Sunday, December 6, 2015


 2 / 5 

In Spectre, the Bond movies cross the fine line from film series to franchise in ways that underscore what is wrong with Hollywood's obsession with movies as brands: they don't require stories to make sense anymore, as long as they contain elements perceived by fans to be requisite, while spending an endless amount of time referring to previous (perhaps even future) films.

Spectre takes time to name check just about every major character who has appeared in a Bond film since Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale in 2006.  About the sixth time the name "Vesper Lynd," for instance, was mentioned, I began to wonder what any of that had to do with the story at hand.  But I imagine that somewhere a studio executive felt that, on paper at least, this constant reflexivity made Spectre less a single movie experience than the 2015 entry in the studio's tentpole franchise, so no one bothered to question if those moments could be left out of a bloated script that led to a running time of more than 2½ hours.

Spectre doesn't leave you thrilled, it leaves you tired and glad when the end finally comes, and that is not the way a James Bond movie, or any other movie, should wrap up.

Much like the mega-successful line of Marvel® franchise branded film products from Disney -- and, to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter® franchise branded film products from Warner Bros., the Jurassic Park® franchise branded film products from Universal -- it has become less important for a James Bond® franchise branded film product have a compelling plot than some good moments that can be effectively edited into 30-second spots so the movie can be placed into as many screens as possible to maximize opening-weekend revenue potential.  Storytelling and narrative urgency are, as Bond himself might say, entirely expendable.

The most disappointing part of Spectre, the reason this franchising of Bond matters so much despite the fact that 24 films have preceded it, is that it follows a movie as good as Skyfall.

Skyfall seemed to want to tell a story so well that it would captivate even those who aren't typically Bond lovers.  Skyfall was an exceptional film, a movie that offered a full and fresh story, with characters who were surprisingly dimensional and memorable; it had great action sequences and scenes filled with genuine dramatic tension, as well; and, of course, it had that theme song.

Spectre fails on most of those accounts, but I did kind of like the song.  Sam Smith is no Adele, but then again, he's no Madonna or A-Ha, either, so be thankful.  The moment in which Spectre really springs to life when Judi Dench appears on screen as M, but that's for 20 seconds, and the movie has another 149 minutes and 40 seconds to fill.

It fills some of that time admirably, like in a very good sequence with a runaway helicopter flying dangerously over hoardes of partiers during Mexico's Day of the Dead.  It's a good opening segment, even if we're not entirely sure what's going on -- because if you're like me, part of the fun of a James Bond movie is that you're never entirely sure what's going on.  At the end of that scene, we figure out that Bond has stumbled on to a secret held by a new secret-service group that is going to subsume MI6 and create a new world order -- without the pesky demands of things like public hearings, Congress or voting.  It's the kind of group that would no doubt welcome Donald Trump as a member.

Bond's colleagues M and Q both realize they could well be out on their ears with this new merger of MI5 and MI6 and connive to send Bond away for a bit.  But Bond being Bond, he's not about to go so easily, even though his blood has been augmented with a new "super blood" that makes it possible to track him anywhere in the world, a plot device introduced in the requisite visit to Q's labs and that never again factors in to the film's story.

A lot of Spectre is messy that way.  Take, for instance, the scene that introduces the ultra-villainous leader of the ultra-villainous organization called Spectre (which is, you may have guessed, behind that new secret-service group, which doesn't exactly consider the people of the world to be its constituents).  There's no energy to it, no tension.  The villain, who's played by Christoph Waltz, has such low energy that you wonder if his heart is really in this world-takeover thing.

Later, Spectre reveals a relationship between this super-villain and Bond himself that is either a startling bit of new Bond mythology or is merely ludicrous and a blatant attempt to refashion the Bond movies into Bond® franchised film products.

Spectre does some things well enough, and Daniel Craig remains an ideal James Bond.  It does other things, like a frankly dull car chase through Rome or the dimly lit final set piece in the old MI6 building, which was memorably attacked during Skyfall.  In Spectre, Bond's new "girl," Madeleine Swann (played by Lea Seydoux) is trapped inside and the building is rigged with demolition explosives.  Waltz's villain is going to bring it down.  Will Bond escape?

Bond movies have never seriously questioned whether Bond will escape; of course he will -- he just has to do it in spectacular fashion.  That's the problem.  Spectre presents it as dark and murky.  You almost need to squint your eyes to make out what's going on.  And when the building finally blows up, the only thing I could wonder is why no one seemed to care much.  A building just blew up on the banks of the River Thames, a helicopter carrying the perpetrator is flying away past Big Ben, and a few cop cars show up.

We know too much about how this scene would play out in the real world to view it solely as a piece of escapism any longer.  And that, in the end, may be the other problem with the Bond movies and the attempt to make them into the Bond® franchised film product: The world has changed.  I've always thought James Bond would have a place in it.  Spectre is the first Bond film that left me doubting that.

Viewed Dec. 5, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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