Sunday, November 22, 2015

If You Get The Allusions, SPECTRE Utterly Fails.

The Good: Acting is fine, Action is entertaining
The Bad: Relies upon the canon to pay off its biggest moments, No deep acting moments, Minimal character development
The Basics: SPECTRE might be an all right action-adventure movie, but it is a lousy James Bond film and relies entirely upon the prior films to make the pass at sensibility.

Every now and then, I run into a film from a movie series that is exceptionally difficult for me to consider on its own. I want to consider each work I encounter - be it a television episode or a film or a beverage - on its own merits, as it stands as a unique creation. Every now and then, I encounter something that is virtually impossible to do that with and the latest James Bond Film, SPECTRE, is one such work. SPECTRE shows a continued lack of understanding among the writers of the James Bond film franchise as to the nature of the beast they are working with, much the way that Skyfall (reviewed here!) did. In fact, SPECTRE goes even further down the rabbit hole of ignorance and ridiculousness by attempting to tie together disparate elements of the James Bond franchise.

The reason I ultimately landed on panning SPECTRE was because it is, very clearly, not intended to be a standalone film at all. Instead, the entire film's final act hinges on understanding the relationship between James Bond and the criminal enterprise S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which was introduced in some of the earliest James Bond films. In other words, SPECTRE only works as a film if one understands the adversary who is orchestrating the carnage against James Bond and the worldwide spy community. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was the foil of MI-6 and the C.I.A.; it was an international criminal intelligence organization that was out for profit and world domination from the shadows.

The problem is, to understand what S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was and to buy into the concepts of how it is operating in the world now, one has to accept the entire canon of James Bond films that came before. One also has to understand how the intelligence communities in the James Bond franchises work and that is entirely where SPECTRE collapses. The intelligence organizations in the James Bond franchise operate entirely on aliases. M is an alias for the leader of MI-6, Felix Leiter is an alias, Q is an alias . . . James Bond is an alias. In Skyfall we see the transition from one M to another and in prior Bond films, Judi Dench's M is referenced as having replaced the old man version of M. Felix Leiter loses a leg in one film, pops up as a black man with two legs later on. James Bond has not only been recast, but the line in the teaser of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (reviewed here!) obliquely refers from one Bond incarnation to another! Even the trademark "My name is Bond, James Bond," makes more sense in the context of an alias than as an inorganic catchphrase. If one has to condition oneself to recognize themselves by a new name, they would learn it by rote. Multiple people being conditioned the same way supports both the concept of the alias and the unchanging methods of the organization that hired its spies. Even, as The West Wing pointed out, the drink choice by the various incarnations of James Bond is intended as a dupe; it sounds like a specific drink choice, but it is the spy's attempt to remain alert while on duty while having the appearance of imbibing to blend in.

Amid all of the background stuff, the James Bond franchise includes films with specific dates, times, and technology levels, so unless the Daniel Craig incarnation of James Bond is in his 70s, SPECTRE does not work. And the personal nature of the villain in SPECTRE and his key line about their past undermines the potential ambiguity about the alias's going the opposite way. S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s leader was familiar to a prior incarnation of James Bond, yet is younger than when last he was seen; things in a franchise have not been so muddied since the casting of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (reviewed here!). Like that film, SPECTRE relies upon the bang factor of fans knowing the rest of the franchise, while completely betraying all they actually know about their beloved franchise.

Opening in Mexico City on the Day Of The Dead, James Bond is on the hunt for thugs who plan to bomb a theater and then kill the Pale King. Shooting the bombmaker leaves the would-be assassin on the run and their meeting spot entirely destroyed. While Bond recovers a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. ring from the assassin and escapes via helicopter, the crowds below remain ignorant; having just seen what looks to them to be an amazing display of helicopter flying skills. Returning to England, Bond is benched by M and meets with Moneypenny, who informs him that MI-6 is abuzz with rumors that Bond went too far in Mexico City and is on the verge of being fired. Bond plays for Moneypenny a video left by the previous M ordering him to kill Marco Sciarra. Putting his trust in Moneypenny, Bond pays a visit to Q and learns that the double-0 spy program is set to be replaced with drones and all the good tech is being routed to 009.

Stealing 009s car, Bond heads to Rome for Sciarra's funeral, where he meets with the widow. Bond uses the ring he recovered to get access to a high level secret meeting of the criminal organization that is planning the murder of the Pale King. Moneypenny informs Bond that Mr. White is the Pale King and Bond confronts him. Bond keeps his word to White by tracking down White's daughter, Madeleine Swann and trying to keep her safe from S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Q confirms that all of Bond's recent adversaries have been working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and as Bond works to keep Swann safe, he unravels the mysteries surrounding the reorganization of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and comes face to face with an old adversary.

Any analogy between SPECTRE and Star Trek Into Darkness is a decent one as both hinge upon moments intended for huge reveal and "wow" factor, but either leave newbies mystified or die-hard fans groaning and rolling their eyes. Take, for example, the revelation in Star Trek Into Darkness of John Harrison admitting that his name is Khan. The moment only lands for those who know who Khan is; Spock Prime's revelation to Spock later on that Khan is the most dangerous adversary the Enterprise crew ever faced is a weak, expository attempt to fill in the gaps for those who have not already seen the prior two works that included Khan. In an entirely analogous way, the revelation of who the shadowy man played by Christoph Waltz is absolutely fails to land if one has no context for him . . . and is utterly baffling for those who do understand who he is supposed to be.

Beyond that, within SPECTRE the time frame makes no real sense; Waltz's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. leader was thought dead twenty years prior . . . which would have had to been on one of James Bond's earliest missions given Bond's age in SPECTRE.

What SPECTRE does well is use the four recurring characters in the James Bond franchise exceptionally well. SPECTRE does not rely simply upon James Bond; this is very much a team effort between Bond, M, Q, and Moneypenny to save MI-6 from a hostile takeover from S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Despite containing all the familiar tropes - a villain who makes his plans annoyingly explicit, car chases, a literal ticking time bomb for a deadline and women who Bond appears to love (and at least one other he just shags) - SPECTRE becomes a decent team effort that uses the talents of the whole MI-6 team well.

On the performance front, Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw effortlessly slip back into their roles of Bond, Moneypenny, M and Q. Their characters may not substantively develop, but the performers work the material as well as they can. Even Christoph Waltz does a fine job as the film's primary antagonist; despite the character not making sense in context.

Ultimately, SPECTRE is more mindless fun than it is substantive. Fans of the spy thriller will get all that this film offers without the baffling continuity issues out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!).

For other James Bond films, please check out my reviews of:
Dr. No
From Russia With Love
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Diamonds Are Forever
Live And Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun
The Spy Who Loved Me
For Your Eyes Only
Never Say Never Again
A View To A Kill
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum Of Solace


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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