Monday, December 14, 2015

Spectre



People keep telling me that they're exhausted by Spectre.  It's the most common criticism I've heard, circulated in a handful of clickbait features and now repeated by many wary about even seeing the film: Daniel Craig looks bored, he's getting too old for this, it's uninspired, it's no Skyfall.   Some of that is par for the course, the rest I completely disagree with.  This is Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond, and while 007 himself may be more jaded than ever, the saga continues.  Craig's Bond has slowly evolved. We've watched him suffer tragedy after tragedy, he has long been marked, doomed, left to exist as a shadowy figure only occasionally reaching out for something that feels like genuine human contact.  In the wake of Skyfall we find him with fewer support systems than ever before, carrying out jobs he knows need to be done in much the way many would go about routine errands.  There's a sense of business as usual that's made more exciting only by MI6's repeated attempts to keep him grounded.

Craig knows how to work these angles of Bond, and his co-mingled stubbornness and disinterest play well with some of the smaller on-screen moments. What we're watching is essentially a return to character normalcy that feels - after the rounding out of the last several films - like a partial evacuation.  Basically: the more complicated James Bond becomes, the more placid he appears on screen. Spectre matches Bond's moves and ferries us further into the traditional spaces that began to appear in Skyfall.  The tastes of camp are becoming spoonfuls, the familiar tropes are sneaking back in.  If you're a person who identifies as a Bond fan beyond the Daniel Craig films, you'll appreciate Spectre for what it is.  If you're a person who only really got Bond because of what you see as Craig's emotional "reboot" well, yeah, this isn't quite the droid you're looking for.

The film is consistent, the action works, and the legacy has reentered in ways that feel at times strained, at times sly.  It's a clean, stylish thriller with a keen sense of the power of its cinematography.  Histories have been condensed and subverted so that we can see the results reframed from Casino Royale to this new present.  This is where it has all been leading: we needed to understand the earlier travails, the personal histories, and all of the governmental intricacies to be able to pull back the camera and see the interlinked web of terrorists and nations working together for world domination.  The enemy has become everyone and no one, and Bond travels from Mexico City to Rome to the Alps to Tangier, a globe-trotting vigilante trying desperately to remain invisible at a moment where surveillance threatens everything.
Along the way we see the return of a revolving door of female acquaintances.  There's now the consistently present Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), of course, but also the unnamed party present in the chaos of Day of the Dead long takes, the grieving widow (Monica Bellucci) of a dangerous man, and Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), whose time on screen is spent as a greatest hits compilation of "girl" accomplices.  She is smart, draped in luxurious fabrics, and as quick with a retort as she is with a gun.  There are shades of Vesper in her characterization, something Bond-faithful audience members pick up on as key to her difference from so many other people in 007's orbit.  We are not surprised when he takes to her just as we are not surprised when he swipes that tricked out Aston Martin, or when he crashes the same Aston Martin, or when his meetings with Q and M go tit for tat.

Slowly, the moves fall into order and the pattern reveals itself.  Though Spectre comes dressed up in cinematographically slick trappings and with a quarter ton of captivating long shots, it is essentially the last phase of a return we saw motioned towards in Skyfall.  We're done with the Dark Knight era of Bond, basically, and it's time to move back to some of the more episodic adventures.  We move step by step towards the type of Bond film that allows us to meet Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and have him - without fanfare - hold and stroke a cat in the midst of a brief bout of torture. This happens, and while Waltz holds back the scenery chewing, there's something promising about the nostalgia being evoked.  Frankly, as much as I've enjoyed this excursion into Bond's psychology, it's time to have a little more fun.  I'm ready for island compounds, gold-hungry megalomaniacs, exotic animals, and a few more one-liners.  


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