BOND RETROSPECTIVE 24: SPECTRE

In the long build-up to the release of No Time To Die, I’ve been looking back at all of the James Bond films in their nearly 60-year history.  This time, it’s the film that followed Skyfall, where shadows from Bond’s past reappear. Spoilers ahead…

GUNBARREL

The film starts with the gunbarrel – the first time it has appeared at the beginning of a Bond movie since Die Another Day, a reassuring opening for die hard Bond fans.

Then it is immediately followed by this caption:

Very different, very intriguing.  And when followed by the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, the audience experience a striking opening. In one seemingly continuous shot, we see the bustling streets, then focus on a man in a white suit (Sciarra) passing Bond who wears a skeleton mask.  Bond and his partner walk into a hotel, up the elevator and into a bedroom.

The shot continues as Bond steps out of a window and confidently struts along a rooftop until opposite a building where he listens in to Sciarra in conversation with some other bad guys talking about bombing a stadium and mentioning “the pale king”.

Bond shoots at the men, one of his bullets striking a briefcase bomb which demolishes that building.  Both Sciarra and Bond emerge from the rubble and Bond pursues him through the crowds.  Sciarra tries to escape in a helicopter which swoops down into the crowd, but Bond leaps in and in a well-choreographed struggle manages to kick the villain and the pilot out. Bond flies away, looking at the large ring he managed to rip from Sciarra’s finger.

Daniel Kleinman‘s credits are as visually arresting as usual, although this time they are incredibly dark, creepy and gothic. The sense of unease suggests a film which is going to delve deep psychologically into the world of Bond.

LONDON

M (Ralph Fiennes) is deeply unhappy about Bond’s unsanctioned trip to Mexico and the devastation he caused. Bond seems reticent and unfazed when he is effectively grounded by his boss.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) then tries to pass Bond some documents retrieved from the ruins of the Skyfall house but he tells her to bring them to his place that night.

BOND’S PLACE

Bond’s flat is spartan and there’s a nice joke when Moneypenny asks if he had just moved in.  It is here that we learn why Bond was in Mexico – for he plays a tape where Judi Dench‘s M instructs him to follow Sciarra, kill him and go to the funeral. It seems that M was aware of a larger conspiracy, and Bond is only too keen to go off books for his former boss.

Q

Bond and Tanner (Rory Kinnear) pass the empty MI6 building (vacant since Silva’s attack during Skyfall), and enter the new hidden MI6 where Q is waiting. Q injects Bond with a tracker, shows him 009’s Aston Martin, and gives him a watch (remember, they don’t do exploding pens now).

FUNERAL IN ROME

Bond watches Sciarra’s widow Lucia at the funeral. He also stands behind a mysterious gentleman. We don’t know who this man is yet, but he seems important.  A little tilt of the man’s head also suggests that he is aware that Bond is watching.

Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) is a scared woman, as she fears that the organisation her husband worked for would have no need for her now.

There follows a great sequence where Lucia enters her home that night, grabs some wine, plays some classical music and then steps outside. She knows she is in danger, and we see that two goons are in the shadows ready to kill her.  Gunshots ring out – but it is the goons that fall as Bond is there to save her.

Monica Bellucci is great in the scene, but sadly this is the extent of her appearance. Bellucci had auditioned with Pierce Brosnan for Tomorrow Never Dies, and some had theorised that she was the secret villain. As quoted in SOME KIND OF HERO, writer Neal Purvis comments that they would have written more for Lucia had they known a star such as Bellucci was going to play the part.

Soon they are both in bed, and when Bond leaves he confirms that MI6 will look after her. Following a lead from Lucia, Bond heads for a midnight meeting of the mysterious organisation.

MIDNIGHT MEETING

Bond effortlessly speaks Italian to a goon then heads inside a grand building, where faceless bad guys discuss evil doings around the globe. Bond watches from a crowded balcony.

The shadowy boss sits silently at the head of the table. For any Bond fan, it is obvious that this scene is calling back to SPECTRE meetings of the Connery era. It’s also obvious who the leader really is.

The meeting then turns to replacing Sciarra in the organisation.  One man volunteers, but Dave Bautista‘s silent brute Hinx appears, rattles the man’s head off the table then pushes his eyes in with his metal thumbnails. Don’t expect to see that scene intact on TV showings.

HELLO JAMES

Then the twist.  The quietly spoken leader (Christoph Waltz) directly mentions Bond by name, then turns to look at him. They knew he was there all along.

This works really well. While I don’t think it is as effective as Quantum of Solace in setting up this all-seeing organisation, the film so far has been a slow, carefully plotted mystery.

And that for me is a problem.  It’s not a spy film. There is little espionage. It’s not a revenge thriller like QoS or Licence to Kill.  It’s not even much like a Bond film. It’s a glossy mystery, desperate for some action.

THE CAR… CHASE?

Bond escapes, driving off in 009’s Aston Martin, pursued by Hinx in a Jaguar sports car.  And then we have the first major action set piece. But it is not particularly thrilling.  Thomas Newman‘s music seems to be scoring a much more exciting chase. Rome looks wonderful, and as the cars glide through the streets it all looks like a very glossy car ad.

Sure, it is after midnight in the story, but the streets are deserted – so there’s no peril. no innocents in danger, no near misses.  An elderly gentleman in a Fiat drives in from a Roger Moore Bond film to slow our hero down at one point, but that’s it.

The classic short C’était un rendez-vous by director Claude Lelouch in 1976 has more action, and that’s not even an action film.

Bond presses some gadgets on the car, one doesn’t work yet, one plays “New York New York“. Cheap laughs which for me drain the scene of any tension it had. There’s a jet of flames which obscures Hinx’s view as Bond escapes in a cool but very wasteful manner, by using the driver’s ejector seat. The car splashes into the River Tiber and Bond silently parachutes down on the road on the opposite river bank, effortlessly loses the parachute and swaggers off.

A cool Bond moment indeed, but that’s little compensation after that pointless chase with a pointless finale.

It’s a shame though, because during that chase Bond is on a call to Moneypenny who is helping him identify the leader who he recognised as the deceased Franz Oberhauser, a nice idea which would have worked better if the chase had more peril. She also reveals that “the pale king” that was mentioned by Sciarra in Mexico, is actually Quantum’s Mr White. And like that – the films are all connected.

THE PALE KING

Bond boats across a chilly lake to a remote lodge in Austria which is lived in but seemingly abandoned. But in the basement, Mr White is expecting an assassin, but not Bond.

We last saw White (Jesper Christensen) in full health at the opera in Bregenz when Bond exposed many of the members of Quantum. Here he is sick from deliberate thalium poisoning and looking very poorly, attached to a drip.

After seeing the ring Bond pulled from Sciarra’s finger, White reveals that he is no longer part of the team, as he broke the rules.

Bond: Tell me where he is!

White: He’s everywhere! EVERYWHERE! He’s sitting at your desk. He’s kissing your lover, he’s eating supper with your family.

This call back to White in the basement scene in Siena telling Bond and M that they have people everywhere, is great.

Bond learns that White is trying to protect his daughter so suggests an arrangement – White gives him information, Bond protects his daughter. White gives Bond information and then:

You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond. So long.

And then White kills himself with Bond’s pistol.

For me it is the best scene in the film, with the best dialogue. Christensen gets all the good lines. It’s a shame Mr White had to go.

Max Denbigh – “C”

In London Max Denbigh, who met Bond in M’s office briefly earlier, shows M the new intelligence building. C’s aim is to unite the digital technologies of major nations, “Nine Eyes”, and effectively disband the 00 project. M worries about who controls the data, and defends his department:

Have you ever had to kill a man, Max? Have you? To pull that trigger you have to be sure. Yes, you investigate, analyse, assess, target. And then you have to look him in the eye. And you make the call. And all the drones, bugs, cameras, transcripts, all the surveillance in the world cant tell you what to do next. A licence to kill is also a licence not to kill.

Denbigh reveals that he has been surveilling Bond. Eyes everywhere.

The great Andrew Scott plays Denbigh as a slimy unpleasant character from the outset, which is either playing to a stereotype, or setting us up for a great twist.

But wait. They kind of did that with M(allory)’s apperance in Skyfall, right?

THE HEALTH SPA

Bond arrives at the Hoffler Clinic to find White’s daughter, and we meet Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). Bond reveals White is dead and the deal was to protect her. She ushers him out, and Bond lingers at the juice bar (no vodka martini’s here) when Q appears. Surprising that he would be there in story terms, but also surprising for in Skyfall we learned from Moneypenny that Q was afraid of flying. This sadly isn’t mentioned.

Q insists that Franz Oberhauser, the leader of that midnight meeting, was killed in an avalanche with his father 20 years previously. Bond gives Q the ring to investigate just as security arrive to evict Bond.

Bond spots Swann being apprehended by Hinx and dispatches the security guards with ease – including just pointing at one with the warning “No, stay!”

Swann is bundled into a car and Bond looks for a way to pursue.

Meanwhile, for me, the first genuinely tense moment is when Q gets on to a cable car from the clinic (a reference to Piz Gloria in OHMSS?) He is followed by some goons, and while at first he is busy with his laptop analysing DNA from the ring, the realisation that he is being watched scares him.

THE PLANE… CHASE?

Bond pursues Hinx, the goons and Swann by a plane (presumably the clinic had an airstrip) in the second big action scene which plays alongside Q’s anxiety at his pursuers.

The plane chase is another odd one though, for Bond flies toward the cars endangering everyone (including Swann), before ripping off both wings and a wheel, careening down a snowy field, through a wooden lodge, and into the two remaining cars.

Swann is unsurprisingly annoyed at this “rescue” as Bond has seemingly led the organisation to her, revealing her identity and location.

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED

Bond and Swann head to Q’s hotel (luckily a fire escape in a busy cable car station helped him escape his goons). Here we learn what we’ve all expected: everything is connected.

Q’s laptop analysis of the ring somehow reveals that Le Chiffre, White, Green, Quantum, Sciarra and even Silva and Patrice were all part of one organisation run by Oberhauser. It’s name is unknown. Then Swann contributes: “SPECTRE”.

I’m all for the conspiracy going beyond one movie but this seems a step too far. And we will ignore the science of how Q deduced this from some DNA or metal in the ring. Because Bond logic.

L’AMERICAIN

Swann takes Bond to Tangier, where the “L’Americain” her father mentioned to Bond, is located. It is revealed as the hotel her parents used to stay at. They find a secret room full of files and photos of White’s nefarious dealings.

There’s a fleeting callback to Casino Royale when Bond finds, hesitates for a moment, then discards a VHS tape with the label “Vesper Lynd Interrogation”. He’s over that now. They then find a map.

BOND ON A TRAIN

Bond and Swann then travel by train to a point on the map. Bond is in a white tux, and Swann appears in an elegant dress. The train scene is reminiscent of Bond and Vesper’s first meeting in Casino Royale, and of course to classic train fights in From Russia with Love, Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me.

Which is fine, for Hinx suddenly appears for a brutal, bruising fight that had me genuinely on the edge of my seat. Towards the end of the punch up, Hinx drags Bond to the open door and I remember thinking that Bond may not win this particular fight.

GAGS AND CONFUSION

A gunshot intervention from Swann allows Bond the upper hand. He wraps a rope around Hinx’s neck then releases a chain of barrels which fly out of the train one at a time. This homage to the yellow barrel scene in the movie Jaws plays as a gag about Hinx being a silent villain like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

But then there’s Hinx’s heavily accented one line in the film “Shit” just before he is violently pulled out of the train to a certain death. A cheap laugh in a Bond, fair enough.

But it begs the question: what is Hinx doing? He is seemingly one step behind Bond in Rome, in White’s Austrian house, in the Clinic, on the train… but WHAT PRECISELY is he trying to do? Kill them? Why?

Remember that Oberhauser knows everything. He controls the narrative. He even (spoiler) is controlling Denbigh in London.

So is the story actually about Oberhauser drawing Bond into his web?

To what end? And if that is the case, why is Hinx trying to kill them all the time?

EMBARRASSED LAUGHS

Once Hinx has exited the train, Swann says to Bond: “What do we do now?” Cut to the sex scene. And the audience in the cinema laughed awkwardly. It’s Die Another Day level of cheesiness.

I thought it was a particularly disappointing note after the most effective action scene of the entire film. I’ve often thought it would be funnier if it cut to them in the wrecked dining car, Swann tucking into her dinner, with Bond sitting smiling, shaking his head. At least that would be playful.

But this film doesn’t allow them to be playful or witty, or have any real chemistry. And suddenly they have the sex. It’s hard to buy their relationship. Note: the next day, she professes her love for Bond.

AH, MISTER BOND, WE’VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU

Bond and Swann get off the train in the middle of the desert and wait, even though it isn’t clear why. Then a classic Rolls Royce (similar to Goldfinger’s) arrives for them. So Bond knew to wait till they came to pick them up? But they were going to an unmarked section of the desert. And if they were expecting him, why was Hinx on the train?

The villain’s high tech lair is inside a meteorite’s crater – an impressive idea which echoes the volcano lair from You Only Live Twice.

THE AUTHOR OF ALL HIS PAIN

Oberhauser welcomes them to his high tech lair, revealing that it is where he handles “information” – the supervillain MacGuffin for the new age. Technicians line the walls operating screens with feeds from all across the world, including INSIDE MI6 as M makes his goodbye speech.

Oberhauser: You came across me so many times and yet you never saw me. Le Chiffre, Greene, Silva.

Bond: All dead.

Oberhauser: That’s right. A nice pattern developed, you interfered in my world, I destroyed yours. Or did you think it was coincidence all the women in your life ended up dead? Vesper Lynd for example. She was the big one. Has he told you about her? And then of course, your beloved M, gone forever. Me. It was all me James, its always been me, the author of all your pain.

Oberhauser has eyes everywhere. Including White’s Austrian house – and proceeds to show Madeline footage of her father killing himself.

Next Bond wakes up strapped to an elaborate chair, while our villain describes how he will be tortured with needles inserted into the memory receptors in his brain. Swann sits too, being made to watch it.

Here we see that Oberhauser has a fluffy white cat and learn that he doesn’t use that name anymore, instead he is called Ernst Stavro Blofeld. After the death of Bond’s parents James was taken in by Oberhauser’s father and for two winters enjoyed lots of attention. The young Oberhauser didn’t like the cuckoo in the nest. The father’s death wasn’t accidental.

And that is it. That’s the reason for this whole huge, four-movie, multiple year-spanning conspiracy.

DEMOLITION MAN

Using his exploding watch from Q (who seems to have gotten over his distain of silly exploding gadgets from Skyfall) Bond and Swann escape, and Bond gets a gun from a goon. Out in the compound he easily defeats the guards and blasts some gas cylinders (a regular Craig trick). Then follows the spectacular finale to the scene. As Bond and Swann reach a helipad, the Biggest Explosion Ever destroys the whole complex.

The escape is easy. Far too easy. One shot destroys the whole complex? It can’t be that easy. Maybe it was deliberate? Could this be another cunning angle to Blofeld’s plan? Bond exposed Quantum, now Bond “buries” Spectre, and everyone thinks they’ve gone. But instead they are back underground, hidden, still alive and manipulating. And Blofeld used Bond to create this disguise. What a clever plan!

Alas, no. There is no plan. The lucky shot destroyed everything.

LONDON

Back in London, things are heating up. Denbigh is about to have the Nine Eyes Project go live, which will snoop into everything in locations across the world giving SPECTRE absolute power.

M, Tanner, Q and Moneypenny are now on a mission to bring him down. In a safe house they meet with Bond and Swann to plan their exposure of Denbigh’s plot.

Swann however can’t deal with this life, Bond’s life, and just as they head out, she backs off, a sudden end to their relationship.

Bond and M’s car is attacked and while M escapes to meet up with Tanner, Q and Moneypenny, Bond is taken away tied and hooded.

M and Q head to the new building to try and stop Nine Eyes installing. M confronts Denbigh, in a scene reminiscent of Bond’s opening scene in Casino Royale (including the trick of emptying the bad guy’s gun of bullets in advance).

Bond breaks free of his goons and realises that they have brought him to the empty MI6 building, which is rigged for demolition.

GHOSTS IN THE SHELL

Somehow Blofeld knew that Bond and M were heading to speak to Denbigh, and planned to intercept them. As Bond goes through the darkened corridors of MI6 we see that Blofeld has also brought photocopies of the faces of previous Bond villains and displayed them to presumably annoy Bond.

Try not to visualise Blofeld rushing through the carcass of that building ten minutes earlier, taping up the photocopies, giggling nervously to himself.

Bond finally sees Blofeld behind bulletproof glass in one room – and we see that the watch explosion caused the damaged eye and scar that we remember from Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Return of The Disfigured Villain Trope.

Blofeld has the explosives on a timer, and Bond has to find Swann, who has been snatched and hidden somewhere.

The ticking clock finale is Bond searching the building, whilst across the river Denbigh and M have their battle of wills.

Bond finds Swann in a room and they leap down onto a safety net, escaping from the building by Tanner’s handy boat from earlier.

As Blofeld escapes in a helicopter, the distraction leads to Denbigh and M fighting over a gun and Denbigh simply loses balance and falls to his death.

HELICOPTER… CHASE?

The MI6 building explodes and collapses as Bond and Swann boat down the Thames chasing the helicopter.

Bond manages to shoot it down, leading to a spectacular helicopter crash landing on Westminster Bridge, in the shadow of Big Ben. Bond, on a speedboat, on choppy waters, at night, shoots down a black helicopter hundreds of yards away, and the helicopter makes no attempt to avoid the gunfire. (All it had to do was fly away from the river).

THE BRIDGE

Bond catches up with Blofeld who crawls from the wreckage.

The location on the middle of the bridge creates a nice visual of Bond caught with M at one end and Swann at the other. Blofeld sees this and tries to goad Bond.

But remember what M said to Denbigh earlier?

Bond chooses not to kill, and walks towards Swann, symbolically throwing his gun away and choosing love, not job.

DEBRIEF

I find this film quite frustrating. It looks like a Bond film, and promises much, but something doesn’t work.

The darker tone as established with the titles, the music and the title card “The dead are alive” never really gets delivered.  And while many may be relieved at that, for Craig’s films are becoming darker and more sombre, it seems odd that the film promises it and doesn’t fulfill that promise.

Like any film, some of the jokes don’t land well. Some of the action works but lacks excitement.

Craig is funnier in this film, and his wit works well. He really makes a great Bond.

I have no problem with the films being interconnected, its just that is seems so clunky.

EON embarked on Casino Royale and Quantum when the rights for SPECTRE and Blofeld were still tied up. It makes sense that they now reintroduce Bond’s classic adversaries, but retrofitting EVERYTHING we’ve seen to be because of Blofeld is, for me, too much.

The torture scene is odd and bloodless. Blofeld drills into Bond’s memory centres, but this isn’t followed up on.  The escape is so ridiculously easy that even a record-breaking explosion doesn’t cover it up.

I wish they hadn’t had sex on that train.

I wish SPECTRE had grown out of the ashes of QUANTUM.

I wish Blofeld would have reconstructed SPECTRE and ousted Mr White. A new breed of villain etc. But that’s just fanfiction by a random amateur.

What the professionals gave us was frustrating.  And clunky. 

Spectre is a pale ghost of Skyfall. Puns intended.


Get Skyfall on Amazon now!


A version of this article was first published on reelanarchy.


ProductionCast
Produced by: EON Productions
Presented By: 
Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli
Director:
Sam Mendes
Screenplay: 
John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
Composer:
Thomas Newman
“Writing’s On The Wall”
by Sam Smith
Production Design:
Dennis Gassner
Cinematography:
Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editor:
Lee Smith
London Premiere October 2015
Daniel Craig
Christoph Waltz
Léa Seydoux
Ben Whishaw
Naomie Harris
Dave Bautista
Andrew Scott
Rory Kinnear
Jesper Christensen
Monica Bellucci
Ralph Fiennes
Judi Dench

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