007 made of his Aston Martin DB5 in the previous movie, and the beaten-up vehicle is shown undergoing renovations in his workshop. But the point of Bond switching to the DB5 in Skyfall was that it wasn’t a “company car” and therefore MI6 couldn’t track him. And again, when Christoph Waltz chortles that every one of Bond’s women has died – he is apparently forgetting Camille who walks off at the end of Quantum perfectly intact.

So let’s talk about Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser John Harrison Ernst Stavro Blofeld – complete with white cat! Waltz is marvellous in the part, and most of his evil plan makes some sort of sense, although it’s a lot of bother to go to to make one already fairly gloomy agent a bit frowny. But I didn’t really buy his back-story at all. When we can’t see the young James and Franz (and, to be clear, I wouldn’t want to), the notion that they were briefly step-brothers doesn’t really resonate. He’s just another cackling maniac, which is fine – just what a film like this needs in fact – and even better if he can be played by a two-time Oscar winner. So why bother with all this psychodrama if the film isn’t prepared to really commit to it?

But to be honest, as unsatisfactory as all this stuff is, it’s in the margins. When the film concentrates on the present-day storyline instead of dwelling in the past, and when the action starts, it works brilliantly well. The opening sequence, if not quite topping the extraordinary car, train, foot chase in Skyfall, is very rewarding, beginning with a gorgeous long tracking shot – which was no doubt stitched together from half-a-dozen-or-more set-ups, Birdman­­-style, but is still a very, very stylish way to open the movie. Daniel Craig is on blistering form throughout, his wry grimace as the ledge he’s scrambled on to starts to give way beneath him is just perfect, and he continues to absolutely nail the part to the wall. If he does bow out before his fifth contracted film, he will be an amazingly hard act to follow.

Other action sequences also meet if never quite exceeding the high bar set by recent outings. The car chase in Rome, where 007 discovers that not all of the gadgets in the new DB10 are quite up to scratch is very funny and exciting, the plane/car chase in Austria is novel and works very well indeed, and the bone-crunching train fight tops even From Russia with Love. Some of the quieter moments work well too. What a pleasure to see a new version of the Spectre boardroom, also from Russia and others, and – look! – a bonkers villain’s lair in the depths of a crater which blows up absolutely spectacularly towards the end. Monica Bellucci is criminally underused but makes the most of her seven or so minutes of screen time, and Lea Seydoux works miracles with a very thinly drawn character, fleshing out Madelaine Swann into something approximating a real human woman.

The only real disappointment, apart from all my grousing about saga-building above, is the final show-down in London. The chase through the wrecked MI6 works well, but as nice as it is giving Bond a family again, what Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear and Andrew Scott are up to is just far, far less interesting than Bond vs Blofeld. Even the movie seems to lose faith or interest (or both) in the frankly rather artificial count-down associated with the Nine Eyes system, and Rory Kinnear seems to run out of lines entirely about half-an-hour before the end, so he just stands around looking concerned. And it does suggest that not everyone is paying very close attention when the opening action sequence and the closing action sequence both require an out-of-control helicopter, but nobody ever mentions this fact to make it seem deliberate.

So very good, then, rather than great. Casino and Skyfall are, in my view, stone cold classics up there with From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me and GoldenEye. While Spectre is certainly far from being as awful as Quantum of Solace (or A View to a Kill, or The Man with the Golden Gun), it’s stuck slightly in the good-solid entry stakes, both because there isn’t a single action sequence which completely redefines what’s possible, and because some of the plotting is simultaneously overly complicated and somewhat half-hearted.

What’s really important though is that it starts with the gun barrel (for the first time since Die Another Day) and ends with “James Bond will return”. You betcha.

So… what did I think of The Girl Who Died?
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