Why Spectre is a classic James Bond movie

Posted by ap507 at Oct 29, 2015 04:20 PM |
Professor James Chapman reviews the new 007 adventure

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Spectre is the twenty-fourth entry in the James Bond film series that began with Dr No in 1962, and I’d say that it’s one of the very best in the series’ history.

The Bond movies are genre films made according to a formula, of course, but every now and again one comes along that seems to perfect that formula. For Sean Connery it was Goldfinger – the third Bond picture and still regarded by many fans as the best – and for Roger Moore’s Bond it was The Spy Who Loved Me (also, incidentally, his third Bond picture). Timothy Dalton only got to play Bond twice: The Living Daylights is his best, though Licence To Kill, less successful at the box office, seems in hindsight the first of the Daniel Craig Bond movies with its harder edge and revenge-driven plot – just without Daniel Craig.

Since the current 007 assumed secret-agenting duties a decade ago, the films have steered a new course – away from the generally lighter tone of Pierce Brosnan’s films and towards a more psychologically realistic and tougher Bond: no invisible cars, no ice palaces and orbiting lasers, but a Bond who can be hurt, emotionally as well as physically, and who is seen to bleed in the action sequences. Casino Royale (2006) was a ‘revisionist’ Bond movie that went back to Ian Fleming’s first novel to show how Bond becomes Bond – thereby wiping the slate clean of the continuity of the previous 20 films (from Dr No to Die Another Day). Quantum of Solace (2008), a direct sequel to Casino, was something of a misfire, beset by production problems and a Hollywood writers’ strike, but 2012’s Skyfall was a triumphant success that pulled off the rare trick of pleasing both critics and audiences, and in the process becoming one of the handful of films in cinema history to take over $1000 million at the box office.

Spectre, at a reported cost of $300 million, is by some distance the most expensive Bond picture to date. But – like classic Bonds such as You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me but unlike either Casino Royale or Skyfall – the production values are evident in the film itself rather in behind-the-scenes costs. Cubby Broccoli’s adage was always “to put the budget on the screen” and on this occasion producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and director Sam Mendes have done just that. Hence Spectre is the best-looking Bond movie in a while: in particular the decision to return to 35-millimetre Kodak film rather than shooting digitally creates a rich colour palette of the kind not really seen in the series since the 1960s.

The things that people tend to remember most about the Bond movies are not the plots of the individual films but the action set pieces and stand-out moments: the car chase in Goldfinger, for example, or the bravura pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me with its breathtaking ski chase and parachute jump – regarded by many as the best stunt in motion picture history. Spectre is replete with classic Bond moments: a pre-title sequence that ranks among the best (if to my mind not quite as good as the equivalent in Skyfall), a tyre-squealing car chase through Rome by night as Bond’s new Aston Martin DB10 is put through its paces, and a brilliantly edited mano à mano punch-up between Bond and sinister heavy ‘Mr Hinx’ that recalls the classic train fight between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love. We also have, for old times’ sake, a villain with a lair inside a meteor crater – another classic Bond touch and something that’s been absent from the films for a while. We haven’t had a decent villain’s lair since Stromberg’s underwater Atlantis base in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Yet there’s more to Spectre than just its action sequences. Sam Mendes reminds us that he’s a director’s director by opening the film with a continuous mobile tracking shot through the ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico City that can be seen as an homage to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). But this is not style for style’s sake: the sequence builds the tension as Bond – in a skeleton figure disguise that seems a visual reference to Live and Let Die – tracks his quarry before abandoning his disguise à la Connery in Goldfinger and stepping boldly over the rooftops to take up position with his sniper’s rifle. The slow build-up of tension is released by the first of the film’s many Very Big Explosions.

After the more personal narrative of Skyfall, Spectre marks a return to the classic Bond plot of the megalomaniac criminal mastermind seeking world domination – not on this occasion by hijacking nuclear weapons or spreading a plague virus but by controlling the intelligence secrets of all the major security agencies in the world. It’s no surprise to learn that the master criminal – played with quiet menace by Christoph Waltz – turns out to be Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This is not the Blofeld of old but a newer version for the twenty-first century – though Bond aficionados will be pleased to know that the white Persian cat makes its requisite appearance and will note, also, the reference to how Blofeld came by the disfiguring scar that Donald Pleasence sported in You Only Live Twice. It’s references such as these to Bond films past that make Spectre such a fan-pleasing movie. A gag about the Aston Martin being intended for 009 rather than Bond is worth the price of admission alone.

Indeed it’s the sense of fun that makes Spectre such a special Bond film for me. I’ve enjoyed the previous Daniel Craig films – even Quantum of Solace improves on repeated viewings – but I’ve felt that they lacked some of the humour that was always part of the Bond films from Dr No. And, while there are thankfully no double-taking pigeons, there are a couple of nicely-judged what might be termed ‘Roger Moore moments’.

Mendes draws sympathetic performances from his cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris, all reprising their roles as the new M, Q and Miss Moneypenny. Léa Seydoux as the principal ‘Bond girl’ is a cut above the usual heroine. My only real complaint about the film is that Monica Bellucci’s Mafia widow features all too briefly.

So where does Spectre stand in the all-time pantheon of Bond movies? I’ll have to see it again (and probably again) to decide. For me it’s Daniel Craig’s most assured performance as Bond and his best-realised film without the longeurs of Casino Royale or Skyfall (excellent though those films were). Indeed I’d go as far as saying it’s the best Bond since The Spy Who Loved Me and perhaps even the best since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, generally regarded as one of the less successful Bonds but elevated in retrospect to a fan favourite. What I like about Spectre it that it combines the best of those films: the epic spectacle and sheer fun of Spy but with the emotional core of OHMSS.

Spectre will have a long way to go to match the box-office success of Skyfall, but the early reports are that it is slightly ahead of its predecessor on the opening-day gross in the United Kingdom. It looks as if the producers have another huge hit on their hands. And if this does turn out to be Daniel Craig’s last assignment as Britain’s favourite secret agent, he’s been given the perfect exit.

 

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (I. B. Tauris)

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