Film Review: Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

The latest Bond film features all the hallmarks of the beloved franchise – international locals, elaborately staged espionage action sequences, a Bond girl or two, a menacing foreign-accented villain and a plot to end world safety plucked straight from contemporary headlines. Being a product of both the age of terror and mass-surveillance, the scriptwriters deftly manage to include strands of both within the films surprisingly entertaining narrative. I say surprising, as many of the reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film had had me expecting a much more derivative Bond entry. The core Bond-formula elements are all there, but returning director Sam Mendes executes them with style, wrapping up the Craig-era Bond films in a satisfying way, while leaving room for more.

It has apparently been a while since watching early Bond, as I had forgotten all about Spectre and their role and their role as being the main bad guys back in the Connery-era films. It was perhaps rather naive that I realised mid-way through this film that I was watching both a reboot and an origins story. Blofeld is back, and Christopher Waltz puts his signature twisted spin on the character, largely over-shadowing earlier versions. The classic villain has been given an expanded back story, providing more depth to his villainous motivation. Of the returning characters, Ben Wishaw is back at Q, and is given his own share of action time – a worthy successor to Ben Whishaw. Roy Kinnear is back as the of Mi6 and Judi Dench obviously exited in the last entry, but the scriptwriters have chosen to have her shadow hang over this narratives events.

The bond girl this time around is Lea Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swan, a daughter of a Spectre member living in hiding. Following on from strong female action characters of recent times such as Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, she is not just eye candy for Bond to save, but does much of the saving herself. Seydoux and Craig have chemistry, and their relationship has the usual amount of Bond-style twists and turns. In spite of the attempts to have a strong female co-star, I feel her character is at times a bit predictable and feels one of the least daring elements of the narrative.

Sometimes it’s not entirely apparently how the films enormous budget, one of the largest in history at $245 million, was put to use. Perhaps marketing and actors fees account for a large proportion of this, but one area where the money was apparent was in the use of major international locations. The opening sequence set during Mexico Cities’ Dia de los Muertos kicks things off with an ambitious single take shot, including a large amount of extras (many probably digital). Later, Bond speeds through the narrow medieval streets of Rome in a thrilling chase sequence that rivals the best of them. Things later return to London, and I was happy to see many familiar landmarks make an appearance. I’m assuming it wasn’t cheap to stage action sequences around Trafalgar Square. The action scenes are entertaining, the explosives well executed, if the violence a little less frequent as the last three Craig entries.

I wonder, with the budget being used in reasonably subtle ways (for a Bond film), are pretty locals are not enough to win over modern audiences. While the action sequences are flashy, they are not nearly as frequent as a Joss Weadon or Michael Bay action film. The ambivalent reactions toward Spectre makes me wonder if the entry is too nuanced for a modern audience, who are increasingly used to action sequences filmed like first person shooter games, and narratives with the simplest of good-bad dichotomies (every Marvel film for example). Although the narrative had it’s share of flaws, the scriptwriters usage of contemporary issues as plot devices was much more intelligent and subtle than the usual distorted cinematic propoganda (such as that of the cold war era Bonds). The film explored the connection between terrorist acts and the profit gained from private companies selling mass-surveilance to fairful governments and their people. In one scene, after South Africa remains the only country adverse to joining the fictionalized ‘9 eyes’ intellegence network, we later see a headline reporting a terrorist act taking place within Cape Town. Spectre are of course behind and profiting from all this, and their motives are not fully explained, but the subtle use of relevant issues is a welcome touch.

Mendes has given the Craig-era bond films their own continuity with this entry, and they now stand-out especially from the rest of the franchise. By revisiting and re imagining such iconic moments of Bond history as Spectre and Blofeld, Mendes manages to pay homage to the series while further drawing a line in the sand regarding the place of the Craig-era films. The Craig films have seemed a new beginning ever since Casino Royale, but now more than ever they have their own continuity and connecting themes, inspired by the old books and films, but given a slick new polish for a modern generation. Unlikely as it seems, more than ever the Bond series appears to be one with legs to continue to future generations. I hope that Craig at least gets one more, but if this is the end to his Bond career, it’s a fitting finale.

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