Getting my “From A To Bond” kit back on for this review of the latest James Bond extravaganza, Spectre. Spoilers follow below the jump.
WHICH ONE IS THIS?: Skyfall II: McClory’s Rights
WHO’S IN THIS ONE?: Craig (Bond); Fiennes (M); Harris (Moneypenny); Whishaw (Q).
WHO’S THE BAD GUY, AND WHAT DOES HE WANT?: You know his name.
WHO ARE THE BOND GIRLS?: Monica Bellucci in a wasted cameo as an assassin’s widow, and Léa Seydoux – the movie’s secret weapon, but more on that later – as Madeleine Swann.
OPENING NUMBER?: Sam Smith delivers what might actually be the worst title track in the Bond franchise’s 53-year history – and that’s a low bar, given that those dungeons are guarded by Madonna and Sheena Easton.
WHAT’S MEMORABLE ABOUT THIS ONE?: The fact that after a fashion, it seems wholly disinterested in being a Bond movie, preferring instead to be a movie.
WHAT DO YOU RATE IT, OUT OF TEN?: 8. Or put another way, better than Quantum, not quite as good as Skyfall, but Daniel Craig’s batting average (excepting Lazenby’s, of course) is now the best in the saga.
I’ve maintained from the outset that sequelizing Skyfall was, to turn another franchise’s phrase, an impossible mission. One simply cannot repeat the successes of a fifty-year franchise’s highest-grossing, highest-rated, M-murdering anniversary special. It is tacitly impossible to go bigger – and so, per a conversation across a chess board between Bond and Mr. White in Spectre, it might have been wise to restrategize altogether.
But money is money and movie producers are movie producers, so attempting to outdo the only James Bond movie Sam Mendes said he’d ever make was inevitable. And as Spectre opened and the camera craned up on a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City that featured, at a rough guess, twenty thousand extras, I couldn’t help but grin to myself. Yup: going bigger. And yup: they got Mendes to direct it, too.
There’s that old adage in Hollywood that you make your money on the next one, and Sam Mendes and his team have exploited that truism in the best possible way. Sure: they must have backed a truck (and a couple of helicopters’ worth) of money up to Mendes’ house to bring him back for this picture, and having batted back from an underperforming career to deliver the Bond franchise’s first billion-dollar grosser, I’m sure Mendes felt he was owed.
But, bless ‘im, he didn’t have to make this movie.
Because Spectre is the holy wonderfulness that happens when the suits double down on the creatives. I’ve steered clear of the reviews this week, though I’m looking forward to diving into them the moment I’ve posted this. But I suspect I know what I’ll find. Spectre seems like the kind of blockbuster filmmaking that is almost precision-designed to piss people off, in that it’s classy, confident, and gives, as we say on the internet, zero fucks.
The pacing on this movie is astonishing. It is easily, by the cadence of the modern action picture, at least a half an hour too long; every single cut could be tightened by ten frames and shave a colossal 30 minutes out of the run time.
But this is on purpose.
Where Skyfall’s pacing felt somewhat like someone trying to drive stick for the first time, Spectre keeps the parking brake on the whole time… because it wants to. It sits in scenes. It holds beats – holy shit, does this movie know how to hold a beat. There is a held breath before Blofeld speaks for the first time which, if you were actually holding your breath watching it, might make you pass out.
This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but very quickly became like candy to me – because, of course, by giving each scene and sequence its full weight and measure (there are rich, trenchant dialogue scenes in this movie, several of them; never better than Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White having a quiet word with Bond, or Seydoux’s Madeleine passing angrily, drunkenly out, muttering to herself in French), Spectre begins to feel like something no Bond movie has ever felt like before: an actual movie. About actual characters. Characters in impossible situations, of course, and still tilting at every opportunity towards the lunatic rigours of a world where James Bond, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and a dork named Q exist… but as much as can be done within that frame, Spectre also seems like a movie where its population of action figures are behaving under something like their own power, rather than the dictates of a franchise.
Léa Seydoux, as I mentioned at the top, is the secret weapon in all of this. She might very easily be the most complex, and agented, “Bond girl” of all time – the Bond girl who retires the concept, by dint of being as close to a three-dimensional human being as any of Bond’s female leads have ever been. She must suffer the indignities of the genre a few too many times for my taste, of course – wait till you see what trap she’s sitting in on her final abduction – but Seydoux cracks the emotional framework of a Bond movie wide open in her every scene. In so doing, she also plants seeds that grow into a surprising, and surprisingly generous, new storyline for Bond.
If this is to be Daniel Craig’s valedictory in the role, it’s a fine one. I admit that on paper, Spectre does feel a bit too much like a “greatest hits” compilation of previous Bond highlights (all that Live and Let Die fetishism in the pre-credits sequence; and the movie’s best action scene is a fistfight on a train, only with a much bigger baddie than Robert Shaw). But there is real soul in this thing, a sense of mood and storytelling, photographed in exquisite veils of light by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and anchored as always by a charismatic and committed Bond. And whatever they paid Mendes for Spectre: double it for the next one.