“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.

Quantum of So What?

 

"The name's Bland. James Bland."

Two years ago, my son and I settled down in the dark of a movie theatre to see Daniel Craig take his turn as Agent Double 007 in Casino Royale.

We enjoyed it throughly. It was a bit overlong,  but Craig’s portrayal of Bond as a man of high octane action, few words and bigger body counts was a refreshing jolt of Jason Bourne inspired energy into a series that had grown flabby and tired.

So now it’s 2008, and he’s home from college for the weekend and seriously desiring to see the new Bond flick, Quantum of Solace. Being the kind and benevolent despot that I am, I plunk down the $14 bucks for two tickets and settled down in the dark hoping to repeat the experience.

Not even close. Quantum of Solace is plagued by more than just a lousy title. It’s badly shot, directed sloppily by Marc Forster, who was an odd choice to do a action flick based on films such as The Kite Runner, Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball. Bond movies aren’t exactly character-driven and Forster shows no adeptness for action thrillers and their set pieces (car chases, fist-fights, explosions, flying glass and gunplay).

In the effort to make James Bond mean something again, they’ve taken away much of what him unique. If you were waiting for Craig to deliver the signature line, “The name’s Bond. James Bond,” you had to wait for the end of Casino Royale. It’s not a spoiler to inform you in Quantum he never says it at all. He’s too busy jumping, running, hitting, kicking, shooting and killing his way through the relatively short (106 minutes) running time.

I get that Craig plays Bond as a fighter, not a lover, but even the woman in this installment are little more than scenery. Olga Kurylenko is smokin’ hot, but like Bond, she’s out for blood, not a bed and as Strawberry Fields, Gemma Ashton has a fitting Bond girl name, but little chemistry  with Craign and not much to do in her handful of scenes.

Oh, and there’s still no Miss Moneypenny. Judi Densch gets to hang around and be both outraged at Bond’s blunt instrument approach to spying and maternal as he’s denying his hurt for his lost love Vesper Lynd.

The villian of the piece, Dominic Greene as played by the French actor Mathieu Amalric is all bulging eyes and bluster, but no real threat and doesn’t even come up with a particularly interesting plot.

James Bond shouldn’t be less interesting than the silent-but-deadly Jason Bourne or the one note Frank Martin played by Jason Statham in the Transporter CGI fests, but he’s more bland, than Bond.

A solid “C” when I’m feeling charitable and a “C” minus when I’m not.  It’s not that Quantum of Solace sucks.  It just doesn’t soar.  It feels hurried and busy moving to the next action sequence to actually tell us anything about the mysterious Quantum group or the threat they post.  Before we can learn anything about the organization Bond is killing anyone that could tell us anything.

Oh, I almost forgot–the opening credits song by Jack White and Alicia Keys is simply horrible. Keys took the place of the human trainwreck that is Amy Winehouse and the results are so punishing to the ear, I can’t help but wonder if Winehouse might have been a better choice than the psuedo-soul stylings of Keys.  

Previously, before “Another Way to Die” the worst Bond song was “Die Another Day” by Madonna and though some people love it, I never got into Duran Duran’s “A View to A Kill.”  This stinker may let both of them off the hook.

James Bond’s Quantum Leap.

Shaken by the end of the last movie, Bond is stirred by revenge.

Shaken by the end of the last movie, Bond is stirred by revenge.

This isn’t a review of Quantum of Solace.  I haven’t seen the movie yet and frankly, you weren’t waiting on my “yea” or “nay” before deciding if you wanted to.

Two years ago, I sat in the dark and waited for Casino Royale and the new James Bond.  My expectations were low in the aftermath of the previous Bond flick, Die Another Day, which was wretched beyond belief.  My son and I went by ourselves as my Sean Connery-worshipping wife and daughter refused to have anything to do with a pug like Daniel Craig.

Turned out Casino Royale wasn’t bad at all.  In fact it was pretty good.

What made Bond such an icon was he was when Connery played the role, women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him.  Tall, trim, a man who was quick with his wit, steady with his gun, suave in a crowd, and irresistible between the sheets.

Then Connery bailed out and Roger Moore came in.  That was the end of James Bond for me.

I never liked Moore.  He wasn’t a cool, charming rogue like Connery and most of the films he made sucked.  The only entry I like was For Your Eyes Only and that was because  it was a stripped down story without the boring bad guys with evil plans for world domination, ridiculous henchmen with steel teeth and Grace Jones.

Grace Jones as a Bond girl.  James Bond discovers tranny love.  Kill me now.

Oh-oh-$70 million in the opening week?  Not bad, Mr. Bond.

Oh-oh-$70 million in the opening week? Not bad, Mr. Bond.

Following Moore’s blessed departure into obscurity came nobody’s favorite Bond,  Timothy Dalton who looked like he enjoyed playing 007 the way a man enjoys root canal without anesthesia.  Dalton turned in his license to kill after two okay, but ordinary outings, The Living Daylights and the listless License to Kill.

Enter Pierce Brosnan, the guy who was supposed to replace Moore, but couldn’t get out of his television show, Remington Steele.   His maiden voyage as Bond was GoldenEye and it was great.  Plenty of action, far more sophisticated and at ease than the dour Dalton and in Brosnan, there was a mixture of sex appeal and rougish charm that had been missing since the glory days of Connery.

Unfortunately, each of the following films, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and the too bad to be believed Die Another Day, were worse than the previous one.   Brosnan looked bored in Die and he wasn’t the only one.

Brosnan’s license was revoked and Daniel Craig’s was activated.  As Brosnan had turned 50 years old, the Bond franchise was also showing signs of middle age and growing irrelevance.  Instead of the tuxedo-wearing, joke-quipping, martini-sipping secret agent, audiences had turned to Jason Bourne, the amnesiac spy and assassin of the Robert Ludlum novels who was played by Matt Damon as a no-bullshit, weapon of mass destruction.

Everything that seemed tired and stale about Bond, seemed fresh and exciting about Bourne.  Even the choice of a “Bourne girl” was the decidely plain Franke Potente was sexier than the drop-dead gorgeous Halle Berry in Die Another Day.

Oh, and The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatium were all damn good and in making $945 million, were incredibly lucrative as well.

And the success of Jason Bourne got the attention of the producers of the increasingly tired James Bond.

Jason Bourne is The Spy Who Outdid James Bond.

Jason Bourne is The Spy Who Outdid James Bond.

For all intents and purposes you Daniel Craig looks like someone Sean Connery would beat up more than he looks like a logical 007.  But his brutish tactics and blunt force approach worked perfectly in Casino Royale.

With Craig as the blonde, sawed-out, rough around the edges reinvention of James Bond, many fans (such as my wife and daughter) who loved Connery, ignored Moore, tolerated Dalton and were satisfied with Brosnan, have rejected the lastest incarnation of Bond as unworthy.

Well, to each her or his own.  I’m not kidding myself that Craig makes for a perfect James Bond.  Quantum of Solace will go a long way in convincing me whether he’s growing into the role or just the guy with the gig until the next guy comes along.

My wife is still hoping Clive Owen will change his mind about entering Bondage.