Thursday, December 1, 2016

Spectre


   I love revisiting James Bond movies, and buying a box set containing the entire 24 movie franchise is a perfect excuse to do just that. I watched The Living Daylights the other day, and came away feeling exactly how I did last year- it's a supremely fun and highly underrated spy adventure. How would Spectre fare upon second viewing? Well, I liked it well enough the first time. It might've been a cut under Casino Royale and Skyfall, but still a full hack above Quantum of Shitness. Watching it now, I think a few things clicked for me that simply didn't the last time. Spectre was a necessary movie, and that is something to seriously consider.

   In 2013 the powers that presided over the James Bond movies (MGM, Danjaq, LLC.) settled their ongoing nonsense with the McClory estate (see: Thunderball and all it's bullshit controversy) and reacquired full rights to use SPECTRE and Blofeld in the movies again. But, see, in the absence of these rights, the Bond movies had three movies to form a modern substitute: Quantum. If Skyfall pissed some fans off because it put a bullet in the head of the theory that "James Bond" in and of itself is a code name assigned to whichever agent is 007... then Spectre, via reckless retconning, pissed off even more fans (or at least left them disillusioned) by making the past three movies ultimately pointless.

   Here's the thing though, there was no way around that. It's like a really sucky business merger that was destined to happen for a long, long fucking time. See, the moment MGM got the rights back to SPECTRE and Blofeld, they had to use it. I don't mean legally obligated, but either they used it... or they do the sensible thing and shelve those elements for use when a new actor dons the mantle of 007. So, why didn't they just do that? Well, Skyfall was a massive hit. The most profitable Bond movie to date, and while Quantum was a critical misstep, Casino Royale was and is considered one of the best movies the franchise has ever produced. Bear with me.

   Producer Barbara Broccoli said herself that Daniel Craig is their secret weapon, and that he's brought so much to the role of Bond. In other words, he's their prize racehorse and he's been knocking it out of the park- consistently. It only makes sense to continue betting on him. So, what? Another four movies? Five? Six? Who knows. Does it really seem practical to indefinitely shelve the properties you just spent decades and obscene amounts of money trying to procure, and for what? Another clean slate? Story reasons? I think we need to face a few facts here- or at least I did. Casino Royale and Skyfall did not succeed in any part because of the introduction or presence of Quantum.

   Even mentioning it back then (pre-Spectre) you knew it was just nu-SPECTRE. So when Quantum gets name dropped in a dramatic moment, it's almost as bad as that moment in a certain Star Trek movie when Bendadick Cumberbund says that he's Khan, and expected everyone to know what the fuck that meant, and then Kirk had to basically go fucking google it. You would kinda just groan, because it was a constant reminder that if MGM had the rights to SPECTRE, we would have SPECTRE and not this cheap substitute. It's like if DC comics suddenly lost the rights to Lex Luthor, and in the next Superman movie, Superman discovers a new nemesis... Plex Zuthor. Subtle. Real subtle. So, Casino Royale and Skyfall functioned well enough despite the ungainly placeholder, and they got by, by not saying "Quantum" too much. I'm not even sure if they actually called it by name in Skyfall.

   Anyways, long story short, it was practical and economical to just rip that band-aid off and introduce SPECTRE into the current Bond world as smoothly and as subtly as they possibly could. By releasing a new movie... titled Spectre. Obviously. I mean, "Fuck You Kevin McClory" would've been just as subtle, but hey... Anyways, the other side of this whole thing was the actual storyline. If you're going to introduce a massively important figure like Blofeld, you can't just flop him out there like a villain of the week, especially not in continuity with a few movies that have done everything possible to be as emotional and personal to the character of James Bond as they possibly can be. He has to have been involved, all along. Secretly. Because, of course he was.

   Do you see the shape this is taking? This story was written out of necessity on so many different levels. There was no wiggle room. Blofeld had to be connected to Bond in some dramatic and shocking way. SPECTRE had to be the bigger shadow, looming over it's subsidiary, Quantum, and Blofeld had to have been pulling the strings all along. Otherwise, you can't really pass him off as an archnemesis. You see? This movie was born purely out of necessity. It delivered a spy thriller the best it could within the confines of having to set up Blofeld as a serious and personal threat to Bond AND setting up Spectre as a big deal as well. That is a tall goddamn order and one that was going to dick with established canon no matter what. There was no lube for this. This was going in dry. It was always going to go in dry.

   There is a fair bit of good news though. Once you accept that the story was purely necessary, the rest of the movie feels freed from it's bindings. I stopped worrying about the canon, I stopped worrying about continuity minutiae, and I stopped giving a shit about the finer points of the plot. The movie became a saga of style and aesthetics. You come to expect certain things from a James Bond movie, visually. It's why the tropical setting in Casino Royale was so excellent, and why there were pre-release articles about how Spectre is the first time since The World is Not Enough that Bond has played in the snow. The cinematography and the production design of Spectre are absolutely fantastic. The scenery is breathtaking, and the action scenes are excellent. Shot with confidence and clarity.

   Featuring precisely none of the horrid inter-cutting and shaky cam that plagued Quantum of Solace. There's an accomplished wit to Spectre, and a romance that deserves the kind of narrative freedom that was afforded to Casino Royale. Bond girl Dr. Madeleine Swann could've been the next Vesper Lynd. Or, the next 'big one' as Blofeld himself would say. She's passed off as being just that, but the shuffle of the plot gives us hardly any time to know her, and subsequently we hardly get to see Bond know her either. She's given better dialog than almost any female in Skyfall or Quantum of Solace, but it boiled down to screentime, and she's simply not got enough of it.

   Having said that, the movie shuttles around from one exotic location to the next with an eagerness instead of a forced perfunctory attitude. The movie is cracking with energy and oozing with style. Daniel Craig is at home in the role of James Bond, and he's a delight to watch. The movie is also unconcerned with the higher end of hi-tech. Whereas gadgets were immediate fix-alls in previous iterations, in this one, even though Bond has more actual gadgets in this one movie than he had in any of his others, they feel organic to the tone established. The 'extras' panel in the new Aston Martin is very clearly a crude addition. Q branch did not take the time to blend it into the style and frame of the car. And why would they need to? It's a set of switches. Not a fancy Iron Man-esque hologram HUD hovering in front of the windshield.

   For all it's manipulative plotting and unfortunate story-by-necessity, Spectre is still a stunning movie. It the movie Quantum of Solace would've been, if it didn't suck. The action is beyond competent, the pacing is airtight, the locales are well traversed, and the villain's lair recalls the best visuals of classic hideouts, marrying only the finest aesthetic bits of Dr. No, Moonraker, You Only Live Twice and The Spy who Loved Me. There's a lot to appreciate about Spectre, and it's not too hard so long as you understand the nature of the movie, and accept it. After all, there's bound to be better things in store for Bond and Blofeld. Christoph Waltz signed on for two more movies provided Craig returns as well, and he says that he'd "miss it terribly" if he ever quit. So, basically, there's nowhere to go but up.

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