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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spectre

I had a fun time watching Spectre, the latest James Bond film and the fourth featuring Daniel Craig as 007. But my enjoyment is not because the movie is particularly good, it stems more from a kind of metacognition--recognizing the tropes of Bond films, dating back over 50 years. Spectre has nothing new to add to the canon, and in some ways is a very cynical exercise.

Like an anthropologist from the future, examining pop culture from the distant past, I took in Spectre bit by bit, through a magnifying glass. The opening strains of Monty Norman's theme, the iris on the screen, soon inhabited by Bond, shooting straight at us, and then the screen covered in blood (I was put off that the iris does not then move around and focus on the pre-credit sequence--when did they stop doing that?) Then the pre-credit sequence, which finds Bond in media res, this time in Mexico City, where he is after an assassin and blows up a whole building, before having hand-to-hand combat in a helicopter.

Then the title song (which just won an Oscar) accompanied by writhing naked woman. It is, as they say, to laugh. Then the scene with M, and Bond getting chewed out (Bond has gotten in trouble so many times I would love to sit in on one of his yearly evaluations). We then get to the crux of things--Bond is up to something on his own, and M (Ralph Fiennes, better than the material) trying to get to the bottom of it. It seems that the higher-ups are combining MI5 and MI6 (one is domestic, one is foreign intelligence) and an unctuous bureaucrat (Andrew Scott) is going to phase out the 00 program and push to unite nine different nations' intelligence services.

Bond ignores orders and is off to Rome to attend the funeral of the man he just killed. He beds the first of his quota of two women per film (Monica Bellucci, still in widow's weeds) and realizes he's on to something big--an international criminal organization called Spectre. He has the dead man's ring, which gains him entry (for a top criminal organization, they should improve security) and learns that he knows the head cheese. He's then off to Austria to interview a former member of Spectre (Mr. White, who appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace). Bond promises to protect his daughter for information. She turns out to be Lea Seydoux, a doctor who wants nothing to do with Bond until thugs try to kidnap her.

But of course she falls in love with Bond after one roll in the hay (he should quit the spy business and write a book on how to pick up women) and they are off to Morocco. Bond has a magnificently-done fist fight with a towering man (Dave Bautista) and then, in another Bond specialty, is made a guest of the villain, who is Christoph Waltz, urbane, witty, and psychotic.

Here is where the script, by four different writers, makes an attempt at something interesting but fail. It seems that Waltz, out of some kind of petulant sibling rivalry, faked his own death, amassed great amounts of wealth (just how we don't know), and is behind Scott's takeover of intelligence. He also has been behind all of the villains in the last three Craig films. This attempt at retro-fitting is really kind of dumb, since the idea obviously came far too late--maybe they should go back and insert Waltz into the shadows of the other three films. Also, in a tribute to older Bond films, they give him the name of Ernst Stavros Blofeld, who was in two Sean Connery films (and the one George Lazenby) and was the main inspiration of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil, complete with white Persian cat.

What I found somewhat interesting about Spectre is that Bond, when asked what he does, does not say spy, or secret agent, he says assassin. And, if you think about it, that's what he is, as whether by intention or not, in every film he dispatches the main baddie (in fact, Blofeld is the only one who survived for more than one film). In some ways Craig is the closest to what Ian Fleming intended--a living weapon.

The problem is that the makers of the film, starting with director Sam Mendes, seem to have been interested in making the ultimate James Bond film according to the template, and not attempting to do anything fresh or original with it. It makes for the cinematic equivalent of comfort food--macaroni and cheese, right from the box, with that disgusting yet tasty yellow powder. Yes, I liked Spectre, but I was laughing in the wrong places.

Though at the end of the film it appears Bond has quit his job we get the requisite title card, "James Bond Will Return." Craig has said he would rather slit his throat than play Bond again, but dollar signs may have changed his mind (Waltz is committed to two more films, but only if Craig returns). My idea, certainly not my own, is that 007 and the name James Bond are passed on to each agent who occupy it, much like M or Q. So maybe kill off Bond in one of these films and have him replaced by an actor who is a lot different--Idris Elba maybe, or a woman--Jane Bond. That would explain why Bond doesn't seem to age. But of course the film Skyfall, giving Bond a back story, ruined that idea.

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