' Cinema Romantico: Spectre

Monday, November 30, 2015

Spectre

“Spectre”, entry twenty-four into the indefatigable James Bond franchise, opens in the midst of Mexico City’s Dia de los Muertos festival. “The Dead Are Alive” imparts a title card which I guess is intended to indicate that, yes, Agent 007 is still here, punk, which seems absurd since every one of these movies contains a “James Bond Will Return” end credit but, hey, don’t let that stop Sam Mendes Doin’ Symbolism Over Here. This gives way to a bravura tracking shot, one which follows Bond (Daniel Craig, for the fourth time), disguised, so to speak, in a skeleton mask, maneuvering through the immense crowd with a pretty lady in her own faux-skeleton face, and off the street and up a set of stairs and into the boudoir. Here you can imagine Roger Moore putting the film itself on hold for a roll in the hay; Daniel Craig, however, opts for but a kiss or two before continuing on with the job. After all, you can’t interrupt the tracking shot. And that’s dispiriting. That’s our modern day Bond – one who won’t let having a go at it get in the way of a little filmmaking prowess. What’s the world coming to?


Used to be, a James Bond movie would end and the finer points of whatever happened, whatever woman 007 had fallen in love with, whatever megalomaniacal baddie he had dispatched, whatever havoc had been wreaked upon the world in general, would be discarded, fundamentally forgotten. It wasn’t that these movies ignored the realities of the world, necessarily, because they typically commented on actual issues, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek. But for a couple decades, at least, James Bond dabbled less in realism, more in escapism, while preferring to live in the moment rather than worrying about the past. This was not a film franchise interested in accruing emotional baggage; that was jettisoned along with all the other trash at fade-out.

The principal villain of “Spectre”, the spectacularly named Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz like he’s on Tylenol PM, is intent on screwing with Bond by piling all that trash on 007’s proverbial doorstep. Stavro Blofeld does this by bankrolling a global surveillance system, one that infiltrates MI6 courtesy of smarmy young C (Andrew Scott) who repeatedly informs ever-ready M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) how a single man in the field, a la Agent 007, will soon be rendered obsolete. If this sounds familiar, it is. It was the same basic plot of this past summer’s exemplary “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Yet while Tom Cruise has come to be viewed through culture’s prism as rather humorless, and while his IMF Special Agent Ethan Hunt is essentially sexless, preferring to get turned on by a few good stunts as much his female co-stars, his film was a rollicking good time, modern day action moviemaking at its finest.

“Spectre” is cheerless. Director Sam Mendes has more a flair for composing handsome static frames like the one poolside where 007 emerges from the dark to off a couple would-be assassins then he does composing the sort of rhythmic action set pieces that leave you laughing on account of being immaculately wowed. Both Bond Girls are in the midst of grieving and unable to cut loose. An as-ever sensuous Monica Bellucci is criminally wasted, probably because she’s the oldest Bond Girl ever, which means Motion Picture Bylaws stipulate minimal screen time, telling James not to leave as her as if openly demanding for more than her piddly three minutes. Seydoux, meanwhile, hates on Bond, until she doesn’t because. Her few smiles feel like screenplay instructions. By the end, and this is no knock on Seydoux but on the movie as made, I sort of forgot she was even along for the ride. And Bond himself, unfortunately, is scarred so heavily by the past that he feels, as he did in “Skyfall”, more a product of a Christopher Nolan-ish universe than Ian Fleming’s.


That’s the grave irony, of course, the one Mendes and his team of screenwriters apparently can’t see; that they want Bond to represent what he has always stood for in the face of MI6 potentially being replaced even as they exhaustively try and update his story for modern times by making everything from the Daniel Craig Bond-verse count in order to thematically unify his movies of the series. Backstory here, like the former M’s videotape from the grave, as if Judi Dench were Jamie Kennedy, is paramount to all other things. At one point he walks past pseudo-mugshots of previously encountered characters, like Vesper Lynd, like Raoul Silva, the moment becoming a modern update on the Funhouse Mirrors, but somehow even worse. The previous echoes so loudly throughout “Spectre” that the present gets the shaft; the moment now existing merely to comment on what has already transpired.

There is a late scene, nodding at “Goldfinger”, in which Stavro Blofeld drills into the head of 007, threatening to erase his memories, to render all that came before irrelevant. The arch-villain is stopped in the nick of time, of course. Oh, how I wished he’d succeeded, and bored every last reminiscence out of Bond’s brain until all that remained was the superfluousness of whatever came next.

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