Monday, November 16, 2015

Bond battles both Blofeld and comparison critics in the thrilling Spectre

Spectre is the 24th James Bond film and reviews are as mixed as a Vodka martini. Almost none of the reviews find fault with the film on any technical level, the actors are all praised (length of screen time for them notwithstanding) and everyone agrees the action sequences are satisfying. Why then is this film being treated as if it’s Octopussy?

It doesn’t take an MI6 security clearance to discover the truth, which is that Spectre is suffering from a syndrome plaguing several franchises and many of the negative reviews aren’t written by Bond fans. Many of these critics that aren’t Bond fans also gave glowing reviews to Skyfall and Casino Royale, so it should stand to reason that their inherent disinclination to enjoy any Bond film doesn’t matter as long as it’s a solid piece of filmmaking. This is flawed reasoning and this is when the franchise-plaguing inconsistencies in criticism enters the (ahem) picture.

Daniel Craig’s four Bond adventures have been treated with a swinging pendulum of good and bad reviews. He was given his double-0 status in Casino Royale, a rare movie that almost everyone at least enjoys. It doesn’t matter if someone’s seen every Bond movie or if it’s their first; whether their first theatrical Bond viewing was of a Sean Connery film or a Pierce Brosnan film or if Casino Royale is the first time they’ve seen the sartorially gifted spy sip a martini. Casino Royale is a movie everyone is dazzled by. It’s a great movie, not just a great James Bond movie.

Following what was undoubtedly the series’ highest peak since 1964’s Goldfinger, anticipation was high for the next installment. “Fans”, critics and audiences didn’t give an inch. 2008’s Quantum of Solace is one of the most derided films in the series’ 53-year history. By all accounts, Quantum is a solid Bond entry. Yet rather than review it as a standalone film, most people went straight to calling it terrible because it wasn’t as good as Casino Royale. Not a single review states that is the reason, but this is because it’s a sub-conscious thought process.

This is a process seen when The Lost World: Jurassic Park received negative reviews because it didn’t live up to Jurassic Park. How could anything? It also occurred notably when 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was considered a massive disappointment. Had Rises followed Batman Begins, people would have lauded it as a rousing entertainment and a social commentary, but because it was the follow-up to The Dark Knight, one of the most critically acclaimed superhero films of all time and the reason the Oscars now nominate between five and 10 films for Best Picture, it was loathed.

Skyfall, like Casino Royale, received rave reviews and is also considered one of the best in the series. Skyfall is undoubtedly a great film on its own, but the fact if followed Quantum greatly helped its reception. It is also worth noting that Casino Royale came four years after Die Another Day, which many consider to be the series’ nadir.

Spectre has created derision and critics seem to have their own license to kill when it comes to their reviews of it, but these criticisms are clearly from reviewers not fond of or not familiar with the canon.

One of the most common critiques of Spectre is the way it connects itself to the events of the three previous films. As Devon Faraci pointed out this is accomplished by having Christoph Waltz’s villain say he was responsible for the events. “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.” We learn that Casino Royale’s LeChiffre, Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Greene and Skyfall’s Silva were all underlings in Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s global network of Spectre.  The intricacies of how these previous criminal foes were connected could be fleshed out as the premise of an entire film, but the fact that they are revealed through a few sentences and some investigative work by Q Branch accomplishes the task just fine.

Casino Royale demonstrated that LeChiffre was a low-level player in a major organization. This is why M repeatedly counseled Bond on the merits of viewing “The Big Picture” instead of simply killing the enemy right in front of him. This is a lesson she continued to try to teach him in Quantum by saying, “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be much appreciated.” It is for this reason that Bond’s objective in Casino Royale was to bankrupt LeChiffre at the poker table, so that due to the loss of his money he would be sought out be his overlords and have to seek asylum. The British government would then offer this asylum in exchange for intel on his organization. 

Quantum opens with Bond bringing Mr. White, one of LeChiffre’s superiors (and the man who killed LeChiffre to prevent him from divulging secrets) to an interrogation room. He is the next link in the organization and the key to uncovering the power structure. White escapes and Bond eventually comes face to face with Dominic Greene, the movie’s main villain.

Skyfall did not contain any direct links to the Casino Royale and instead focused on a storyline involving a former British agent named Silva who was bent on revenge for what he viewed as a betrayal by M. Yet there is nothing in this film to prove Silva couldn’t have also been part of an organization. As we learned from M, he has a history of working on the side for other teams and it’s possible his revenge plan was merely an extracurricular activity.

In Spectre, Mr. White returns to the storyline and after learning intel from him Bond finally meets with the most iconic Bond villain of them all; Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He is, as Carrie Mathison would put it, “the head of the snake” and he gleefully boasts to Bond that he was in charge the whole time. This should not be construed as inconsistent. Casino Royale rebooted the series and the character. While watching the 21st James Bond film and seeing Daniel Craig’s Bond go on his first assignment as a double-O agent, nobody complained, “But he was a double-O agent in the last 20 films! This isn’t right at all!”

Bond films can be linked through characters and events, but as far back as the late 1960’s continuity has had a different definition than in other series. You Only Live Twice featured Sean Connery as 007 and Donald Pleasence as the first actor to play Blofeld without his face obscured.  Blofeld escaped and in the next film, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,   Bond was now played by George Lazenby and Blofeld by Telly Savalas. In the film, Bond impersonates a member of the heraldry in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s top-secret clinic. Blofeld is attempting to establish his claim as the rightful heir to a count position in an esteemed lineage and Bond is ostensibly working with him to research this. The ruse works until Bond gives some incorrect information, causing Blofeld to be suspicious of his identity. Blofeld discovers the truth and while brandishing Bond’s glasses which were part of his disguise, says “It will take more than a few props to turn 007 into a herald.” Blofeld’s suspicions, he says, were also aroused Bond began seducing several of the female patients at the clinic. The use of two different actors here was coincidental and keeps the fact that while having spent time face to face with Bond, Blofeld doesn’t recognize him out of the audience’s mind. The glasses comment is meant as an insult from Blofeld and not meant to suggest the frames were the reason Bond stayed hidden. After all, it wasn’t as if Blofeld was only suspicious once they were removed. The reason this supposed inconsistency isn’t an issue is because it’s not a true inconsistency.

The reason for this is that in the world of Bond, not the cinematic one the audience views, but in Bond’s actual life, the events of You Only Live Twice didn’t happen. Bond movies, while sometimes connected with story threads like characters such as Mr. White, are independent entries and unrelated to the others. Part of the reason for this is that when the movies started there was already a wealth of Ian Fleming novels to use as source material and these were adapted out of sequence. The movie versions of You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service came in reverse chronological order compared to their literary counterparts.

It’s fair if not every critic is a fan of the James Bond canon. In the 1960’s the Bond films created a new take on the secret agent genre and influenced countless films and TV shoes (not to mention men’s fashion and drink choices), but nobody in the world of film criticism said it was art in the form of the contemporary French New Wave. This is not a criticism of the series, but a compliment. The Bond films exist in their own realm of the movie world. Bond is a genre all its own.

It is a longstanding, popcorn, escapist entertainment that has been a staple of moviegoing for more than half a century. At this point, the series has been recycling and reusing locations and action sequences, but again, this isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment. It’s a compliment to the series’ importance to our lives and to the fact that it is so beloved. It’s why when before getting to see Spectre, just the sight of a production still featuring Bond in a suit, holding a gun with a gorgeous female in a designer dress by his side running from an exploding lair, audiences know they’re going to get exactly what they want. It’s why when the early production photos of Spectre were released, the sight of Craig on an Austrian ski slope quickened the pulse of fans who weren’t around or were too young when Lazenby, Moore and Brosnan each had snowbound adventures. Now it’s their Bond’s turn to be chased down a mountain! Connery is the only Bond to never hit the slopes.

Bond is to many a sign of the Holiday season. Almost every Bond film was released in November or December and therefore, they are as comforting as a hot chocolate or an eggnog latte. In the dead of winter, audiences can count on an exciting adventure in amazing locales. They can admire pressed, perfectly tailored suits and vicariously experience the luxury of five-star hotels and exquisite meals in Michelin-star caliber restaurants. Bond films are event movies and almost everyone has a story and memory of seeing one with special family, friends or loved ones. Spectre is a great Bond film, but is also important because it satisfies the need for audiences to form lasting memories and have an amazing escape. If this sounds a little too mushy, remember it was Daniel Craig who said, “People feel very strongly about James Bond … and that’s absolutely cool.”


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