Film review: Spectre – a brilliant Bond for the age of austerity

Hitting the target… Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre. Photographs: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/ Columbia Pictures/ EON Productions
14 Nov 2015 @ 8.24 am
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Cert 12A, 148 mins

Vue York, Reel, City Screen

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There’s a point in Spectre, where Bond is about to catch a glimpse of the shadowy villain for the first time, when less really is more.

Whereas most big screen blockbusters (and a fair number of small screen productions) feel the need to assail the audience with music or effects at a constantly high volume, the sound designers on the latest 007 outing opt for one of the most powerful, yet underused, weapons in their arsenal: silence.

It was at that point, watching the uber baddie make his first appearance (albeit in silhouette) that I realised that Spectre really was something different. Entertaining but clever with it.

It has light and shade, noise and silence, the usual Bond humour and camp touches but also a sense of lingering menace.

At its heart it’s nothing new: acting on a tip-off from beyond the grave (I won’t give the full details in case you haven’t yet seen Skyfall) Bond sets off to track down the shadowy organisation that has been plaguing MI6 since that unpleasantness at Casino Royale.

Cue scenes like numerous international baddies gathered around a mahoosive boardroom table, awaiting their leader. You know immediately that for one of them it’s not going to end well.

Equally predictable are the Big-Baddie-Base in a crater, the night time car chase through the streets of Rome and Bond bedding beautiful women in the line of duty (surely his gentleman parts deserve their own medal by now?).

But what the best Bond movies do is execute these brilliantly and with a genuine swagger. Spectre fits into this category.

The film’s prologue, before the epic title sequence kicks in, is set in Mexico City. It opens with a swopping shot over the crowds gathered for the Day Of The Dead festival. There’s more than a nod to Live And Let Die in this, with a vast parade of people dressed as ghouls and skeletons.

Spectacular – the Day Of The Dead prologue
Spectacular – the Day Of The Dead prologue

In what appears to be a single take, the camera tracks first one person through the crowd, then another. It turns out the first figure is Bond’s “target” and second is the man himself.

It’s incredibly well choreographed and immediately reassures you that this is going to be something special.

Further proof comes a few minutes later as Bond, having discarded his mask, strolls across the rooftops while assembling his hi-tech weapon.

Daniel Craig, in his fourth outing as Britain’s greatest agent, saunters over gable ends and along air vents high above the crowds, all the while deftly putting together his machine gun like a pro.

It’s a simple scene but is almost balletic in its execution. He steps sideways and onto an air conditioning pipe while arming the gun. Then he skips down a step and swiftly adjusts the sight. It probably took a week to shoot.

The ballet of Bond
The ballet of Bond

Then again, Bond is always about panache, scale and grandeur. With Spectre we’re taken from Mexico to the Swizz Alps to North Africa and back to London.

I’ve read one carping US review of Spectre that claimed the movie left the Mexican capital looking drab. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life but I thought it look stunning.

A friend who’s also seen it had her boyfriend lean over and say, “We have to go there” as that opening sequence drew to a close.

The plot does have a few twists (mostly focusing on Bond’s formative years) even if it is fairly predictable. But what makes Spectre shine is the brooding presence of 007 himself.

Ben Whishaw as Q, Bond's only friend
Ben Whishaw as Q, Bond’s only friend

Daniel Craig portrays Bond as someone who has few real friends even if the relationship between him and gadget-maker Q, played with boyish enthusiasm by Ben Whishaw, does come close.

He’s damaged goods and probably not someone we should admire. But he’s also our last line of defence, a fact that is driven home by the film’s overall narrative about plans to replace agents with electronic surveillance.

As Bond’s boss M, an excellent Ralph Fiennes, says, “Having a licence to kill also means knowing when not to kill” (or something very much along those lines). Bond may be a killer but he’s an intelligent, discerning one; unlike a mile-high drone.

Craig carries this off brilliantly. He’s sullen without being wooden and brings a realism to the role that I can’t remember seeing in previous Bonds.

In one scene he implores a security guard, an innocent bystander in the bigger picture that is rapidly developing, not to attack him for fear of having to hurt the man. Wisely, the guard sees what he’s up against and backs off.

Spectre’s Bond is cold blooded at times but no psychopath. We even get to see where he lives: a London flat with about three items of furniture.

Brilliant… Lea Seydoux
Brilliant… Lea Seydoux
Dave Bautista as the giant henchman
Dave Bautista as the giant henchman

Sewn into this are references to Bond movies of old (look out for the MI6 speedboat), some spectacular stunts (as you’d expect) and a brilliant leading lady in Lea Seydoux.

The bad guys are led by Christopher Waltz who has surely cornered the market in creepy European villains, with Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Dave Bautista taking up the role of huge evil henchman/ killer.

With a wink to Jaws, the metal-gnashered monster from the Roger Moore days, he even has sharpened thumb nails to… well, that would be telling (and put you off your breakfast).

What Spectre does is to combine elements that we have seen before and create something that feels original. It manages to step seamlessly from physics-defying action scenes to moments of intrigue and intelligence.

Even characters that could be one-dimensional, like Fiennes’s M, are shown to have different sides to them – bollocking Bond for wrecking half of Mexico but then going into battle with him when the chips are down.

The master of creepy European villians – Christopher Waltz as Franz Oberhauser
The master of creepy European villians – Christopher Waltz as Franz Oberhauser

From Sherlock to spy – Andrew Scott
From Sherlock to spy – Andrew Scott

But while I would happily say that Spectre possibly nudges ahead of Skyfall as my favourite Bond of the Craig era, it seems across the pond they’re not so happy. I’ve seen one review that said it was the worst Bond ever while others have generally attacked it for all manner of alleged crimes against movie making.

I have a theory. At one point M is talking to the man what wants to sack him, an untrustworthy spy chief played by Andrew Scott. You may not be familiar with Scott by name but chances are you’ll recognise him as Moriarty from the BBC’s Sherlock.

Fiennes and Scott were up there on the screen, being brilliant, when it occurred to me that this was a very British film. OK, so Bond is an iconic English spy but in the past he’s been a Hollywood caricature of a Brit.

In Spectre the feel of the whole production is almost un-Hollywood. Maybe that’s what US reviewers don’t get. For me, Spectre is Bond for the age of austerity.

I rate it as one of the best Bond films I’ve seen. This is, after all, a movie that’s confident enough to use silence to fix the audience’s attention. And you know what they say about silence.