‘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 * * * *

Dame Judi Dench on Making M a Central Character in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Skyfall” marks Dame Judi Dench’s seventh appearance as MI6 spy master M, and it gives the Oscar winning actress her biggest role yet in the James Bond franchise. Ever since her first appearance in “Goldeneye,” the same film which introduced Pierce Brosnan as 007, Dench has made the character a no-nonsense leader who considers the famous secret agent “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War.” M also shows no hesitation about sending Bond to his death if the situation calls for it, and this made the role all the more exciting for Dench to play.

“A man saying that to Bond is one thing, but a woman saying that to him was quite another,” says Dench.

Whereas M has typically remained on the periphery of the Bond movies, “Skyfall” has her playing a significant part in the film’s story. We come to learn more about M’s past as it catches up with her in the form of one of the nastiest Bond villains ever, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem). Dench was understandably excited about her enlarged role in this particular 007 film as Bond struggles to protect M against Silva who has a very personal vendetta to settle with her.

“It’s very nice to be out from behind the desk,” Dench said. “It’s extremely nice to get a go in the field, as it were, and get a bit of the action. It made me feel very grown-up. It’s not just the fellas who are spinning about and shooting guns – I get a go.”

In talking about M’s backstory, Dench talked about the need for actors to create one for themselves even if it is not there in the script.

“You always have to make a backstory for yourself in order to know how to react to certain things,” Dench said. “I’ve had this backstory with two grown up daughters and everything. I knew her capabilities and I knew that she must have been through all sorts of things in order to get where she was and hold this job over a lot of chaps at MI6. So I knew her capabilities but I’m very glad they came to the fore.”

As for how she prepares for a role, especially this one which she has held onto for 18 years, Dench said it is no different from when she plays a character in the theatre.

“With M, she’s always slightly changed in each film,” Dench said. “In the first one (“Goldeneye”) naturally I would have thought out why and how this woman has gotten to this part and why she’s head of MI6. Each time you come to do it you actually learn a little bit more about her, and you supply a little bit more about her. So there’s a lot more of the relationship between her and Bond beforehand that goes into this one, but it adds a bit more because there’s more to tell.”

There’s a lot more which could be said about Dench’s role in “Skyfall,” but doing so would give away many of this film’s surprises (and there are several to discover throughout). What can be said about Dench is she will always be a tremendous acting talent we should all feel privileged to watch in anything she appears in. Perhaps the person who can sum Dench up best would be “Skyfall’s” director Sam Mendes who also had the fortune of directing her in a production of “The Cherry Orchard.”

“She was the first bona fide great actor I had ever worked with,” said Mendes. “I learned more from watching her, the way she worked, than I ever had before. She would never think of herself as a teacher. She has too much humility and too much grace to consider herself to be knowledgeable. But in fact, it wasn’t about what she said, it was about how she conducted herself, how she rehearsed, how she thought about the play, her dedication to the play and the audience, her work ethic.”

SOURCES:

Jake Coyle, “Judi Dench on ‘Skyfall’ & Her Reign as M (SPOILER INCLUDED),” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2012.

Daniel Fienberg, “‘Skyfall’ star Judi Dench enjoyed going to ‘the ammunition shed’ for the new James Bond adventure,” Hitfix, November 5, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Dame Judi Dench Talks SKYFALL, Working with Roger Deakins, the Best Part of Playing M, Her Upcoming Stephen Frears Film, and More,” Collider, November 8, 2012.