The Ghost of Familiarity Haunts SPECTRE… in a Good Way [UK Review]

Spectre was released in the UK on the 26th October and is released in the US on the 6th November (naturally).

Welcome back to Bond World. A strange, fantasy world where an alcoholic government agent with a chronic sex addiction can indulge in a bit of male wish fulfilment travelling the globe, driving fast cars, saving the planet from Donald Trump-a-likes, and diddling any lady within diddling distance. After Jason Bourne slapped a lacklustre James Bond into the 21st Century with his own slightly more credible brand of gritty, shaky-cam spy-capers, hilariously monikered Bond producers the Broccolis were forced to hit the refresh button on their flagging franchise in a desperate bid to make it relevant in an age where audiences are more astute, and real life global terrorism is more brutally ambitious than anything some sexually inadequate, cat-stroking billionaire could come up with.

“Bond. Have you found out what SPECTRE stands for yet?”
“Uhhh…yeah. I think it stands for SPooky…Evil…um…Creepy Team?”

So they decided to hark back to Ian Fleming’s original gin-soaked scribblings, hiring wing-eared toughie Daniel Craig, dialling back on the ridiculous gadgetry (so no more exploding Kenwood food mixers or inflatable Aston Martins), giving the Bond girls something to do apart from James Bond, and, as per nearly all post-millennial anti-heroes, going all introspective.

And to a certain extent it worked. Despite cries of ‘Heresy!’ from intransigent Bond fans with too many hands on the internet, Casino Royale was a massive critical and box-office hit, and the much derided Daniel Craig proved to be the best Bond since that Scottish bloke with a gen for lady-slapping.

Allegedly.

But now is the year Marty McFly discovered Jaws 19 (3D) and the hover-board. Following the French midget-bashing antics of Quantum of Solace and the vaguely homoerotic Skyfall (the UK’s most successful flick ever), it became apparent that all that rebooting was a bit of a smokescreen. Because no matter how many scenes there are of Commander Bond looking pained as he attempts to deal with his shady past, half-assed references to current political conundrums, or knowing in-jokes, Bond films are a slave to formula. A formula that is reassuringly familiar to the millions of Bond fans around the world. One that has proved so successful it needn’t be changed, just tweaked occasionally to stay with the times. And Bond’s latest outing Spectre is no different.

So let’s run through Spectre’s James Bond tick-box template:

Spectacular opening sequence set during Mexico City’s notorious Day of the Dead festival, featuring a brilliant Touch of Evil-style pseudo-one-take tracking shot of Bond snaking his way through the throngs of revellers and traversing rooftops in his bid to take out a known terrorist. CHECK!

Silly introductory credits sequence involving octopi writhing over assorted weaponry and scantily clad women, all to the tune of another forgettable musical dirge sung by squeaky-voiced hair-do Sam Smith. CHECK!

A who-gives-a-fuck-plot-that makes little dramatic sense and is really only an excuse to string a series of spectacular set-pieces together. CHECK!

A seemingly indestructible Bond villain henchman of few words. CHECK!

An effeminate Bond villain suffering from short-man syndrome with his tentacles in every world pie. CHECK!

Bond girls… with issues. CHECK!

Amusing, gadget related shenanigans. CHECK!

The world’s most expensive Aston Martin commercial… now with extra Sony. Double Fucking CHECK!

However, peer beneath Spectre’s overly-familiar veneer and you suddenly realise that Brit director Sam Mendes, screenwriter John Logan and his cavalcade of scribes have been indulging in a spot of clever world building. It seems they had a plan all along, for Spectre is the culmination of all the rebooted Bonds that have gone before it.

The sneaky filmmaking bastards!

In a plot that would have Edward Snowden shaking his head declaring, “See! Told you so,” 007 James Bond follows up on one of those personal vendettas he’s got on file only to discover a conspiracy orchestrated by the omnipotent Franz Oberhauser (Christophe Waltz), head of the evil global puppet-master-type terrorist organisation SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Meanwhile, Bond’s new boss M (a not-Judy Dench Ralph Fiennes) keeps telling off Bond for being a bit unorthodox (because that’s what bosses of rebellious, albeit gifted, civil servants are wont to do), whilst fending off Andrew Scott’s clearly dodgy (and suitably oily) government lackey whose nefarious plans involve disbanding the 007 programme and passing a bill that will allow pretty much any wrong-headed ne’er-do-well access to all the sensitive data they can eat.

“It says here I haven’t called you an obsolete dinosaur from a bygone age for at least 20 minutes.”

The 24th Bond film is a spare-no-expense class act all round, with Sam Mendes’ helming being slicker than a set of Aston Martin tyres. Taking over the camera reins from the brilliant Roger Deakins is Interstellar lensman Hoyte Van Hoytema, making everything look all pretty and shiny as Daniel Craig flits around the globe ignoring due process and jurisdiction. And the stellar cast settle comfortably into their assigned roles.

Daniel Craig’s rugged, no-nonsense Bond is still highly watchable, whether in his all-too-brief exchanges with a chemistry-sparking Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Ben Wishaw’s comically nervy Q, or when dishing out/receiving the pain during the handsomely-mounted action scenes. Ralph Fiennes as the new M is a fine replacement for the imperious Judy Dench, being one of the few thesps with enough gravitas to believably keep Bond in some kind of tow. And Christoph Waltz is far too good an actor not to be great as the malevolent Oberhauser.

“Sorry, I thought this would make me look all sinister and… whooo… you know? But I can’t see a bloody thing.”

However, not everyone comes off so well. Despite being an imposing physical presence, Spectre fails to take advantage of the great Dave Bautista as SPECTRE’s chief marauding juggernaut Mr Hinx. Lacking the dry humour and charisma he so successfully displayed in Riddick and Guardians of the Galaxy, the ex-wrestler is reduced to a sub-Odd Job-type henchman who keeps popping up at inopportune moments to signal another expensive set-piece is about to begin.

Also wasted are the Bond girl roles (again). Poor, victimised Monica Bellucci turns up teary-eyed looking for a shoulder to cry on before… just… disappearing for the rest of the film. And French actress Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, as the daughter of a SPECTRE agent who may hold the key to its many secrets, initially starts off pouty before going all doe-eyed and inevitably succumbing to Bond’s martini-laced, suspect charms – even though winning chemistry is in short supply.

Pictured: That winning chemistry.

Which may be symptomatic of the film’s main problem. Although it zips along at a fair pace and rarely gets boring, at nearly two and a half hours long, Spectre is the longest Bond film ever, and tries to pack in a heck of a lot of exposition. Which inevitably means some characters are reduced to typical Bond archetypes and walking/talking plot points leading us down narrative detours that go nowhere.

Still, Spectre’s links to Bond’s considerable legacy offer some nice touches, both of the comedic (Bond’s less-than-spectacular gadgetry) and dramatic variety. The build-up and eventual revelation of the 21st Century incarnation of SPECTRE is deftly handled (something I’m sure all Bond film fans have been eagerly awaiting for an entire age), and the story’s attempts to be prescient with its references to drone strikes and freedom of information at least add a modicum of credibility to all the silly spy-jinks. But John Logan et al’s packed script leads to some ludicrous plot contrivances to keep you entertained, and the eventual disclosure of all the personal connections and reasons for SPECTRE’s convoluted attempt at world domination is as dramatically lame as it is head-scratching.

The new helicopter tours around Mexico City were not particularly popular with the tourists.

Yet perhaps all can be forgiven. After all, Spectre is not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or even The Bourne Identity. It is not striving for realism, nor does it feel the need to evolve too much to keep with the times. It is its own thing that exists in its own world – and is very successful at being so. It’s not trying to present a serious exploration of espionage in today’s age of information technology and shaky political climates. As per all Bond films, Spectre is simultaneously hamstrung by its own success and legacy, whilst being incredibly successful thriving on giving its fans exactly what they want. From Henry Mancini’s almost comforting Bond theme, to the exotic locales, iconic action scenes, outlandish, nonsensical plot, beautiful women, scheming villainy and flawed heroes we’ve all come to expect, Spectre is a welcome, if crushingly predictable, addition to a nigh-on inflexible cinematic institution. If you like the tried-and-tested Bond formula, Spectre will give you what you want in spades, and it will be interesting which direction they decide to take the franchise in now that SPECTRE has finally been revealed as Bond’s nemesis-du-jour. But more discerning folk searching for something more dramatically satisfying may be left wanting. After all, it’s just a Bond film.

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the author

JC: Family Man. Cinephiliac. Over-opinionated Brit. For more of my nonsensical cinematic ramblings check out http://letterboxd.com/spengler676/ or follow me on Twitter: @jconthagrid