Combustible Celluloid
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With: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen
Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth, based on characters created by Ian Fleming
Directed by: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language
Running Time: 148
Date: 11/06/2015

Spectre (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Double-O Heaven

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There's a lot of talk, in the official 24th James Bond 007 film Spectre, about how Bond is no longer relevant for our times. And it seems as if quite a lot of critics have taken that idea and run with it in their reviews. Despite the fact that Spectre is one of the better films in the series, the general consensus seems to be saying that it's a bore. Don't listen to them. Sure, it's no Casino Royale (2006) or Skyfall (2012), but if you're a Bond fan, you'll love it.

Daniel Craig returns for the fourth — and perhaps final? — time as Bond. Following the death of Judi Dench's previous M, we find Bond investigating some shady dealings in Mexico City, during, of course, the Day of the Dead festival. The opening teaser kicks off with a beautiful, lengthy tracking shot, which culminates with Bond walking catlike along the ledge of a building. After some shooting, destruction, and chasing, he finds a clue and returns to London. There, unfortunately, there has been some kind of corporate merger, and a nasty little government stooge (Andrew Scott) is threatening to shut down the double-O program in favor of an all-encompassing global surveillance system.

Bond himself is suspended, but takes off anyway, to Rome, to catch the funeral of an assassin he previously killed. The assassin's widow (Monica Bellucci) provides an opportunity for the hero to utter one of his signature lines, a roll in the hay, and a further clue. This brings him to a meeting of the organization known as "Spectre," with its evil leader (Christoph Waltz). I don't want to give anything away, but Bond fans already know who the leader of Spectre is, and he's been featured three other times in the Bond series, played by three other actors (four if you count the unofficial Bond movies). Spectre gives him more of a backstory, and more of a personal reason to hate Bond.

After a daring escape, Bond looks for a way to get to the bad guy again, and visits another rival assassin in a remote lakehouse. This leads him to our latest Bond girl, the gorgeous Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who may have just added herself to my list of all-time favorites. She's enough of a force here that she starts to melt Bond's chilly heart. In one of the quiet scenes, she asks him what would happen if he were to stop all this running and hiding and fighting and just live his life. Bond thinks for a moment, and responds, "I don't know," as if suggesting new possibilities.

The previous movie, the extraordinary Skyfall, became the highest-grossing in the entire series (even adjusted for inflation, it made the top three), so the producers opted for the usual response, "bigger, longer, more." Spectre cost something north of $250 million to make and runs a butt-numbing 148 minutes. As exciting as it is, I confess I got a little squirmy toward the final stretch. Yet, even if it's less gloriously beautiful than its predecessor, the new movie is a little warmer, and also includes a pretty basic, but powerful and relevant Edward Snowden-style argument against surveillance; if you missed Citizenfour, then maybe this will inspire you to catch it.

As on Skyfall, the director here is the Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who seems to have discovered that he is better at unpretentious material than he is at trying to win more Oscars. Unlike some of his predecessors — namely Marc Forster and his aggravating shaky-cam on the unholy mess known as Quantum of Solace (2008) — Mendes knows how to slow down a little, knows how to use wide-open or enclosed spaces to increase the tension and drama. A battle in a helicopter over a crowded city square, as well as a fight inside a cramped train, are both spectacular.

Unlike previous Bond movies, which are largely stand-alones, Spectre refers back to the previous three Daniel Craig movies in various ways, but it also includes nods to the other twenty. The train fight recalls Sean Connery's similar fight in From Russia with Love (1963), and the relentless, seemingly unstoppable henchman (Dave Bautista) that trails after Bond reminded me of Richard Kiel's "Jaws" character in both The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). If only the creators of the new theme song, Sam Smith's whiny "Writing's On the Wall," had been inspired by the past as well. I had been hearing rumors of a Radiohead song, which would have been amazing. But this is possibly the wimpiest song in the entire catalog (could Sam Smith be this century's Rick Astley?).

Ralph Fiennes returns as the new "M" and Ben Whishaw has a few entertaining scenes as the new "Q," though Naomie Harris has a bit less to do as the new Moneypenny. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth wrote the screenplay, and I appreciated its attempts to be human, when James Bond is so often about fantasy and thrills. Spectre seems to end rather finally, coupled with Craig's recent pull-quote that flew through Twitter about never wanting to play the role again. Combing through a list of current British actors, I can only suggest either Clive Owen or Colin Farrell as a worthy replacement. All others, mainly pretty boys, would seem to lack that certain masculine quality that Bond requires. Oddly, in a world of arrested development, perhaps that undefinable thing, his manners, his wardrobe, his clean-shaven face, etc., is what makes him actually relevant.

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