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Spectre Review: The Dead are Alive

November 1, 2015

SpectreYesterday my wife and I went to see Spectre. I hadn’t read any of the reviews and avoided the pre-release hype as much as possible so that my initial judgment of the film would not be coloured by anyone else’s opinion. My first reaction was that I liked it. I enjoyed the film a lot and think it ranks as one of the strongest entries in the series. And yet I also had the feeling that a significant minority of fans are not going to like it, but more on that later.

Spectre begins with the epigraph ‘the dead are alive’ hammered onto the screen with the brutal efficiency of an old typewriter. We are in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. A five minute tracking shot follows Bond (attired in suitably ghoulish costume) through the streets as he hunts down Mafia Boss cum terrorist Marco Sciarra. He overhears Sciarra make a cryptic reference to ‘the Pale King’ before all hell breaks loose and the scene climaxes with Bond and Sciarra battling on board an out-of-control helicopter. Back in London, M is furious that Bond was in Mexico on an unsanctioned mission. Whitehall mandarin Max Denbigh ‘C’ is planning to abolish the licence to kill OO agents, so Bond has only a short time to uncover the organisation Sciarra and ‘the Pale King’ are working for. That’s about all I’ll say about the plot here. There is a deliberately loose narrative structure as director Sam Mendes keeps events moving from set pieces in Mexico, Rome, Austria, Morocco and London. But while the script is lacking in some regards (the reliance on four letter words to get cheap laughs is grating) there are still plenty of surprises and hardcore fans will enjoy the multitude of references to the previous films. More than that though, Mendes seems to be paying tribute to cinema as much as the Bond canon. The opening tracking shot is not just technically brilliant, it is playful, vibrant and alive with sinisterly sexy possibility. The helicopter battle seems anticlimactic by comparison, being over-reliant on CGI (but it never descends to the level of Die Another Day’s abysmal CGI effects). In fact none of the action sequences had any adrenaline pumping quality. I was won over by the film’s leisurely elegance, its beautiful use of colour and the abundance of surreal images such as Bond and Mr White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (a very strong Lea Seydoux) encounter with a spotless Rolls Royce in the middle of the African desert. The best action sequence I thought was a bone-crunching fistfight between Bond and the unstoppable killing machine Mr Hinx. All of the villains are well played in Spectre. Dave Bautista is memorable as Hinx (good at murder but lacking in polite conversation), Andrew Scott is wonderfully sleazy as C, Jesper Christensen once again steals the show as Mr White (I’ve become quite fond of the character now), and Christoph Waltz is just outstanding as the leader of the titular Spectre organisation. His near perfect mixture of malevolence and goofiness is a reminder that a Bond film is only as good as its main villain.

It all made for a great Bond film but an unusually subdued action film, which is why I think some of the younger fans who only really know Daniel Craig in the role won’t like it. Mendes seems to have reserved the London sequences for the younger fans. In these scenes all the lush romantic ambience of the film vanishes. In fact, Mendes noirish portrayal of London is so overcast in foggy gloom that if I worked for the London Tourist Board I’d consider suing. This for me was the one misstep, as things started to get reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but I appreciate different Bond fans take different things from the series. Daniel Craig has given the series a lot: Casino Royale seems to get better with every viewing, Quantum of Solace was a structural mess but still had some extraordinary scenes (the Vienna opera sequence is one of my favourite moments in cinema), Skyfall I thought was overrated, and Spectre wraps up all four films quite neatly. The resolution was so tidy that it dawned on me with sadness that this could be the last time Craig takes on the role. When the film ended, we sat through all the credits waiting for that reassuring message that ‘James Bond will Return’. When it finally came, its muted, split second appearance left me feeling despondent. I looked up to see a cleaner in a Halloween costume ready to usher us out of the screening (we were the last to leave). I know there are a lot of great actors out there who would be perfect as Bond, but Spectre was so good it made me want to see Craig in the role again. But if he doesn’t come back, then this film is a fine swansong.

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