Review: Spectre, or, UnSpectretacular

Whoever Photoshopped this, you are amazing.

Whoever Photoshopped this, you are amazing.

Warning: spoiler-laden.

I am a Bond fan. I have read all the Ian Fleming novels, and the short stories, and Kingsley Amis’ study The James Bond Dossier. When I was 19 I wrote a novella called Lament For a Trapped Spy, about a 1960s Bond fan. I am hugely fascinated by the Cold War and by figures like Kim Philby. My favourite era are the 1960s Bond films – even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and the Daniel Craig films. I’ve never been that fond of Roger Moore, and whilst Timothy Dalton was my favourite Bond when I was 13 (because I fancied him as Mr Rochester) I grew out him. Sorry, Tim. And Pierce Brosnan was a bit too much like an estate agent for my liking. I know James Bond is not politically correct. I am a good feminist and I shouldn’t like the films and books, but I appreciate them for what they are, and it’s possible to enjoy them as period pieces, even if that can set up problems for the contemporary films.

When the publicity began for Spectre, I was very excited. Daniel Craig as Bond again! The brutal, cold-eyed assassin! Oh yes! If anyone could convincingly operate a blow-torch using his teeth (as Fleming has Bond do in Moonraker – really) then it would be Craig.

Before you can actually get to the film itself, you have to sit through lots of adverts. What I love about the Fleming novels is that they’re a guide on how to pass yourself off as a gent in the 1950s – the tailor to patronise, the exact tobacco blend to smoke, what cocktail to quaff, what car to drive, even how to deal with a razor-cut while shaving (a styptic pencil, in case you were wondering), and that one’s breakfast toast must be slathered with Tiptree’s “Little Scarlet” strawberry jam. But the adverts before the film started were full of aftershave and champagne branded 007. Each advert came with a snippet of the John Barry Bond theme – a sudden shrill burst of trumpets. But Bond wouldn’t wear aftershave branded 007 – he wore Floris, which you probably haven’t heard of because it’s exclusive and obscure. 007-branded anything just strikes one as rather naff, but then there’s so much product placement in the film, that the advert bombardment at least acclimatises you.

If Tiptree jam had been involved in Bondverse rampant product-placement.

If Tiptree jam had been involved in Bondverse rampant product-placement.

The opening sequence, set at a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is breath-taking. Although the moment you see someone in a skeleton-suit, you’re reminded of Baron Samedi in Live & Let Die – the first of many references to Bond passim. And even though Craig is wearing a mask, it’s obvious it’s him because his ears are sticking out. He chucks off his skeleton suit when he takes a lady to a hotel room and you think he’s about to “hop on the good foot and do the bad thing” (as Austin Powers said) he hops out the window and walks over the rooftops to shoot some baddies. And that walk – it continues the effect from the opening of the film that it’s all just one grandiose tracking shot through the parade, which even includes going into a building and a ride in a lift (but it’s fairly obvious where they’ve stitched different shots together). That walk of a determined, relentless killer….

Bond shoots the baddies, walls collapse, he tumbles from a height and – he lands safely on a sofa! Ho ho ho, has Roger Moore suddenly resurfaced? Then there’s a big ol’ punch-up in a helicopter – WOAH! – which wasn’t much fun for me as I’m not good with heights, but still – bish! bang! poww!

Then he’s in London, and Ralph Fiennes is being all Ralphy as M. He’s a perfect M, even though I was very fond of Judi Dench (Dial M for Mother?). And Moneypenny’s ace, and goes to Bond’s creepily impersonal flat without being seduced by him. But the next thing you know, Bond’s in Italy, and The Oldest Bond Girl of All Time (other than Judi Dench) is burying her husband. It’s Monica Bellucci! Blimey!

Craig was interviewed about Monica being geriatric,1)I don’t think she is, but we all know how Hollywood likes to have leading men be about twice the age of their female on-screen love-interest and basically told the interviewer to get stuffed, because Monica is only a couple of years older than him. Well, this is true, and his quote got shared multiple times on social media (as if people who guiltily like Bond could say “Oh hey, it’s ok, they’ve got older women as love interests these days.”). But Monica was in the film for all of about 10 minutes. She and Bond snogged, the scene changes and then he was in her bedroom getting dressed (no sex please, this is a 12A), and he was sending her off somewhere to safety. And that was that. She skidded onto the screen then skidded off again, and her presence in the film literally served no purpose, which is a terrible shame.

But this is the problem with Spectre – on the one hand, I found it wildly entertaining, but the part of my brain that cherishes narrative and character found it all rather nebulous. It feels like three or four completely unrelated films smooshed together, as Bond hurtles from one inconceivably-expensive set piece to another. He’s up a mountain in Austria visiting a shabby chalet! He’s up a mountain in Austria2)I keep saying Austria but I can’t remember where exactly it was meant to be. Erm… there were mountains, anyway, and it possibly wasn’t Glencoe and there’s a clinic at the top of it which is just like the one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service! Oh, now he’s in a hotel in Morocco (which made me think Ralphy was about to turn up with Kristin Scott Thomas, but sadly this did not come to pass), then he’s on a train going through the desert to a baddie’s secret hideout! There’s a fight on the train with a big dude (who previously had a car chase with Bond in Rome) who is basically Jaws from the Roger Moore films, and it’s quite a good fight, although not as good as the fight on the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, and then after the fighting, Bond has sex with the woman from the mountain-top clinic. Who about 5 minutes earlier loathed him. The extremely brief love-scene is accompanied by Sam Smith’s terrible theme song, so to be honest, I’m not surprised it was a brief shag, because that song is utter boner-kill. Then they’re being escorted to the baddie’s hideout which is full of tech-geeks who are spying on everyone. Oh – did I mention this film is a massive critique of state surveillance? Lots of geeks in black roll-necks watching people post cat videos on Facebook, one suspects – sinister or what. And then it turns out Blofeld (really) has taped the Woman from the Mountain Top Clinic’s father shooting himself, and Bond says “look at me,” so she doesn’t see the video – because to be honest, if Daniel Craig was telling me to look at him, I so would, because those eyes – those eyes! – anyway, so the next thing that happens is that Bond gets knocked unconscious, because that means he can be strapped down in a chair and slowly tortured. Rather that just, y’know, shot neatly through the temple with a single bullet, because he wouldn’t have time to use his exploding watch to be able to escape from that. So Christopher Waltz (who looks weirdly like my brother, the one who’s an accountant – not my other brother, who’s a soldier who could be Tom Hardy’s stunt double) wheels about on a wheelie-stool and he’s got a horrible pair of trousers on, and shoes-without-socks, so he’s explaining to Bond how he’s going to kill him (rather than, y’know, just get on with it and kill him), and you keep seeing an expanse of hairless calf, and it’s more disturbing than the fact that Blofeld is drilling through Bond’s skull with a tiny drill. Really, Blofeld’s trousers made me nauseous. And he’s got a white furry cat because he’s Blofeld. And then he basically tells Bond that he’s going to kill him for usurping him from his dad, which is quite amusing because it appeared to be a reference to the Austin Powers’ film Goldmember, where it turns out Dr Evil is actually Austin’s brother, and their dad is Michael Caine. And the woman from the mountaintop clinic tells Bond she loves him, but it’s completely unconvincing, unless that sex on the train (which we saw a snog of and that was all) was absolutely mindblowingly the best bonk in the history of mammalian reproduction. I mean, Daniel-James Craig-Bond is an utter babe, so it’s just about believable. But still. So then Bond escapes with the woman and shoots lots of anonymous henchmen and blows up the desert lair (so I’m not quite sure what happened to all the geeks in black rollneck jumpers – one thinks again of Austin Powers. RIP, fellow geeks, just RIP), but it’s really obvious that a car has driven off from the exploding remains, but Bond choses that moment to look in completely the other direction, because if he had noticed that Blofeld and his disturbing trousers had escaped, the film would’ve been over very quickly.

Erm… so then Q and M and Moneypenny get to do lots in this film, so I enjoyed that greatly because they’re played by very good actors. And Andrew Scott played Moriarty in it. I mean, he played a character called C, apparently because they could then do a C-word joke (yeah, C’s dastardly plan is to force supermarkets to play Christmas music over their tannoys from July. Sheer evil right there). But C was a lot like Moriarty, so I wondered what Ralph Fiennes would be like as Sherlock Holmes and I can assure you from what my brain suggested, he’s brilliant. Anyway so there’s MI5’s massive building on the Thames, and it’s all sooty and about to be demolished, which is referring back to the other film. And there’s a plaque on the wall with all the names of dead spies on it (which are probably all clever references to… erm… maybe various production staff?) and it says “James Bond” on it in spraypaint – which explains Sam Smith’s terrible song featuring much warbling about “the writing’s on the wall.” (MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN or not). Because by this point we’re told that this has all been building up from Craig’s very first outing as Bond. BLIMEY! And then there’s a chase through the building, and then there’s a chase up the Thames (was that referring to Fiennes’ not-very-good stab at Steed in The Avengers?) and then there’s a bit on the bridge by the Houses of Parliament, which…

Ok. You know how in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s essential you believe that Bond and Theresa are in love? And even though George Lazenby isn’t the best actor in the world, nor the best Bond, I think he manages to convince us that Bond – that nymphomaniac secret agent – has fallen in love and does want to settle down. So when (and if you’ve not seen or read OHMSS, please stop reading now) Teresa is killed at the end of the film, the audience’s hearts are broken just as much as Bond’s. For Spectre to work, we have to believe that Bond has, once again, fallen in love. Madeleine, for such is her name, has to be so adored by Bond that he walks away from his life as a secret agent (or at least, that’s what’s implied, suggesting to all and sundry that another actor will replace Craig – who certainly seems to have grown heartily bored of playing Bond. Blofeld is allowed to live, so someone’s got to sort the beggar out, although go on, Eon – make a film where Q, M and Moneypenny go after Blofeld without Bond. It would be amazing). And I just did not feel convinced at all that Bond and Madeleine were in love. But they had no time (we don’t have all the time in the world) as they were shunted about by the plot and the need to shove them to the next set-piece. They drove off together – another reference to OHMSS? – but Madeleine wasn’t shot. Sadly, because she was a terribly dull character, and not, I would imagine, the fault of the actor playing her: it’s the fault of an action film that has lost its heart.

[In case it’s not obvious, I’ve tried to write this review in one breath, which is what watching the film is like. I still can’t quite work what the SPECTRE subplot was about, but there were explosions, so….]

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I don’t think she is, but we all know how Hollywood likes to have leading men be about twice the age of their female on-screen love-interest
2. I keep saying Austria but I can’t remember where exactly it was meant to be. Erm… there were mountains, anyway, and it possibly wasn’t Glencoe