Sunday, October 25, 2015

SPECTRE - the Bond between us

Unless you are also champing at the bit for Star Wars: The Force Gets Out Of Bed, or whatever it it is called, the waiting is almost over for us mere mortals, anxiously pacing in our otherwise colourless lives, for SPECTRE.

In fact there are some of us who've been bereft of sleep, proper nutrition and fingernails since the 24th ‘official’ James Bond film was announced on December 4 last year, promising the return of Daniel Craig for his fourth outing as 007 and the second in the series to be directed by Sam Mendes, following the magnificence of Skyfall.

Expectation, of course, is one thing, and reality is something else, but from tomorrow, cinemagoers in the UK and Ireland will be the first to actually hand over coin to see if one of the most anticipated films ever made delivers on its promise.

Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but considering how Craig has rebooted the Bond canon, and considering how, during last year's Sony e-mail hack, the rogues responsible allegedly revealed studio missives suggesting the SPECTRE script was, at the time, sub-par, the last 10 months of drip-feed publicity have built such presumption that the film really cannot afford to come up short.

Throughout its 52-year history, the Bond franchise has been honed into easily the slickest film-making (and money-making) operation in cinema. The Star Wars mini-industry may have set the bar in terms of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, cereal packet tie-ins, video games and toys (at one point there were more Star Wars things on the market than American citizens), but even that universe can't hold a candle to the 007 empire.

Indeed, creating a Bond film is as slick an operation as Bond himself: the production cycle begins, publicly, with a perfectly executed press conference, roughly a year before opening night, introducing cast and crew, followed by a well-drilled filming schedule and a steady drip-feed via social media of trailers, clips and production images from exotic locations to ensure appetites are whetted in the 12-month run-up to release. And then, just before release, VERY carefully controlled access is provided to the critics...with a licence to kill if they give any plot details away.

And so, last week, the first SPECTRE reviews appeared, somewhat scant on real detail, of course, and mainly abundant of praise. "Bond is back – and at his best,” wrote The Sun’s critic, while Robbie Collin in the Telegraph praised “the grand old Fleming style” of SPECTRE’s darkness, a feature of all of the Bonds since Daniel Craig took on the role.

There were a few bum notes, however, though one suspects that those may have been from critics exercising their right to curmudgeon. One theme in particular - which does nod back to the supposed Sony e-mails - are observations of plot weaknesses. Others have picked up on brief and tokenistic screen time for Monica Bellucci, the 51-year-old 'Bond lady', whose casting was regarded as a step forward for acting diversity in a Bond film.

All these points may be fair and true, but let's be honest, is there really any point getting into the politics of Bond? That, I know, might sound casually dismissive of all the 'isms' Bond can be accused of, but for more than half a century Bond has existed in his own place in cinema, and done pretty well as a result without causing any real offence, unless you are of such political sensitivity that you shouldn't be bothering watching a Bond film to begin with.

Bond under Craig, and especially under Mendes' direction in Skyfall, has shown a greater degree of emotional depth than many of the white tuxedo's previous occupants. Sean Connery's bikini bottom-slapping, Roger Moore's ageing playboy, Timothy Dalton's intensity and Pierce Brosnan's continuance of his Remington Steele persona, all had their flaws - as well as their strengths, especially in comparison to the Bond of Ian Fleming's novels.

Oddly, the Bond who nailed it closest may have been George Lazenby, the Australian model who lasted for one film - On Her Majesty's Secret Service, one of the most underrated of all the films. In not being a natural actor, he ironically projected distance and hesitance. And yet that film could be pulled apart for all manner of reasons.

Skyfall, however, set the Bond bar higher than it had ever been before, which inevitably makes for comments such as those of Stephen Dalton in The Hollywood Reporter, who felt that SPECTRE feels "like a lesser film than Skyfall, falling back on cliché and convention" with a great first act "full of dark portent and bravura film-making flourishes" but a disappointing final hour "with too many off-the-peg plot twists and too many characters conforming to type".

Guy Lodge in Variety noted that SPECTRE delivers the globetrotting Bond of yore, a tradition that acted as a window on the world for those of us who'd never seen beyond the garden gate, but that the film lacks "the unexpected emotional urgency of Skyfall, as the film sustains its predecessor’s nostalgia kick with a less sentimental bent."

Whatever holes the critics have or haven't picked in SPECTRE - and don't forget that the majority of reviews have been nothing but praiseworthy - there won't be a single person who says they won't go to see it as a result.

A Bond film is a calling. It's tradition. If one is on television, you watch it, you embrace it, you absorb it, you love it. The arrival of a Bond film at the cinema has been one of those 'events' that film marketing people froth about. Only in the case of a Bond film, has such hype been truly warranted. Even if the whole thing sucks, it's still a Bond film, you've still experienced 'marquee cinema'.

Which is why SPECTRE has so much going for it: in Mendes, you have a film maker with a strong theatrical tradition who delivered spectacularly with Skyfall, and there's little reason for you to expect any less with its follow-up. We know he won't do a third, which would enticingly open the door to a director of similar vision and intellect, Christopher Nolan.

Plot and all that notwithstanding, SPECTRE's casting provides another strong draw. Ralph Fiennes may not have the sardonic parentalism of either Bernard Lee's M or Judi Dench's, but he will inject something comparable to the political elite now running Whitehall for real. In Naomie Harris, we had an utterly refreshing Moneypenny in the last film, eschewing most of the simpering innuendo of her predecessors; and Ben Whishaw's Q was an ingenious act of casting, resetting the character as 21st century nerd - which is what spying needs these days - and comprehensively escaping the ageing eccentricity of Desmond Llewellyn and latterly John Cleese. And, given SPECTRE's cyberterrorism theme, prescient character development too.

But for me the real prospect for SPECTRE is the principal villain, Franz Oberhauser (or is he Blofeld...?) played by Christoph Waltz. Even if Waltz simply rehashes the wickedly camp menace of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, it would be no bad thing, and we would still get a cast-iron baddie that I expect will match the very best of Bond's antagonists passim. Throw in Andrew Scott - Sherlock's truly terrifying Moriarty opposite the Cumberbatch on TV - and you have a mouthwatering prospect for villainy.

So what, then, about Bond himself, Daniel Craig? Recent jokes from the actor himself about slashing his wrists rather than play 007 again will have no doubt negatively influenced some of the critics at last week's SPECTRE press screenings, with one or two reviews suggesting that he is starting to look bored in the role.

Frankly, I doubt that will really be the case. Apart from him being contracted to do one more film, this is just journalistic licence.

Craig has been a revelation as Bond. And, if the debate as to who his eventual replacement will be does throw up more hoo-ha about a black Bond (why not Idris Elba?) or anyone or anything else for that matter, the rigidity of convention about Bond being tall and dark haired has been irreparably broken.

When he was announced as the sixth 'official' Bond for Casino Royale, there was plenty of wheezing within the Bonderati. Could a blond, blue-eyed, average height Liverpudlian carry off a screen character defined by a six-foot-two Scottish body builder in 1962? Could he portray the menace Fleming envisaged? Could he get away with being "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur", as Judy Dench's M branded him? And could he also handle the wink-wink humour Connery managed despite his Scottish dryness, which Moore overdid and which Brosnan had forced upon him?

The answer to all that was a resounding 'yes', to the extent that he is regularly beaten only by Connery in 'Who-is-the-best-Bond?' rankings. In SPECTRE, Craig continues to prove those early doubters wrong. "I hope he carries on," wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian this week in his review of SPECTRE. "He is one of the best Bonds and an equal to Connery. That great big handsome-Shrek face with its sweetly bat ears has grown into the role."

There's probably no such thing as a perfect film, though plenty will have come close - Cinema Paradiso, The Godfather, Laurence Of Arabia, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now just a few that come to mind. All Bond films have their strengths and their failings, but that's not why we - and I mean all of you - will be queuing to get in to see SPECTRE. Bond films are of such high production values that even when they are bad - and we look to certain entries in the Moore and Brosnan eras for those - they are good. Because, twenty, thirty, forty even fifty years down the line, we will all still be watching them on TV on a bank holiday afternoon. And some of us may even remember going to see them 'for real' at the cinema.

For me, for SPECTRE, I can't wait.

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