REVIEW: The problem with the new James Bond film

Oh, lighten up. Picture: Eon Productions

SPECTRE
Rated M, 148 mins
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes.

One of the best things about James Bond films was they never took themselves too seriously.

Until now.

007 was both dapper and droll, normally invoking his license against bad guys with a bad pun. Comedy was one of the four pillars in these cartoonish spy movies alongside sex, stunts and drama. The scenes between Bond and Q were almost Shakespearean in their banter amid the relentless action and impressive settings. Now they’re more perfunctory, with Ben Whishaw’s quartermaster filled more with geeky angst than schoolmasterly chastisement for his spy.

The start of 24th adventure in the world’s longest-running and most successful film franchise is everything you expect from a James Bond movie.

007 finds himself in Mexico during epic Day of the Dead celebrations and the appetites that have stood him in good stead for half a century – sex, death and stunts – are on show from the beginning as you strap in ready for another rollicking 150 minutes of action starring Daniel Craig.

But there’s something missing from this Bond, beyond Sam Smith’s tepid opening titles song, amid the fabulous explosions, chases, snogging and implausible escapes.

It’s the guffaws that are an essential part of Ian Fleming’s spy. The self-parody that was part of the fun has gone as director Sam Mendes moves between film noir and homage in his second Bond film after “Skyfall”.

Craig’s Bond is a more existential creature turning what’s normally a romp into a more psychological drama. He’s never been more cynical and world weary. There is little pleasure to be had and surprisingly, the ephemeral sex scenes seem more perfunctory than erotic. Early on, despite opportunity, this is a Bond who’s really on the job, rather than (nudge nudge, wink, wink) on the job.

One of the more amusing moments is when 007 asks Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to meet him at his apartment. It’s spartan, neglected, with pictures still on the floor, propped up against the wall. She asks if he moved in recently. He’s incredulous, not comprehending why she’d think that, explaining he’s been there for years.

The Bond of “Spectre” is a slightly haunted figure, out to avenge the death of M. It’s a tough time for old school spooks, with Gen X tech heads now the rising stars of surveillance and budgetary pressures leaving MI6 facing mergers with the internet generation. There’s a pointed edge to the subplot about the mass online surveillance program Whitehall’s planning to roll out.

Bond’s obsession with stalking those behind M’s assassination and the destruction of his old HQ has him going rogue once again and in trouble with the managerial class of modern spying. Suffocating bureaucracy is now starting to envelope even those with a licence to kill.

But as a consequence, this is a more portentous James Bond, to the point where it seems like Mendes is paying homage to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and the climactic seaside scene between the knight and Death over a game of chess. In “Spectre”, Bond meets an old Quantum nemesis, the terminally ill Mr White, in a lakeside cottage and they dance with death over a chess set.

‘Oh, sorry. I said WHAT’S YOUR NAME?’ Picture: Eon Productions

The chase between Bond’s Aston Martin DB10 and a Spectre henchman’s Jaguar C-X75 concept car through Rome has a touch of “The Italian Job” to it.

When Bond meets White’s daughter, Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), in her Alpine health clinic, it’s very much a tribute to 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and Piz Gloria.

In reintroducing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played with wonderfully icy menace by Christoph Waltz, after 44 years, Mendes seems to want to stitch together a long history, adding a Cain and Abel-esque psychological drama involving the duo.

Blofeld is the architect of Bond’s repeated misfortunes in recent years and eagerly ramps things up in one particular watch-through-your-fingers scene.

Implausibility has always been part of the Bond charm and “Spectre” has bucketloads.

Monica Bellucci – touted as a glass ceiling moment because she’s the first woman over 50 bedded by 007 – plays Lucia Sciarra, recently widowed after Bond bumped off her assassin husband. Now she’s going to be killed by his Spectre associates. What woman wouldn’t be aroused by meeting the man responsible for her predicament?

This epic lozenge has enough to keep Bond fans engaged and entertained, but like that other great British franchise, it feels like perhaps it’s time for 007 to regenerate and return to jocular frame of mind whilst ridding the world of evil.

At around $300 million, “Spectre” is one of the most expensive films ever made – initial box office success overseas has already recouped the investment – and you can see where the money went.

But as spectacular as it all appears, you’d think a few bucks could have been thrown at gag writers to lighten the mood occasionally.

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