Friday, November 6, 2015

SPECTRE: Return of the über-villain

SPECTRE (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.15

This likely is obvious, but it bears mention anyway: Christoph Waltz was born to be a Bond villain.

That chilling insouciance. That monomaniacal smile. That calm air of authority and indifference. The utter certainty that nothing — and nobody — could stand in his way.

After having knocked Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) almost senseless, the unstoppable Hinx
(Dave Bautista, center) does his best to batter Bond (Daniel Craig) and hurl him to his
death from a speeding train.
Waltz’s Oberhauser is sinister.

His interrogation/torture scene here with Daniel Craig’s James Bond is the best — the most memorably macabre — since Auric Goldfinger responded to Sean Connery’s nervous “Do you expect me to talk?” with a mildly vexed “No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die!”

SPECTRE represents the fruition of simmering narrative plans that have been in play since the Bond franchise was so cleverly re-booted with Craig’s introduction, in 2006’s Casino Royale. The tip-off comes during this new film’s opening credits, as fleeting glimpses of characters from the previous three films waft in and out of Daniel Kleinman’s sleek and sexy visuals.

(Just in passing, Kleinman finally nailed the tone established by the masterful title sequences designed and choreographed so well by the late, great Maurice Binder. The main difference: Kleinman’s are creepier. Which isn’t a bad thing.)

With respect to foreshadowing, longtime fans know that we’ve been here before. Connery’s Bond spent several films dealing with villains set into motion by a  Machiavellian figure silhouetted at the head of an enormous boardroom table, recognized only by the fluffy white cat snuggled into his lap.

Indeed, an early scene in SPECTRE knowingly references just such a sequence from 1965’s Thunderball ... although this update has a more tempestuous outcome.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

As SPECTRE opens, Bond has gone rogue — as he has done so many times in the past — to track a particular baddie in Mexico City. We know what to expect from Bond pre-credits sequences, so it’s no surprise that this action-packed melee unfolds against the backdrop of a rowdy Day of the Dead festival, scattering the “thousands of extras” so beloved by old-style filmmakers back in the 1930s and early ’40s.

Unfortunately, Bond’s fracas — despite concluding with a nugget of valuable information — does not sit well with M (Ralph Fiennes), back in London. M is being threatened by the unwelcome march of progress, his beloved MI6 soon to be absorbed by longtime rivals MI5, personified by the smugly arrogant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott).

Denbigh views consolidation as the best means of maximizing intelligence and efficiency, both internally and globally; to that end, he’s also advocating shared surveillance among the world’s nine key nations. He regards technological innovation as vastly superior to fallible human agents, and he fully expects to take control of the joined MI5/MI6 ... whereupon his first act will be the disbanding of the double-O section.

Bond, unswervingly loyal to M, regards Denbigh contemptuously upon first meeting, and impishly nicknames him C. The label sticks, a twitching grimace and flicker of expression just barely betraying Denbigh’s annoyance.

Scott is either unfortunate type-casting or a brilliant choice, depending on how things are viewed. This is the guy who plays Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, fercryinoutloud; of course he’s gonna be a thorn in everybody’s side!


Now flagrantly disobeying M’s order to lay low, Bond pursues his faint lead — a silver ring emblazoned with a black octopus insignia — first to Rome, and then to an isolated cabin in snowbound Austria, and a reunion with a certain individual who bedeviled Bond in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Off-book assistance is rendered, back in London, by the faithful Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and gadgetmaster Q (Ben Whishaw).

The latter, however, is rather put out when he realizes that Bond has absconded with a prototype Aston Martin DB10. (In another nod to the past, we also get a glimpse of the iconic DB5, a faded shell of its former glory, looking much worse for the wear it endured during earlier adventures.)

Bond eventually meets up with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a young woman carrying a vital piece of information, but who is — at least initially — unwilling to share it. A few hair’s-breadth escapes later, she obligingly changes her mind.

The best Bond films are known for their opulent travelogue aspects, and this one’s no different. Production designer Dennis Gassner ensures that the Mexico City sequence gets things off to a thunderous start — literally — but the most intriguing location is the Hoffler Klinik where Bond first encounters Madeleine. In an affectionate nod to the mountaintop Piz Gloria lair in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Hoffler Klinik (actually the ICE-Q restaurant) is nestled high in the Austrian Alps, atop the 3,000-meter Gaislachkogl Mountain, and accessible primarily via cable car and ski lift.

Rest assured, that cable car becomes a thrilling setting, as do nearby snow-covered roads that host a deliciously improbable chase between three Range Rovers (bad guys blazing away with guns) and an impressively resilient small plane (piloted by Bond). In a film laden with great chases and action sequences, choreographed by stunt coordinator Gary Powell and sfx supervisor Chris Corbould, this one’s the corker.

That said, some of the more intimate mano a mano skirmishes are just as exciting. Close-combat melees have become action film essentials in this post-Bourne film world, and director Sam Mendes — returning for another well orchestrated round, after his equally fine work in Skyfall — certainly delivers.

In the fine Bond tradition, Waltz’s Oberhauser comes equipped with a grimly silent henchman: the muscle-bound Hinx (Dave Bautista), who has the raw ferocity of Oddjob, blended with the unstoppable menace of Jaws. Hinx’s most furious assault on Bond takes place on a moving train, and unfolds with the raw animal rage of Connery’s battle with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, way back in From Russia with Love.

But instead of taking place in a single train compartment, Bond’s abuse at Hinx’s hands lays waste to most of the train (a natural consequence of inflated viewer expectation).

Craig has become wholly comfortable with this role, slipping into Bond’s essential mannerisms just as easily as he dons 007’s impeccably tailored suits, courtesy of costume designer Jany Temime. (It’s amazing: No matter how frantic the action, somehow Bond — and Madeleine — always find time to shop for fabulous new clothes.) Craig has become better at tossing off the occasional cutting remark, but mostly we love his Bond for the man’s grim resolve: Annoy him at your own peril.

Seydoux’s Madeleine is a reasonably capable heroine. Her initial reluctance to get involved — with Bond, or with his investigation — is a nice touch, even if we know that she’ll eventually melt. More importantly, she radiates intelligence and behaves with appropriate caution and resourcefulness, unlike lesser Bond babes.

Wishaw supplies essential light humor as the tech-savvy Q, and it’s safe to say that the actor has made the role his own. Best of all, he gets a solid share of the action this time out, as does Fiennes’ M. Harris remains a treasure as Moneypenny, able to hold her own both in the field, and during clandestine office spyjinks.

I do wish that Rory Kinnear’s Tanner were given more of a personality, though; the poor guy is little more than a tag-along.

A laundry list of scripters often signals bad news — too many cooks can spoil the soup — but not this time. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth deserve considerable credit for delivering a clever script that ingeniously wraps up recent events while (as mentioned) granting ample acknowledgment of earlier Bond series highlights. They’ve also made Oberhauser quite the villain, cleverly integrating him into the sort of master plan that, well, a certain Moriarty would have admired.

That said, at 148 minutes, this film is too self-indulgently long. (Indeed, it’s the longest ever.) Mendes and editor Lee Smith should have tightened it a bit; for starters, the sequence set in Oberhauser’s lair — in the Sahara desert outside of Erfoud, Morocco — definitely lags (even if it does give Waltz his juiciest moments).

Kleinman’s lavish title credits notwithstanding, I’m not impressed by the song that goes with them. Pop star Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” may not be the worst Bond song ever written — that dishonor belongs to Madonna, forever and always, for her ghastly work in Die Another Day — but it’s certainly the most overwrought. Patrons at Wednesday evening’s preview screening were forced to endure it twice, because the film was front-loaded with Smith’s rock-video single.

But these are minor complaints. SPECTRE is solid Bond throughout: everything fans could desire. The big question now is whether Craig will return for a fifth outing as 007; he has been cranky on that topic. Let’s hope it’s just salary maneuvering, because, really, it’d be a shame to lose him now.

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