Life in general was much, much simpler and less convoluted in the good old days. You got a job, preferably one in the government, a family, and then went about life with the efficiency and excitement of a device in cruise control. About the only bumps and excitement in life would be weddings and funerals. The worst news you’d hear was a bank robbery or god forbid, a plane crash. And then, we globalized and life changed. The quaint life of solipsism was blown forever. Now, a job is secure as long as it lasts, and you don’t get to make that choice. Movements, mergers, acquisitions and other corporate shenanigans keep the corporate and economic plates in a constant state of upheaval. You don’t even realize the waves are coming toward you until they hit you. And there’s no dearth of bad news either. Every country is at war, with faceless enemies who are getting more agile and deadlier by the day.
In this scenario, what’s a franchise like James Bond to do? How does he stay relevant, when all the cool gadgets that he once relied on to get in the thrills and the audience, now seem laughable? What does he do when he can’t fight villains who operated satellites and other deadly gizmos from the warm coziness of their den? What does he do when technology is moving at a breakneck speed, knowing that what seems cool in a script might get redundant by the time the movie hits the cinema halls? Director Sam Mendes and actor (and co-producer for this project) Daniel Craig have tried to get a grip on these questions, even while keeping Bond relevant in these choppy waters of modern times in “Skyfall” and now in “Spectre.”
In “Spectre” you have this huge merger between MI5 and MI6 leading to a Joint Intelligent Service which is headed by Max Denbigh (played by Andrew Scott). In what Mendes and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth portray as one of the most relevant scenes to our globalized times, Denbigh informs M (Ralph Fiennes) about this merger and also the supposed irrelevance of the “00” section. And to me, this is hitting the nail on the head on one of the biggest fallouts of our economies. Companies merge, split, acquire, and not all reasons might be victual or beneficial to the public at large. While M is fighting out his power struggles with Denbigh (who Bond prefers to call “C”), Bond is on a secret mission in Mexico to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), who’s planning to blow up a stadium. And what has led Bond to him is a mysterious video message from the past. That message also instructs him to attend Sciara’s funeral. Despite M’s protestations, warnings, and grounding, Bond flies to Rome for the funeral. From there, he’s a hop and a (censored) kiss away to a night of passion with Sciara’s widow, Lucia (Monica Belluci.) Lucia tells Bond about Spectre, an organization her husband worked for, and Bond attends a secret Spectre meeting, using Sciarra’s ring as the skeleton key for entry. There, he identifies, seated at the head of the table, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), long assumed dead.
From here on, Mendes spins “Spectre” into a roller coaster joy ride of thrills, ploughing us through the menace of the organization that is responsible for terrorist acts across the world. In parallel, there’s C’s attempts to bring British intelligence into a pact with other countries’ intelligence organizations, to make it part of “Nine Eyes”, the biggest of all brothers, Q (Ben Winshaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) drawn unwillingly and unwittingly into Bond’s schemes to outwit Spectre, and a ghostly pallor from Bond’s Quantum past, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) – who has a daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) who in turn holds the key to leading Bond to Spectre.
Director Sam Mendes opens “Spectre” with the card, “The dead are alive”. And as the movie hurtles forward, and ghosts from Bond’s past come into focus, you realize that Bond’s Day of the Dead is all of Spectre – the movie and the organization. Mendes also makes “Spectre” the most colorful of all of Daniel Craig’s Bond outings. There’s a spectacular car chase scene in Rome, some absolutely mind-boggling pyrotechnics, and the scene that was to me, the highlight of the movie – the Spectre meeting which Bond attends. Mendes takes you into a world that is ominous, dangerous and pokes your timorous nerve into full blown activity. There’s muted lighting, hushed speaking, and a horrible death. All in brown and dark lights, the meeting table veneer scares you, and you’re almost afraid to move or breathe, lest you be discovered. There’s another amazing shot earlier, when Bond is at Sciarra’s funeral, and Mendes and editor Lee Smith snip between the backs of Craig’s and Christoph Waltz’s heads, and you don’t realize who is it you are watching, until you know. In “Spectre”, Sam Mendes also cocks a snook, tongue in cheek, at all critics who accused there weren’t enough gadgets and Bond accessories in “Skyfall”. There’s that amazing Aston Martin DB10 car whose features Mendes uses during the car chase in Rome, to make you laugh and also singe the scene. Mendes also goes all 80s, using a crater as the villain’s den and you know he’s not pandering, just showing how an old concept could now prove ludicrous, but in limits, campy fun too. And then, he throws you into “Marathon Man” world with a torture scene that’ll have you gripping the sides of your seat in terror.
Of the cast, Daniel Craig as Bond is as wired and gritty as ever. He’s superb in the action sequences, and has a tough train sequence fight with the Spectre’s assassin, Hinx (Dave Bautista) that makes you wince as he crashes through doors and tables, knowing that he performs most of his stunts himself. Craig also gets back some of his predecessor Bonds’ saucy humor, though, fortunately, he keeps it in check. He’s superb in his timing while bantering with Winshaw’s Q and that’s lot of fun. And what I can’t get out of my mind is Craig’s segue in the opening scene from celebrating the Day of the Dead behind a mask and tailcoats, to a superbly tailored suit, and he walks on the ledge of a building, jumping across walls and ledges, as the camera fronts him. He’s lithe, he’s graceful, and he’s absolutely brilliant as Bond. That is the stuff hoots and whistles are made of.
The rest of the actors – Ben Winshaw, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Rory Kinnear, Léa Seydoux, are all superb. But the biggest gauntlet is thrown at Christoph Waltz. As the head of Spectre, he has the onerous task of being as dangerous, if not more, than his organization. Waltz approaches his role with the grace of an actor who knows when it’s best to underplay and let the aura of the role lead the way. And in that, Waltz succeeds nicely, not becoming a caricature villain, unlike some of the Bond villains of the 80s.
There’s another hero here, and that is composer Thomas Newman. He opens the movie, even as the studio names come up, with an ominous violin ensemble of the Bond theme. And from there on, he composes and directs a score that is superbly his own, even as he glides around the inescapable theme. In the opening helicopter scene, when the chopper plummets toward a milling crowd from the skies, note the flutes he uses – they play vertigoishly, adding to the horror. In the Rome car chase, when the cars reach near the Vatican, Newman employs haunting chorals, opera style, to give you goose bumps with the Bond theme. And, when Bond enters the old MI6 building that’s set to detonate, Newman kicks off a superb piece of sycophantic violins that’s throbbing, pulsing, and insanely part of the action.
“Spectre”, then, is another feather in Mendes’ and Craig’s collection, even as you wonder about the future of James Bond. When Craig says onscreen, “I might not be coming back,” and both Mendes and Craig reportedly disavowing themselves from future Bond outings, you get a sinking feeling. Plus, in the only negative, Mendes rather abruptly ties up the loose ends from earlier Bond movies and hints at Bond having found his new, true love (after Vesper Lynd), as if to say, “No more.” After the thrilling lesson in mergers, who will take the Bond story to the next level? For, the Mendes-Craig team was the voyager in this thrilling starry trek, taking James to where no Bond had gone before.
Watch the trailer of Spectre here: