Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2015.

spoiler alert

Wit, dapper charm, and furious bravado do not endear everyone to the world's most famous spy. Where we see sophistication they see urbanity, where we roguish independence they see a cold, callous heart. While we thrill in Bond's brass and effrontery, another mind sees no more than reckless aggression. In short, to some Bond is a mere adolescent. Their reservations are not unwarranted, and this a Bond for them. In every way Spectre is the most mature Bond.

This is not a radical revision, though, but a careful cultivation of significance and omission of frivolous showiness. Mendes has not rebooted or reinvented Bond, but refined him from a freewheeling id whom we look at with excitement but not concern, into a full-blooded, and still hot-blooded, man. Bond is no longer an archetype, but a character, who persuades, deliberates, and even, shockingly, abstains. Not new, Bond has been pruned from the preposterous down to the plausible.

Take one staple of the franchise, the fact that Bond is indomitable. In other movies he blows up ships, mows down legions of enemies, and flies space shuttles. Entertaining, but outrageous. Mendes retains the theme, though, in one brilliant, small moment. In a daring escape–another franchise essential–Bond brutally disarms and incapacitates a guard, but instead of proceeding to a full-blown melee, he turns to the other guard and pointing like a master to a dog, Bond barks, "Stay!" Cowed by Bond's mastery of the situation, the guard backs down. One moment like this, and not a swath of destruction, is all we need to be reminded that Bond is bigger than normal men.

The contrast is amplified by the comparison between Bond and the Spectre assassin dogging him. The tradition of colorful mid-level Bond baddies is long and esteemed: Odd Job, Jaws, Xenia Onatopp are just the most famous and flamboyant. So what's the trademark of Spectre's Mr. Hinx? He is silent and brutal. That's all. A perfectly brilliant contrast. Whereas Bond is witty, Hinx is silent. Bond is agile, Hinx cumbersome. Hinx brutal and cruel, Bond precise and controlled. Two contrasting scenes masterfully reveal the difference. In one, at a Spectre meeting, Mr. Hinx violently gouges the eyes of an assassin whom he intends to replace as the world-dominating organization's go-to killer. He then kills the man as the rest of the Spectre pack passively watches the fitter man move up the hierarchy. On the other hand, after Bond has tracked down ex-Spectre Mr. White and learned of his imminent, poisoned demise, Bond offers to succeed him in protecting White's daughter. He then hands White his pistol, a gesture of trust and mercy. After White ends his suffering and takes up 007's offer, Bond gently closes his eyes. Hinx brutally murders his way to claim authority, but Bond undertakes responsibility with trust, risk, and mercy. There is a lot more significance in Hinx being different from Bond than Jaws trying to bite his face off or Xenia trying to hump him to death.

Speaking of which, 007's relationship with the opposite sex is perhaps the most matured of his traits. Gone is the witty persiflage and coy innuendo of days past which reached its ridiculous, Freudian apex when Halley Berry said to Pierce Brosnan, who was chuffing a cigar, "Now there's a mouthful." Specter brings a tad more decorum to the courting ritual as Bond meets Dr. Madeleine Swann, White's daughter whom Bond must protect and who holds the key to the deceased man's last intelligence on Spectre. At their first encounter, Bond is posing as a patient at Swann's spa-clinic in the mountains, and when Swann lowers the blinds to block the spectacular view of the mountains behind her because they "distract patients," Bond replies, "I hadn't noticed." Now that's smooth.

Swann isn't your typical Bond girl, either. She's not a fighter or a scientist or a programmer, because she's not in the movie to fulfill the stock element of completing the vital task at the crucial moment. Nor is she, despite the negligees and flowing dresses, there as eye candy or fodder for Bond's libido. In fact, she puts Bond out the first night, forcing him to watch over her as she drowses off under the gauzy bed canopy, undressed and tipsy with wine. Yet this is not impotence or emasculation for Bond, for he chose to protect her, which is more of a claim on him than his sexual urge. The contrast is smartly captured when, shutting her eyes, Madeleine says to James, "I see two of you." In vino veritas, we see the two Bonds: the protector and the lover. Still more meaning reveals itself when, before she passes out, Madeleine mutters about "liars and killers, liars and killers." She is reflecting on her father, the liar and killer Spectre assassin, but the comparison is unavoidable: Bond is the killer, but is he the liar? Must he be either?

All of this character contrast stands against a political thriller in which MI6 and the whole 00-program face extinction and incorporation into a global surveillance company. No longer will Bond and the 00 Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Service protect the realm and spearhead justice throughout the world, but the wold will find stability through omnipresent observation and data collection in the hands of experts–unelected, M reminds us. The world order is shifting, a fate and theme foreshadowed by a dusty, unplayed chessboard between 007 and Mr. White, who wistfully remembers when the game of world domination had its rules. Now Spectre stages bombings, even of women and children, to get nations to sign onto its security-surveillance front of a company.

With MI6 in tatters and Bond on his way to his last lead to Spectre, Moneypenny pleads with M to send Bond some help, to which he responds, "No. We'll only make him weaker." That one line, with all the weight of British sovereignty on his lone, broad, shoulders, makes his actions more of an ode to liberty and country than, say, a stunt like skiing off a cliff and landing with a giant Union Jack on his parachute.

The plot reaches its apex when Bond at last confronts the head of Spectre, whose fluffy white cat precedes his introduction as 007's perennial nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As with the rest of Spectre, nothing could be more traditional and yet more unexpected. Unexpected because their exchange is no droll conversation over a pool of sharks, but a slow, tense, contest of wills and recognition. The two meet in a languorous reveal inside an observatory that houses a meteorite. The two tangle over a dilemma: whether the meteorite had a choice to fall, whether it had the choice to stop and think. Both men have invented themselves, but from what?

When we learn the final secret, everything falls into place: when Blofeld was still the happy youth Franz, his father adopted a young boy named James and told him to embrace the orphan as a brother. The father took to his foster son more, though, until young Franz righted that wrong. We see the two brothers fully opposed: Bond is orphaned and takes to his adopted father while becoming a patriotic 00-Agent, and Franz turns to patricide and treason. Bond chooses service to Her Majesty and Franz domination by means of Spectre. They are the brothers contending for the identity of the father as, in Skyfall, Bond and Silva contented for the affection of the mother, M.

The masses will overlook the meaning and balk at the length. They will see the refinements as mere repetitions. They will see pastiche and not unified plot. They will doze. Let them. For the rest of us, tempus fugit. Spectre doesn't glory in over the top explosions, but luxuriates in symmetries and subtlety, in shadows and slow reveals. It has the smarts, in the escape finale, not only to follow its fleeing heroes out a building by a cheekily slow turn of the camera, but the wit after that to reveal not the characters but an arrow pointing off screen to the path they took. Spectre has the respect for its audience to leave a story–Dr. Swann's about her hatred of guns–half-told so we can think it through ourselves. Finally, it has the confidence to twist 007's most famous trademark, his Martini, and in doing so manages one of the great creative feats: surprising us with the expected.

No, Daniel Craig's final performance of James Bond is not of the globe-trotting playboy, but of a driven, deliberate man. He doesn't have jetpacks and laser beams, but he can still take out a caravan of cars with a half-destroyed airplane. He's not invulnerable, but he is indefatigable. James' struggle means something, and having found someone who means something to him, when the two walk off in a shot mirroring the first, he leaves a different man, but still Bond.

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