Men of the Shadows:
Appropriately enough for a film with such a title, it opens during the festivities for Mexico City’s famous ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations. Even before this, the first caption on the screen has said, simply: ‘The dead are alive.’ And this too will be fitting to the plot of director Sam Mendes’s SPECTRE. *
From out of the enormous parade the camera picks up and follows a skeleton-masked figure that is walking against the crowd. His appearance will be brief but his demise will be pivotal in setting up the global odyssey that follows.
Leaving him, the camera then focuses on another figure in a skeleton mask, — another Spectre at the Feast — tracking him as he enters a hotel elevator, goes into an upper floor room, discards his costume and walks nonchalantly along a dizzyingly high ledge, taking out a listening device and a gun as he does so. It is a classic James Bond moment and just part of one of the very best prologues to any 007 movie. Indeed, it is only later that you find yourself wondering when did that long, seemingly one-take tracking shot actually end. It is reminiscent of the opening to Orson Welles’s classic Touch of Evil, another movie that opens down Mexico-way.
Back in London, M is fighting the beaurocratic battle of his life: C (Andrew Scott), the slimy new head of a joint MI5 & MI6 operation, is an information junkie — even down to spying on M’s own people, much to that worthy’s Old School disgust.
Orwell’s Worst Nightmare
C wants the ’00’ License to Kill programme closed down, seeing it as obsolete in a world where the likes of drone missiles and nano-technology lets governments do their killing ‘cleanly’ and from afar, never really getting the hands dirty. He is also setting up an intelligence-gathering outfit called ‘Nine Eyes’, which will be an unprecedented spying operation involving nine countries, causing M to call it ‘George Orwell’s worst nightmare’ and another character to make a dry comment on the New World Order.
Yes, SPECTRE is a film that will please Jim Corr and conspiracy theorists everywhere. It also struck this viewer as probably not too far from the truth of things.
On top of that M has to contend with a rogue Bond (Daniel Craig) who is following his own agenda – or rather, following the final request of the previous M (Judi Dench).
The story moves from Mexico and through Austria, Morocco and Italy with superb action set pieces on the way; yet it always takes time to stop and make sure that the audience is keeping up. It’s a convoluted plot and would have to be since it pretty much ties up an arc that began as long ago as Casino Royale, Craig’s first outing in the role.
At one point Bond is told that he is ‘like a kite caught in a hurricane’ and that’s true. Yet there is more a sense of him being back in control here. In Skyfall it seemed that things just happened to him, leaving him somewhat floundering. This is the capable Bond we know.
After the invisible cars of the Peirce Brosnan era, a reboot was badly needed (at least for fans of the original novels, like myself); and of course the success of the Jason Bourne films had made the producers up their game for a new, more cynical generation. These four Craig movies (with the exception of the disappointing Quantum of Solace) have fitted the bill.
I was surprised when I first heard Sam Mendes spoken of as director for Skyfall, the previous film. I had associated him with stage work or — in the cinema — with biting, acerbic dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (I’ve yet to see Jarhead); but whoever approached him must have been rewarded with a hell of a raise as the two films with him at the helm have gone beyond anyone’s imaginings in ambition, scope and of course in box-office takings.
A Disappointing Waltz
With all the acres of press coverage that Monica Bellucci received for her role as the Widow Sciarra, she features for a depressingly short time. As she was 51 years old she was repeatedly called (somewhat condescendingly) the oldest Bond girl we’ve seen. Well, that may be so but with all due respect to the other ladies here – Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the main love interest, Dr. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux) — in terms of sheer cold-shower sex appeal, effortless stylishness and pure on-screen charisma, she wipes the floor with them. Why the bit part? Surely this is the kind of woman that Bond could really fall for.
And talking of cameos brings me to what was the major stumbling-block for me.
Perhaps an hour-and-a-half into SPECTRE I found myself thinking that this must be one of the best Bond films I’ve seen. However, with another whole hour to go it is also the longest. And with the introduction of Christoph Waltz as the Head of the SPECTRE organisation it hits an unexpected problem.
Now: I had really been looking forward to seeing Waltz become one of the great world-domination-lusting villains of the Bond canon. In fact, I made the mistake of just taking it for granted that this would be the case. After all, he has that smooth, silkily threatening voice and a genuine sense of presence. And savour the name of the guy he was going to play: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Man, it just oozes menace. They even found a clever way to include the cat and the scar without making you think of Austin Powers. And yet is all goes so badly wrong.
Our first brief introduction to the character is excellent. He is the diminutive but dominating figure in the shadows at the head of an enormous table as he listens to the successes of his criminal organisation. And he has a lot in common with the powerful men behind the British (and other) governments. Our politicians pay lip service to the concept of democracy, whilst simultaneously sneering at it; Blofeld cuts out the middle man and just sneers at it.
He may encourage and profit from every vice known — including child prostitution — but he is the spiritual brother to an ex-Prime Minister and mass murderer like Tony Blair who sent off, with sociopathic indifference, young soldiers to fight without proper equipment in a war for WMDs that he knew didn’t exist. That’s the kind of world that we live in; and Blofeld embraces it.
And like C, Blofeld is another information junkie. They are two sides of the same coin – and are they even that?
But whose idea was it to put him in a Don Johnson outfit circa his Miami Vice Days? Jeezus Pleezus. During what should have been a terrifying torture scene I just kept looking at his bare legs in shoes without socks and thinking:
“NOOOOOOOO!!! Crocket is interrogating James Bond and no one is buying it!’
In what amounts to little more than an extended cameo, I’ve rarely seen a major actor so criminally underused.
Still, over all SPECTRE is a great evening’s entertainment and yes — at the risk of sounding like a broken record — should be seen on a cinema screen. The credits sequence is excellent, a usual – and I’ve even settled into the theme song, ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ from Sam Smyth.
All the familiar elements, given a little shake and a twist, are now back in place with everyone in their accustomed positions. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.
* Screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth.