Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Spectre Behind Us

As word trickles through the entertainment press about what the world can expect of "Bond 25," a glance back at Bond 24 seems appropriate.

When the movie, coming on the heels of the highest grossing Bond film of the series' history, finally hit theaters the common complaint was that Spectre was rather a generic Bond movie, a charge for which there are ample grounds, not least in the action scenes and their settings. The opening sequence, a chase through a costume-packed Latin American festival (Mexico City's celebration of the Day of the Dead), recalled the Junkanoo in Thunderball, and still more, the Carnival in Moonraker. The car chase in Rome had Bond using the gadgets in his Aston Martin to escape pursuers after he glimpsed a meeting he was not supposed to see, at one point making use of an ejector seat--all of which was very Goldfinger (with yet another touch of Thunderball). During this he was being pursued by a giant of a killer who uses metal-plated portions of his body for murder, just like Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me--who, again as in that film, comes after Bond and Bond girl on a train rolling through a desert in the north of the African continent. The airplane-car chase in Austria evoked, variously, Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill in its use of a vehicle that comes apart, as well as many a ski chase (some of which also happened in Austria, like the one in, again, The Spy Who Loved Me).

The derivativeness extended to this film's immediate predecessor, Skyfall--Bond once again pitted against an enemy with British intelligence in his sights, and Bond himself in his sights, because Bond was the "favored brother," which leads to the climax being back in Britain, complete with a pursuit in London. There was also something of Quantum of Solace in the danger being within the Establishment. Alas, I was not an admirer of the family dynamic aspect of Skyfall, and I did not think it was executed any better this time, Bond's connection with Blofeld thinly sketched, unsatisfying--and unnecessary, as if "drama in the family" had simply become another box the producers felt that they had to tick, while the big reveal of the villain was just as flat as Silva's appearance in the last movie. And the way it all goes down in the end struck me as generic, in this case in an action-movies-in-general way. Had the last confrontation been in Los Angeles rather than London, I would have expected to see Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's names on the screen at the start of the credits. Or maybe Joel Silver's. And it was, alas, not the first time this could have been said of a Bond film. (A principal criticism of 1989's Licence to Kill was its looking and feeling so much like a regular '80s American action film, and what happened in it when someone makes the "big mistake" of killing the hero's "favorite second cousin.")

I was somewhat more intrigued by the mass surveillance element. Still, the use of the theme seemed less daring and serious than the resource politics in Quantum where the supervillains were the same people many regard as the supervillains in real life. Moreover, I remember watching Quantum, and then Skyfall, and being struck by the film's backing off from that critical touch, which made the attempt to retcon the four films into a single narrative all the more problematic.

The result is still, on the whole, a watchable action film, at points more than watchable. Sheer scale and visceral staging elevated the Day of the Dead chase above the level of a mere repeat, while there was here and there an entertaining twist, in cases sufficient for the generous to call it homage rather than rip-off. All the same, it takes more than merely "watchable" to justify a $350 million entry in a half-century old series. Which brings me back to the first impression the world had of the film, by way of the "Sony hack of 2014." I suppose nothing since quite compares with that brief opening of a window on the cynicism and mediocrity of those who call the shots in Hollywood, reflected in the executives' panic at their own perceptions of the blandness of the film they had backed. ("There needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns"; "the 'meanwhile' action for bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences--helicopter, elevator shaft, netting." They said it before anyone else could.)

The final product testifies to their limitations in trying to clean up the mess they made. ("No, James Bond, I am your brother"--for the second underwhelming time in a row--may have been the best they could do.) And that, in turn, testifies to the greatest lameness of all--the PR hacks posing as journalists, the bowing-and-scraping business class-worshiping conformists, who would have the public in awe of Suits like these as "the smartest guys in the room," richly deserving of their seven, eight, nine figure compensation packages.

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