Spectres at the feast

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

At last I’ve managed to catch Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, on a big screen and in English.  (I’ve spent the last few weeks in a Francophone country and it took me a while to track down an English-language showing of it at a cinema.  Nothing against the French language, by the way – but somehow the line, “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond…  Autorisé à tuer…” doesn’t do it for me.  Especially not when you try saying it in a Sean Connery accent.)

 

So here, belatedly, are my thoughts about the film.  Be warned.  If you haven’t already seen Spectre, brace yourself for a load of spoilers.

 

Since 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond movies have been quietly rebooting themselves.  Casino Royale (appropriately based on the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which was published way back in 1953) saw Daniel Craig debut as James Bond and began with his ‘blooding’ as a double-O agent – he kills a man for the first time ever and acquires his licence-to-kill status.  At a stroke, this relaunches Bond’s whole timeline and dumps the back-story of the previous 20 movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.

 

It wasn’t until two films later, 2012’s Skyfall, that the rebooted series got around to introducing a new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and finally a new M (Ralph Fiennes) – previously, Craig’s version of Bond had taken orders from Judi Dench, who’d played M since 1995’s Goldeneye and constituted the series’ only link with the old days.  Thus, Spectre has Craig start the film with something he’d lacked in his previous three outings – a team comprised of all the stalwart supporting characters from the old Bond movies, though played by new actors.

 

It’s seems apt, then, that of Craig’s films so far, Spectre is the one that feels most like the preceding Bond movies.  It has scenes, characters and plot-elements that echo various things in the 1962-2002 cycle of films.  Actually, I found this slightly disconcerting because I’d got used to the Craig era’s way of doing things – ignoring traditional Bond continuity whilst showing a dour, gritty seriousness that was the antithesis of how, say, Roger Moore sashayed his way through proceedings in the late 1970s and early 1980s armed with nothing more than a nudge, a wink, a quip and a raised eyebrow.

 

But this isn’t a major criticism of Spectre.  I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Skyfall; but I liked it better than the overrated, but still good, Casino Royale and the underrated, but still not very good, Quantum of Solace (2008).

 

So, what are those echoes of previous movies in Spectre – the spectres at the feast, so to speak?  Here are a few that I noticed.

 

Spectre begins, in fact, with a nod to a film that has nothing to do with James Bond.  The pre-credits sequence has Bond stalk a villain through the streets of Mexico City whist thousands of revellers celebrate the Day of the Dead; and then there’s a huge explosion.  Up until the moment of the explosion, director Sam Mendes films everything in a wonderfully-fluid single take.  This mirrors the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil, which is also shot in a single take and features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh weaving through the streets of a Mexican town – until a similar explosion intervenes.  Actually, the single-take effect in Spectre was acquired with the help of some computer trickery.  Poor old Orson Welles, no doubt, had to achieve the same effect in his movie with nothing but hard work, ingenuity and willpower.

 

https://ca.movies.yahoo.com/post/132951174676/how-that-amazing-opening-spectre-scene-isnt-all

 

Immediately afterwards, because of the blast, the building Craig is standing on collapses and he plunges into a maelstrom of falling masonry, furniture and dust – before landing, almost comically, on a sofa.  This stunt, and Craig’s look of mingled disgruntlement and bemusement, recalls a scene in Diamonds are Forever (1970) where Sean Connery gains entry to a penthouse by climbing through a window, only to drop and land, arse first, on the seat of a toilet.

 

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Actually, a later moment when Craig ejects from the seat of his Aston Martin DB10, parachutes down onto a nearby street and, not missing a beat, strolls briskly and smartly away is also reminiscent of Connery – for instance, the famous scene at the beginning of Goldfinger (1964) when he strips off his frogman’s outfit and reveals himself to be wearing a tuxedo underneath.  Like Connery, Craig is able to carry off such scenes, which are inherently ridiculous, with an elegant and insolent swagger.

 

But meanwhile, the pre-credits sequence still isn’t over.  It leads up to a scene where Bond finds himself in the cockpit of an out-of-control helicopter while it crazily climbs and swoops above a city square.  This echoes the opening sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which has Roger Moore trapped in the back of a pilot-less helicopter that’s being flown by remote control, very recklessly, by a mysterious and malevolent bald man wearing a neck-brace, sitting in a wheelchair and nursing a white cat.  The bald man is clearly Bond’s old nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  However, because the Bond filmmakers had at that time lost the right to use Blofeld, thanks to a legal battle with producer Kevin McClory, they coyly refrained from stating who he was – the character is unnamed and uncredited and is referred to in For Your Eyes Only’s promotional literature as simply the ‘bald villain in a wheelchair’.

 

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More on Blofeld in a little while…

 

It transpires that Bond has been on a final mission for his old boss, Judi Dench’s M – although she died at the end of Skyfall, she’d left some posthumous orders in a recording – and for a time, as the plot grows murkier, it seems that Spectre is more interested in examining the back story of the last three Daniel Craig films.  It becomes apparent that Quantum, the secret criminal organisation featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is really just a subsidiary of a bigger, more secret and more criminal organisation, while Quantum’s boss, Mr White (Jesper Christiensen) – whom Bond captured at the end of Casino Royale but then let escape in Quantum of Solace – is only a branch manager for someone even bigger and badder than he is.  This amounts to a retcon of events in the earlier Craig movies and it feels a tad clumsy.  Also, I found the scene where Bond tracks down Mr White again a bit confusing because I’d forgotten who Mr White was.  (Well, I hadn’t seen him since 2008.)

 

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After a final and admittedly-chilling encounter with Mr White, Bond goes in search of White’s innocent daughter, Madelaine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who unwittingly holds a clue to the identity of the puppet-master behind Quantum.  Swann works as a doctor at a secluded luxury clinic on an Alpine mountaintop and as Craig approaches it from the air, I found myself thinking: “Hello, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”  For this Alpine mountaintop clinic is very reminiscent of Blofeld’s headquarters in that 1968 Bond movie with George Lazenby.

 

While he’s at the clinic, Bond is unexpectedly joined by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who gives him a hand when Madelaine is abducted by some villains led by David Bautista’s Mr Hinx.  Silent, surly and vicious, Hinx comes across like a combination of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in Goldfinger and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  This is the first time that Q has worked properly ‘in the field’ since 1989’s Licence to Kill when, played by the charming and avuncular Desmond Llewelyn, he nipped off to Isthmus City in South America to help Timothy Dalton battle the brutal drugs baron Franz Sanchez.

 

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Bond gets the necessary information from Madelaine and travels with her to Morocco.  And it’s here that we get the next Bond trope – a Big Fight on a Train.  This is against Mr Hinx again and it’s a more brutal affair than the fights-on-trains seen in Live and Let Die (1974) (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Tee-Hee with the help of some handy wire-clippers) or The Spy Who Loved Me (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Jaws with the help of a handy table-lamp).  Indeed, it evokes the savage brawl-to-the-death that occurred between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love (1963).  And in the midst of the action, Daniel Craig manages to land on Mr Hinx a very satisfying, Dalton-esque head-butt.

 

Eventually, Bond and Madelaine find their way to a secret base in the desert that’s run by the dastardly Spectre organisation – for Spectre, which featured so prominently in the 1960s Bond movies, is back.  Although unlike the old Spectre, which was an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, this organisation seems to be called Spectre because, well, it’s a snazzy-sounding name.  And in charge of it is – yes! – Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

 

(The reason why Spectre and Blofeld have returned now is because MGM and Kevin McClory’s estate finally settled the afore-mentioned legal row in 2013.)

 

The new Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike Blofelds of old, such as Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas, he sports a full head of hair and he likes to wear his loafers without socks – the cad.  At least he still has a white cat.  Actually, Waltz’s character also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser; and we discover that he and Bond have a history.  For it was Oberhauser’s father, Hannes Oberhauser, who took care of the young James Bond after his parents died in a climbing accident.  The young Franz believed that Bond displaced him in his father’s affections and has borne a grudge ever since.  For that reason, when he first comes face to face with Bond in Spectre, he taunts him with a disconcerting cry of “Cuckoo!”  He regards Bond as a cuckoo who invaded his family’s nest.

 

Many movie critics reacted with derision to this plot revelation – how corny!  Bond and Blofeld are long-lost brothers!  (Well, long-lost adoptive brothers.)  But I didn’t have much of a problem with it because Hannes Oberhauser did exist in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming.  In the short story Octopussy, published in 1966, Bond says of Oberhauser: “He was a wonderful man.  He was something of a father to me at a time when I needed one.”  So the possibility that Oberhauser might have an embittered son who later turned to villainy didn’t seem such a stretch.  Mind you, it’s unfortunate that this revelation is similar to the revelation at the end of Goldmember (2002), the third Austin Powers movie, about Austin Powers and Dr Evil being long-lost brothers sired by Michael Caine.

 

Bond and Madelaine escape from and destroy Blofeld’s desert base – and I think it’s one of the film’s shortcomings that the place seems to blow up so fast.  Bond explodes a modest bomb in Blofeld’s torture chamber and then shoots a few bullets into a pipe, and about two minutes later the entire installation has vanished in a giant fireball.  He might be fiendishly clever, but Blofeld has clearly shown an unwise disregard for Health and Safety regulations.  This section of the film contains some wonderful touches, though.  I love the idea that the base has been constructed within a crater caused by a meteorite collision and, indeed, Blofeld keeps the remains of the meteorite on display.  Also, Blofeld has a nifty torture device – a sort of dentist’s chair from hell – that he uses on Bond.  I’m sure that Ian Fleming, whose fondness for a spot of S and M is well-documented, would have approved.

 

But the film isn’t yet over – because it turns out that Spectre is the evil silent partner in an Edward Snowden-esque global intelligence / security initiative called Nine Eyes, for which the British government has unwittingly signed up.  When Nine Eyes goes online, Spectre will have access to a raft of countries’ intelligence data and will be able to manipulate their intelligence agencies.  Masterminding Nine Eyes in Britain is the slimy and treacherous civil servant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who’s been waging a turf war against M.  Bond, meanwhile, is so contemptuous of Denbigh that he’s nicknamed him ‘C’.  For a while, I thought this was going to be the first Bond movie where the ‘C’ word is uttered, but alas, it wasn’t.

 

Back in London, Bond hooks up with M, Q, Moneypenny and Bill Tanner – Tanner being M16’s Chief of Staff and a character from Fleming’s novels who was played by Michael Goodlife in the 1970s, James Villiers in the 1980s and Michael Kitchen in the 1990s and is played in the 21st century by the dependable Rory Kinnear – and they launch a night-time operation to stop Denbigh and thwart the launch of Nine Eyes.  In another nod to Fleming’s books, the safe-house where they meet is called ‘Hildebrand Rarities and Antiques’ – The Hildebrand Rarity is the name of one of Fleming’s short stories in the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960).

 

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M has a showdown with Denbigh – played robustly by Ralph Fiennes, this M makes a perfectly capable action hero himself – and Q performs the required computerised jiggery-pokery to hack into Nine Eyes and stop it functioning.  And in a surprise twist that will surprise no one, Blofeld pops up again to have a final crack at Bond.  (He hasn’t survived the explosion at his Moroccan base unscathed and he now has a facial scar as ghastly as that sported by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.)  And there’s a nocturnal speedboat chase along the River Thames that, while exciting, is a wee bit too close to the River-Thames speedboat chase that graced the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond outing, The World is Not Enough (1999).

 

Spectre isn’t the best James Bond movie.  It isn’t even the best Daniel Craig James Bond movie.  But I found it reassuringly solid and, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it 008.  I just hope that the series now doesn’t shift any further to the style of the old movies.  With Spectre it seems to have found an appealing balance between the knowingness of the 20th-century Bonds and the no-nonsense tone of the 21st-century ones – and I think that’s good enough.

 

But for the next Bond movie, could we please get a decent theme song?  The few minutes where Sam Smith caterwauls Writing’s on the Wall over the opening credits almost turned my stomach and easily constituted the worst part of the film.  Thank God that Spectre’s last scene plays out to the brassy, booming strains of Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme – a tune that half-a-century on is still capable of raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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