“Spectre” Is Blah. James Blah.

James_Bond_Spectre

Bond practices jumping the shark.

We checked out Spectre in a near-empty theater and after watching it I figured out why.   It was okay, and I liked it better than my wife and son, but I won’t remember a thing about it in another week.    It looks big, but it comes up small.   Spectre is the Avengers: Age of Ultron of the fall movie season.

There was an impressive tracking shot, eye-popping, opening pre-title sequence, a sexy Bong girl in Lea Sedoux and a wasted one in Monica Bellucci (whatsamatter Bond? Don’t like women in your age group?), Christoph Waltz playing exactly who you think he’s supposed to play as he explains his evil plan and I wasn’t impressed one bit by the “big reveal”.

Spectre marks Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Fleming’s super spy and it comes in at his third best Bond;  far behind Casino Royale and Skyfall but way ahead of Quantum of Solace,  (and that’s a pretty low bar to clear).

James_Bond_Spectre.03The thing which has always saved the Bond franchise is knowing when its time for a course correction.   When Roger Moore got too old to be Bond, he was eased into the rocking chair and Timothy Dalton stepped into the tuxedo for two lackluster entries.   Dalton was a dud, so Pierce Brosnan replaced him and made one really good movie and three more with each being progressively worse.

Knocked into irrelevance by the triple whammy of the putrid Die Another Day,  Mike Meyers mockery via Austin Powers and Jason Bourne stealing all Bond’s bad-ass credibility, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli rebooted Bond with a meaner and tougher Bond who preferred his enemies shot and dead to his martinis shaken and stirred.

Everything about this movie is overly familiar.  The car chases, the fight scenes, the lair of the evildoers, Bond going rogue.   Check off the list and I’ve seen ’em all before.  Sure, they’re done well here, but they have all been done better in other Bonds.

One reason Quantum of Solace was so lousy it was rushed out to beat a writer’s strike and boy, did it show in the final product.   Spectre wasn’t a rush job, but it feels too busy and way too bogged down with a plodding plot.   I haven’t quite figured out why this one missed more than it hit, but it did.    The conclusion back in London felt tacked on because there just had to be one to make an already long move run a little longer.

Bellucci was the Bond woman who wasn’t.

After a decade of Craig, who says he’s sick of the role, it could be time to do another hard reboot of Bond, but unless he can get out of his contract, Craig has signed for one more turn in the tuxedo.   No spoilers, but despite Spectre leaves a crack in the door for a Craig exit, the end credits still announce “James Bond Will Return.”

Sure he will because the Bond franchise has become a license not only to kill, but to print money and you can bet the producers will offer Craig plenty to sign on.   When asked if he would play the part again, Craig sounds like he means it when he says, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists.  That’s fine. I’m over it at the moment. We’re done. All I want to do is move on.”

But move on to what?  Craig made three films between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, four before Skyfall and none at all until Spectre landed three  years later.   His biggest non-Bond flick was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a modest hit offset by bombs like The Invasion, Dream House and Cowboys and Aliens.

Don’t call your agent yet, Idris Elba.   Mr. Craig might be done with Mr. Bond but Mr. Bond might not be done with Mr. Craig.

And I’m still frosty over how Monica Bellucci disappeared.   At 51,  Bellucci was one of the oldest actresses cast as a love interest for 007 and she remarked she wasn’t a “Bond girl” but a “Bond woman” instead.

Joke’s on you, Monica.  Your part was so brief you barely qualify as a Bond booty call.

Idris Elba is waiting for his license to kill and thrill.

 

James Bond Rises in “Skyfall”

James Bond: Everyone needs a hobby…
Raoul Silva: So what’s yours?
James Bond: Resurrection.

What makes Skyfall the Best Bond movies since…well, since Casino Royale six years ago?  It is the Daniel Craig Bond Movie for People Who Don’t Like Daniel Craig Bond Movies.

When Casino Royale came out in 2006, it was my son and I sitting in the theater with an empty chair between us.   My wife, a die-hard Sean Connery fan, flatly refused to have anything to do with it.  She and my daughter wanted no part of a blonde Bond.  “And he’s ugly,” my daughter added.  My wife agreed.  She thought Craig looked like somebody Connery, the real James Bond would beat up.

Quantum of Solace comes along two years later and one again the women in the house turn up their noses at my offer to join us at the movie theater.  Upon reflection, I wish I had passed on that one myself.   It would have been a fine action picture on its own merits, but it was definitely a lesser Bond entry and was hobbled by being rushed into production trying to beat a writer’s strike (and it shows).

Four years later and Bond is back for Skyfall and once again, my son and I are there for the opening weekend and to my shock, so if my wife.  She says the trailers wore down her resistance.  “It looked good,” she says.

It is good.  There’s more shooting, running, chasing, crashing, jumping, fighting crammed in the first ten minutes than some “action” flicks have in two hours.  But this being 007, things do have to slow down to take a breath and set up the story.  The plot revolves around a stolen hard drive with the names of all of MI-6‘s covert agents, a cyber-terrorist who promises to expose five of them every week and his personal vendetta against M (Judi Dench) for reasons once revealed are a good reason to nurse a grudge.

Blonde, lethal, and flamboyant, Javier Bardem’s Silva can go toe-to-toe against Bond at his best and though cleared for duty after being shot and going missing for months, Bond is far from the top of his game.  What makes Bond not simply appealing but enduring is while he fights better, bangs more beautiful women, and rocks a tuxedo better than any other character ever dreamed up in any other medium, he isn’t a superhero and he doesn’t have a healing factor.   He bleeds, he can be killed, and he can get too old for the job.

Any similarities between these three is purely not coincidental.

The two threads that wind throughout Skyfall is the dire consequences when a spy stays in the cold too long.    Some of the best scenes are the quiet ones between M and Bond where Dench and Craig muse about their strange (and strained) relationship.   M: “You know the rules of the game. You’ve been playing it long enough. We both have.” Bond: “Maybe too long.” M: “Speak for yourself.”

When Bond isn’t calling M a “bitch” in response to a word association question, he’s going to extremes to save her from Silva.   Another agent who went rogue when M gave him up in a prison exchange to be locked up and tortured,  Silva is a monster, but M made him one and he’s determined to destroy his personal Dr. Frankenstein.

Silva and Bond share mutually unresolved mommy issues with M and a complicated love/hate relationship.   Never mind what the story is supposed to be about.  That’s what Skyfall is really about.   M is no so much  The Bond Girl as she is The Bond Woman.   Dench does an outstanding job playing a woman who has to make horrible decisions that have left her filled with regret yet stronger for doing a dirty job exceptionally well.   While  the buzz is Skyfall might be the Bond picture to snag a Best Picture nomination,  Dench deserves serious consideration for at least Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a dirty job and M is up to her neck in it.

There were doubts that Sam Mendes could handle a kinetic action flick as well as domestic dramas like American Beauty but he fills the bill more than adequately.   Mendes allows himself space to build the conflict between Bond, Silva and M until he picks up the pace to the next set piece.   It’s a dazzling bit of direction and the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan pulls off the neat trick of looking back into unrevealed parts of Bond’s past complete with pointed nodding and winking at instantly recognizable holler backs at earlier films over the last 50 years.

By the end of  Skyfall,  Mendes and Craig have positioned the franchise for a bright future.  Regardless of who the next director is, Craig is committed to utilizing 007’s license to kill for  two more movies and as the credits announce “James Bond will return,” instead of dreading the prospect,  it’s something to look forward to.    We should be thankful Jason Bourne came along to wipe away the lingering bad taste of Die Another Day and the kick in the ass prompted producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson to retire Pierce Brosnan and recruit the lean and mean Craig.    Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills has a special set of skills, but the Taken movies are about an inch deep in characterization.   It’s still James Bond who leaves us shaken and stirred.   To put it another way,  nobody does it better.