Spectre review: Christoph Waltz just about manages to save this generic, James Bond film

Anna MM Vetticad

Nov 21, 2015 10:54:19 IST

Is this the life you always wanted? Always in the shadows? Always looking behind you?

These questions are gently tossed at James Bond by Dr Madeleine Swann during a brief conversation on a train in the latest Bond film Spectre.

“I never stop to think about it,” he replies.
“What will happen if you do?”
“Stop?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies.

James does not know the answer.

It’s a quietly ruminative exchange that should have set the tone for a quietly ruminative new-age Bond flick — as hormonally charged as the series has been in the past, yet thoughtful too as it has been in recent years. The old Bond elements are all also on offer in this scene: he is sexy, she is gorgeous, the music is effective and they are travelling through stunning locations.

Unfortunately, although Spectre ticks off many of the boxes on the list of Bond essentials, the writing does little to lift it beyond being an enjoyable yet generic franchise film: not bad while it lasts, but the memory does not last much after the end, quite like James’ numerous love affairs.

Spectre starts with an unauthorised shooting in Mexico City involving James. He is making out with a beautiful woman when he takes off to fire at a man in the shadows in a hotel room. There follows an explosion, a collapsed building, a spot of wry humour in the middle of a high-adrenaline stunt sequence, a chase involving a helicopter and a stadium full of people. All this set to pulsating music. When the world’s most famous British secret agent gets back to the MI-6 office in London, he is suspended, but goes ahead with what is up his sleeve anyway.

This is vintage Bond fare so far, everything that fans have come to expect, including a haunting opening song in Sam Smith’s voice (lovely yet not great like the Academy Award-winning title track sung by Adele for Skyfall in 2012). What could have made Spectre special is a deeper exploration of the issue of surveillance that it brings up in the context of terror attacks – particularly relevant as we debate government intrusiveness in our own lives – and the unnerving personal bond James shares with the pivotal bad guy of the story.

Regrettably though, director Sam Mendes and the writing team don’t dig deep into any of the plot elements, using them primarily to stitch together a bunch of fabulously shot even if not remarkably original action scenes. A pity since Mendes earlier helmed the excellent Skyfall.

“You are a kite dancing around in a hurricane, Mr Bond,” says a character to James at one point. This line somehow seems apt for Spectre too, as the film struggles to strike a balance between the old-school Bond and the new.

Spectre review: Christoph Waltz just about manages to save this generic, James Bond film

Christoph Waltz in Spectre.

Casino Royale knew precisely what it wanted to be, as it upped the IQ level and lowered the MCP-ism of the series without cutting down on its testosterone. In the pre-Casino Royale era, I wouldn’t have bothered to point out the silliness of a scene in which an aeroplane, smashed from all sides, races down a road but does not burst into flames because, well you know, our hero is piloting it.

I wouldn’t have bothered to notice that James attacks a convoy of vehicles to rescue an abducted woman, without considering that she too could have been killed in his attack. I would not have bothered to ask why he did not tell a woman that she had no reason to be scared as he jumped down a building with her in his arms since he was aware there was a massive net below. I would not have asked, because those earlier films were unapologetic about their audacious stupidity. In the more intelligent post-Casino phase though, these questions do arise.

Spectre also sinfully wastes its talented cast. Ralph Fiennes is one of Britain’s finest actors and such a worthy successor to Dame Judi Dench as James’ boss M, but he is barely around in the story. And the amazing Monica Bellucci’s appearance as a grieving widow in Rome pushes Halle Berry down to the No. 2 spot on the roster of talented and acclaimed star actresses who have played much-hyped, impactless, inconsequential characters in Bond films.

Why did one of Europe’s most respected actresses accept this bit part? Why, after making such a big deal about the fact that at 50 she’s the oldest woman ever to be a female Bond appendage, did the producers squander away her presence? These are questions to ponder for those of us labouring under the mistaken notion that gender discrimination in cinema is limited to India.

To make matters worse, India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) seems to have shaved her role down further with a very abrupt chop right at the start of a love-making scene.

Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds and Blue Is The Warmest Colour is more fortunate as Madeleine Swann (read: she fares better at the hands of the filmmaker, though the CBFC does not spare her either). Bond is a traditionally macho franchise – under the circumstances, hers is a substantial role. That being said, her chemistry with Daniel Craig’s James is limited.

Daniel himself chooses to play his character with the same expression on his face throughout. We get that he is hot and capable of a lot, but that knowledge cannot compensate for his low-energy performance in this film despite the alluring, trademark intense stare.

Spectre does have two stars though: Christoph Waltz as the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, earlier known as Franz Oberhauser; and the music. Christoph sinks his teeth into the film’s best written part with lip-smacking, salivating delight to deliver a deliciously cheeky, unrepentantly evil character. And Thomas Newman’s background score beats at our skulls like a persistent drummer, contributing as much to the adrenaline rush from the action scenes as the action itself.

Also interesting is the young British actor Ben Whishaw playing MI-6’s gadget-producing wizard Q. These elements combined with the film’s delectable locations, lavish cinematography, fisticuffs and chases are what makes Spectre worth a single viewing.

But no more than that. At one point, the film makes an unexpected bow to an old Hollywood classic when Madeleine and James visit a Café L’Americain in Tangier. The place is as pretty as that other famous Moroccan city, Casablanca, where Rick’s Café Americain was located. Individually and in other films, Lea and Daniel have been wonderful.

They ain’t no Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart though, at least not yet, and Spectre is unworthy of tying the shoelaces of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.

Still, I enjoyed the deathly surface calm that pervades Spectre even in its most charged-up scenes. What the film needed was richer writing. Without that, even Christoph Waltz and a fantastic background score can’t make it stand out.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2015 11:51:45 IST