‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Quantum of Solace’ – Not the Best Bond, But Not the Worst Either

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

So, what’s all this talk about wanting the old James Bond back? A lot of talk from fans about the latest 007 film, “Quantum of Solace,” is that they miss the Bond who had all the gadgets, knew all the best wines, had his martinis shaken and not stirred, and always bedded the most beautiful women. Wait a second, isn’t this what we were all getting sick of after “Die Another Day?” Didn’t we want to see the Bond franchise revitalized? Isn’t that why “Casino Royale” was so damn good? That it didn’t give us the same old Bond and gave us a tough new one who you could for once say honestly was the best one since Sean Connery? Did everyone get amnesia?

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Quantum of Solace,” said he wanted the producers to remember that James Bond is not an action hero. Not an action hero? Is that what you see here Ebert? Because that’s not what I see here at all. Instead, I see a man who is devastated by loss and betrayal, and who is trying to keep his head on straight to do his duty while trying to get his revenge. Maybe when we get the next film, we can get the Bond we know back, but this one still has issues to sort through, and he is still early into his British spy career. There are still bumps in the road he must navigate through before he reaches the heights of sophistication.

“Quantum of Solace,” as I’m sure you all know by now, is not the equal of “Casino Royale” which was easily the best Bond film in years. Following it must have been daunting for everyone involved as the bar had been set higher than ever before. The early reviews for Craig’s second go around as 007 had me curbing my expectations before going to see it, but I probably should stay in the habit of curtailing my expectations in general. It is a flawed film which has several problems that might derail others, but what keeps it afloat is Craig’s great work as Bond, and how he gives us an MI6 agent who is not just going through the motions. Also, he continues to share one terrific scene after another with the always fantastic Dame Judi Dench who reprises her role as M.

This 22nd Bond film is the first in the long-running franchise to act as a direct sequel to a previous installment as it starts off just mere moments after Bond nearly shot off Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) leg. It also literally starts off with a bang as Bond is pursued in a high-speed chase with the minions of Mr. White right on his tail. This brings me to one of my criticisms which I kind of see as a double-edged sword. A lot of the action scenes are filmed with the same shaky camera work we expect from the Jason Bourne movies. Seeing a James Bond movie instantly remind you of Bourne is not a good sign. At the same time, it gives the action sequences here a visceral urgency to where I felt those car crashes instead of just watching them passively. I have really come to love car chases like this one.

The QUANTUM of the movie’s title refers to the new evil organization which is the SPECTRE of the new millennium. Their goal is, of course, world domination and control over everything that can be sold at a high price. As a result, the Bond villain here is a man who wants control the world’s last natural resource, but it’s not the one you might think. As played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Dominic Greene speaks to the public of saving the planet from global warming, but then we see him talk to an Army general about how they managed to talk some sense into the local government about not raising the minimum wage for workers since it would, you know, cut into the profits. Basically, Dominic is like the head of Wal Mart and someone we want to see get a huge bitch slap on a regular basis, perfect for today’s Bond movie.

But as Bond villains go, Dominic Greene is far from being one of the most threatening of the bunch and he will probably not go down as one of the series’ most memorable. Still, I love the glint of anger and overconfidence Mathieu shows us in his eyes, and his work is greater proof of how some of the best screen acting can be done without saying a word. Seeing him getting pissed when Bond spoils his well laid plans is quite a kick.

The Bond girl this time around is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko. One of the best ever? No, but she is far from being among the worst. Kurylenko’s performance during the first half is a little too stiff, and her character seems underwritten. As “Quantum” goes on, however, she gets better once her real motives are revealed to us which involve revenge against a devious military official who murdered her family. The parallel between Camille and Bond is they are both after the same thing, revenge. It makes their relationship towards the climax all the more interesting.

But the real key relationship of “Quantum” is between Bond and M. The scenes between Craig and Dench are some of the best here, and it is no love affair between these two. It’s a mother and son kind of relationship if you can picture as both are estranged from one another, and are constantly to get back on the same page with each other. M wants to trust Bond but feels as though she cannot, and Bond wants to go after the one who almost had her killed. Talk about tough love.

Dench has been playing M since Pierce Brosnan debuted as Bond in “Goldeneye,” and she has been a huge asset to this franchise. She has continued to be a strong presence and has gotten even better since Craig began portraying Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Right from the start, the actress makes M into the kind of person who will not take bullshit from anyone no matter their government or nationality. She is a real pleasure to watch in just about anything she does, and I love how she easily intimidates her male assistants who constantly tremble in her presence.

“Quantum” also features other strong performances which need to be noted. Jeffrey Wright returns again as Felix Leiter, the first actor to play the role consecutively in close to 20 years. His cool approach to Felix is great, and hopefully we will see him playing this character again. Giancarlo Giannini returns from “Casino Royale” as Mathis, and this could have been problematic as his character had betrayed Bond previously, and having him be the only person Bond can trust could have been far-fetched to say the least. But thanks to Giannini’s performance, he makes Mathis’ presence believable in story and welcome as his sadness over the death of Vesper gets him to team up with Bond. His final scene is actually quite touching as he encourages Bond to forgive himself. These character moments never get as much credit as the stunts do in a Bond film, and this one has them to give us a rest from the visceral action scenes.

Marc Forster, best known for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” takes on the directing chores this time around. He almost seems as unlikely a choice to direct a Bond as Michael Apted was when he helmed “The World Is Not Enough.” His handling of the action sequences may be confusing to some as the editing is done in a rapid-fire manner, but they are still thrilling if you can get past this. While Foster doesn’t bring anything new to this franchise, he does keep things moving at a steady pace. At under two hours long, this is the shortest Bond film ever. Given how stringent the Broccoli family is about keeping 007 confined to a certain formula, I’m not sure how much freedom Forster was given to work with on this one.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are back along with Paul Haggis who is doing his usual screenplay polish here. Their work here is not as strong as it was on “Casino Royale,” and the characters are what really made it so good as it benefited all the other elements of that film like the action sequences. “Quantum Of Solace,” on the other hand, seems to exist more for the action sequences than the story which is a little frustrating, but they do still keep the central character of Bond very interesting and complex. They deal with the different layers of 007 and keep him from becoming a one-dimensional schmuck. There is some good work here, but not everything is as fleshed out as it could have been.

I also need to point out how David Arnold has been composing the scores for the Bond franchise since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I love how his scores really complement the action scenes in all their ferocity. I also admire how he was able to move over seamlessly from the Brosnan era to the Craig era and didn’t simply repeat the same musical themes over and over again. I ended up buying the soundtrack a couple of days before the movie was released, and it is a great listen.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I should bring up “Quantum’s” title song “Another Way to Die” which is performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Everybody is trashing it, but it’s actually not bad. For me, it actually sticks in the head as opposed to other Bond theme songs which go in one ear and out the other. Look, I love Sheryl Crow, but here theme to “Tomorrow Never Dies” was one of the least memorable to where I can’t remember any of the lyrics.

Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is not one of the best Bond movies, but it is far from being one of the worst (for that, see “The Man with The Golden Gun”). It has screenplay problems and some characters could have been better developed, but the things which did work won me over for the most part. And once again, Daniel Craig proves to be one of the best Bonds ever as he gives this iconic character a rough edge and dimensions which have been absent from the movies for far too long.

No, he is not the old Bond we grew up with, but I am fine with that because this one is far more interesting to me. So please stop whining about wanting the old Bond back. We may get him back in a future installment now that Bond has moved on from his revenge cycle, but at the same time, I hope Craig doesn’t lose any of the edge he has brought to the British spy.

Whatever happens from here will be very interesting even if we have to wait another few years for the next film. All the same, James Bond will return…

* * * out of * * * *