Contains minor spoilers
BEEN HERE BEFORE
The 24th Bond film from Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions is the best 007 adventure for a generation. Every penny of the reported $300 million budget appears on screen not only visually but creatively with every ounce of surprise and invention allied to revitalised Bond staples. Not only is SPECTRE a supremely confident international action mystery thriller but it is suffused with character, emotion and genuine twists, welcome returns and exceedingly witty moments.
A LIFETIME RUNNING
minor story spoilers
Following a clue initiated in London and the legacy of his last mission, James Bond goes to Mexico City to track a Mafioso on the brink of a despicable terrorist act. Thwarted by Her Majesty’s finest in a helicopter sequence made nail-biting by the fact it takes place over the crowded Zocalo Square – bravura Bond – 007 is left with two clues: the name “The Pale King” and a ring engraved with an octopus. In London, we find the Double-0 Section is in danger and MI6 in a turf war with a new combined foreign and domestic intelligence agency. Ralph’s Fiennes’ M, Gareth Mallory, in his clubbable headquarters in pitched against Andrew Scott’s C, Max Denbeigh, in his sleek steel and glass office opposite the now-condemned Vauxhall Cross HQ, made a ruin by Silva in Skyfall. SPECTRE is a cautionary tale concerning the limits of control of the intelligence services and privatised cyber security. This theme unfolds during the narrative as Bond follows ghostly instructions to rendez-vous with Monica Belluci’s Lucia Sciarra in Rome. The trapped widow leads Bond to an Illuminati-esque meeting of a mysterious organisation. Here we are introduced to Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx, a formidable henchperson who dispatches victims in uniquely horrific way and also Christoph Waltz’s shadowy Franz Oberhauser. Bond is forced to escape in his newly purloined Aston Martin DB10 in a magnificently judged chase through the midnight streets of Rome. Bond tracks down his next lead and then meets Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann, (appropriately Proustian), secluded in a private clinic in the Austrian Alps. However, 007 has led her into unwittingly into danger and Bond soon must extract Swann from Hinx’s clutches in hugely exciting aerial-land set piece. We then travel to Tangiers where a mystery from Bond and Swann’s respective pasts unravels clues to a mystery from their respective futures. Travelling by train through the desert Bond and Swann get to know each despite the best efforts once again of Mr Hinx. Finally, Bond and Swann meet Oberhauser in his crater establishment to understand how their psychological yesterdays will shape our potentially diabolical tomorrows. That Orwellian tomorrow is set to begin in London and, in a high-octane and iconoclastic denouement, Bond is faced with an ultimate, agonising choice.
minor story spoilers end
STARS BEGIN TO GATHER – Craig and a stunning cast
Daniel Craig gives his most assured, balanced and Bondian turn in SPECTRE. From the moment he walks onto a Mexican rooftop and shoots his cuffs in what has become his trademark gesture, James Bond 007 is back in action. This stylised interpretation forsakes some of the previous hesitancy and naturalism which have paved the path for this performance. Craig’s physical prowess in a barnstorming train fight with Mr Hinx has raw power (he got injured whilst shooting it) segues to a tender moment alone with Swann soon afterwards – there is touching trust between them later on whilst in Oberhauser’s domain. Daniel Craig’s James Bond has the wit and swagger of vintage 007.
Léa Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann is a revelation. Starting with a cool evaluation of Bond, Swann soon hots up and displays chic chops, equalling and saving Bond with nonchalant style. Her remembrance of things past binds the Craig-era Bonds, so that she is inextricably linked to this storyline. Swann opens up to Bond the possibility of flight or fight, metaphorically and literally, a theme played out in the finale. With Swann’s sultry French presence, SPECTRE is remarkably romantic taking time to develop an effecting relationship with Bond. A key moment where she holds Bond’s gaze shows the agent at his most vulnerable.
Monica Belluci’s Lucia Sciarra is a Bond woman in the classic Fleming tradition: entrapped and endangered but entrancing. Her brief yet bold moment sets the film in motion. The years since she was almost cast, again, as a previous Bond villain’s wife have only enhanced her feminine qualities. Considering the franchise has been co-produced by a woman of a similar age, Sciarra’s casting is a quiet step in a commendable cinematic and societal direction.
Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx is a monumental presence reintroducing classic Bond physical villainy. With an horrifying way of dispatching victims, he is a mute and unstoppable force. A bone-crunching train punch-up between Hinx and Bond is a tour de force.
Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser is yet again another great Euro-centric piece of Bond villain casting. He is given a hugely atmospheric, sinister introduction and inhabits a suitably Bondian “world” – from which he takes inspiration to make an even bigger impact. Oberhauser is actually an accomplished psychological opponent to Bond, striking at the core of his being. Oberhauser tortures Bond in a surreal scene counterpointed by familiar mundanity. Double Oscar-winning Waltz relishes his memorable dialogue with 007 – their scenes crackle with anxiety. As a character, he leaves you wanting more…
Debbie McWilliams once again populates the film with notable casting choices: Stephanie Sigmund’s exciting Estrella in Mexico and Mark Preston as Oberhauser’s Moroccan ADC. Michael G Wilson should have a word with Sam Mendes because his cameo at MI6 HQ is another blink-and-you’ll miss-it moment. Veteran Bond stuntman Paul Weston appears as Oberhauser’s chauffeur.
The “Whitehall brigade” of Rory Kinnear’s Bill Tanner, Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw’s Q and Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, M are all given stand-out moments and they shine. Felix Leiter is an off screen presence. Moneypenny has a lover (Lucy Fleming’s stepson, Tam Williams) making Bond jealous. M’s military past holds him in good stead and together with Q’s witty banter with Bond, an effervescent new dynamic has is established between these once- stock characters. Andrew Scott is equal to the formidable acting might he joins and his scenes with M seethe with rich drama. C is responsible for the best line in the film.
PREPARED FOR THIS – Mendes and the writers back in action
Sam Mendes’ second consecutive Bond film is brimming with confidence. Beginning with a continuous tracking shot in Mexico that would out Orson, Welles’ Touch Of Evil, Mendes combines spectacle in the Day of the Dead festival (channelling his and Craig’s primal Bond experience Live And Let Die) with style, sex, danger and wit. Throughout the film all the action sequences are infused with little moments of invention and reversals of expectation. Mendes once again films in a classic, clear manner. The tale is deliberate and mature, fatted with moments between set pieces to impart character beats and emotional resonance. SPECTRE is wonderfully atmospheric: malevolent, moody and romantic yet studded with moments of the bizarre and surreal, an often forgotten element of classic Bond. It is also cleverly humorous relieving just the right amount of tension. The performances evoked by the principal cast extract every valuable moment of emotion, adding uncharacteristic depth to a film of this genre. In fact, in a year of the enjoyable Kingsman: The Secret Service, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE, Mendes has simply put Bond, again, in a class of its own. Splice David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan and you will get Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. This 24th Bond film is a hugely satisfying viewing experience giving us all the Bond we expect but also freighted with much more than we ever thought Bond capable of.
Skyfall’s John Logan began script work and the material was polished by Skyfall’s uncredited Jez Butterworth but screenwriting team Neal Purvis and Robert Wade deserve special, long overdue credit. Working on a record breaking sixth consecutive Bond film, the contribution to the Bond series of this highly sought-after writing duo (they have a plethora of non-Bond credits with big directors) has been woefully overlooked. The film takes its nod from the brave revelations of intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden (Eon were developing a non-Bond film about his true-life tale) with a dash of Alexander Litvinenko and a soupçon of Google scandal. SPECTRE positions Bond in the midst of an intelligence revolution where the push-button action of drone-striking officers is supplanting that of the good old field agent. Expanding Skyfall’s theme of knowing when to pull the trigger, or not to, SPECTRE explores the choices we’ve made and will make and their eventual repercussions. Purvis & Wade have mined Fleming – the Oberhauser backstory is cleverly lifted from the short story Octopussy and there is reference to a rarity named Hildebrand – as well as Kingsley Amis (whose estate is thanked in the end credits). For the first time ever, a Bond Continuation novel – arguably the best one – has been used in an Eon film. 1968’s Colonel Sun (including screeds of dialogue) makes an intense impression with a memorable set piece demonstrating the vilest of villainy. The structure of the screenplay captures the insect-to-spider’s-web journey of a classic Bond literary adventure. The surreal desert assignment is pure Bond on every level. SPECTRE is leavened by well judged levels of wit – verbally and visually – that is so stylish and Bondian, it makes Daniel Craig’s fourth outing his most entertaining one yet.
NEVER SHOOT TO MISS – The key creatives in the crew
Christopher Nolan’s recent cinematographer, the Dutch Hoyte van Hoytema – new to Bond – has shot the most magnificent Bond film ever. From the icy beauty of the Austrian mountains to the romantic desolation of the North African desert, van Hoytema lingers and makes lavish these landscapes. He picks out delectable detail in the teeming Day of the Dead sequence and shoots London and Rome at night making the cities both romantic and sinister. There is also some freer flowing handheld work too and an eerie, blanched out moment. With a long overdue return to shooting in real and not substituted locations, the key visual achievement in SPECTRE owes all to van Hoytema – uitstekend.
Another Nolan import, editor Lee Smith – again, new to Bond – had helped craft this carefully shaped film so at 148 minutes – the longest Bond ever – the picture’s precise pacing never becomes plodding. Intriguingly the film contains different versions of scenes featured in the trailers.
Production Designer Dennis Gassner gets a chance to design his most ambition Bond to date. The reinvention of MI6 HQ, Oberhauser’s lair, the cityscapes of London and Rome are imaginative and inventive. Thematic ruins and ancient sites echo the storyline. Bond’s barren flat is a nice character note. Blenheim Palace and London’s City Hall blend seamlessly into the real and effective CGI creations in the film. Note the subtle reference to Live And Let Die in the country identifiers at a Tokyo security conference.
Costume designer Jany Temime has a field day with the Day of the Dead festival and her work is simply monumental detailing thousands of extras. Elsewhere Bond’s Tom Ford look is retained with closely fitted suits – sometimes a tad too closely. Daringly, Bond is back in a white dinner in sultry Morocco, probably reviving the much maligned item of clothing. Donna Sciarra is formally alluring in her widow’s weeds whilst Madeleine Swann has some shimmering desert outfits. Temime’s work with Oberhauser is particularly informative.
The special effects by Chris Corbould and Steve Begg, assisted amongst many others, by Industrial Light & Magic’s new British branch, are the most breath-taking ever seen in a Bond film. Large scale destruction and invented settings are realistically rendered but help add a size to Bond not seen for some time. Of course, effects help make all the action photo realistic and where they don’t, stunt arranger Gary Powell does, confecting some visceral thrills. Particular mention must go the Rome car chase – a reworking of an idea set for Timothy Dalton’s third Bond film – and also a brutal train-bound battle that echoes a Bond classic and could well achieve similar status.
MAKES ME WANT TO STAY – The music and sound of SPECTRE
Thomas Newman returns to score SPECTRE. Once again, an energetic combination of electronica meets classical, Newman’s compositions have huge similarities to that of Skyfall. World music sensibilities add vibrancy and tone to sequences in Mexico and Morocco. He accents Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme inventively and employs it judiciously. Sam Smith’s theme song Writing’s On The Wall, written with James Napier, is a soaring, multi-octave piece, with an insistent piano line, achingly regretful lyrics (which chime with the film’s theme of shattered pasts) and a glorious Bondian string arrangement. The yearning instrumental of the theme appears in the film in a romantic moment of release. Daniel Kleinman’s octopus themed titles are unique pieces of pop art and his sequence involves both topless women and a topless Bond and shards from previous Craig films. Kleinman is a 007 Midas – everything he touches turns Bondian. A traditional gun barrel appears at the start of the film but is capped differently. Skyfall’s Oscar-winning Per Hallberg creates a detailed sonic landscape, particularly effective in Mexico, starting the movie, post-gun barrel, with a wake-up call.
WON’T BE AFRAID – Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli mange the winning team
Not asleep on the job are Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Again, they have assembled a multi-tentacled and talented team to produce, sorry for this, SPECTRE-tacular entertainment. It is easy to underestimate the skill required to maintain the Bond films and Cubby’s heirs do it so unobtrusively their work is taken for granted. They have incubated talent, given artists creative freedom but framed it in the discipline of series film-making. That they have done this for so long a period – Wilson has been working on Bond films now longer than his legendary step-father – is no mean feat. To get commercially more successful and stay critically revered over the same period has not been equalled in the history of cinema. If ever there was an argument for an Irving G Thalberg award to be given to the next generation of film-makers, SPECTRE is it.
© Ajay Chowdhury, 2015. All rights reserved.