The Aston Martin DB10 is a profoundly poetic machine, a sonnet on wheels and — because this is a James Bond motion picture — a sonnet that has several switches added on to it. One of these levers is labelled, minimally and with delicious promise, ‘Atmosphere,’ and the mind boggles at the possibilities. Is it a button that emits enough nerve-gas to choke a Nordic village? Is it a quick-change camouflage button? A button that rockets Bond and his wheels up, up and away? Or is it even more fantastically surreal? Is it something that plunges Bond himself into a better, more fun film, one of those classic Connery escapades where wit and muscle flowed frothily?
Director Sam Mendes needed one of those. He needed something to take his Bond film, Spectre, a grandly mounted and earnestly over-stuffed film, and give it some zip, some flair. He needed heady, champagne-flavoured magic. Instead, all the ‘Atmosphere’ button does here is turn on the stereo.
Thing is, well-dressed spies can’t quite cut it anymore. 2015 alone has given us two immaculately-clad secret agent comedies — Kingsman and The Man From UNCLE — both armed with the right accents and jawlines and cheekbones and gadgets, and both of which commit to gags with more loony glee than is possible for a Bond film. This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007, and while Sam Mendes tries to give him old-school punchlines laced with a few grams of innuendo, it jars coming from Craig’s hitherto tortured, brooding Bond. Rog Moore he (thankfully) ain’t, but it feels creepy to watch Craig pour a smile onto a feeble pun.
Spectre starts off almost too beautifully. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — who shot the sublime Her and the gigantic Interstellar — kicks things off with a long, muscular tracking shot that takes us through Mexico’s dance of the dead, the dia de muertos. It’s mesmerising how well Hoytema manages to keep the main characters in focus by manipulating them seamlessly toward the middle of the frame, forcing us to look at them even as they wear masks just like the distracting crowd around them. Somewhere in the middle of this beautiful instrumental sequence, Bond shimmies up a staircase shaking his bottom with Beyonciffic grace, and later, even more gracefully, Sam Mendes lets him fall from perilously high onto a… couch. It’s a glorious sight gag and a gorgeous start (even though the background score is a tad on-the-nose) and the rest of the film, post sofa, can’t quite measure up.
This is more of a problem because there is a lot of film to go. At 148 minutes, I’m not certain Spectre is the longest Bond film of all time, but — and here’s the rub — it certainly feels like it, and it doesn’t help that Mendes exhausts his bag of tricks very early on. The pre-credits scene, the banter with M, the Aston sequence, the villain’s reveal, the Monica Bellucci cameo… all those marvellous switches are flicked on in rapid succession, leaving barely anything for the tedious last hour of the film.
“Cameo?”, you might here ask, outraged, and I must sadly confirm that there is hardly any Bellucci in this picture. She looks sensational, as always, but why cast Le Grande Bellezza and not spend more time on her? Why give Bond — and us — such a fleeting taste of the goddess, a taste made even more fleeting by Indian censors? Mr Mendes is the real monocled villain of this piece, perhaps, making sure both Bellucci and this picture’s other fine actress, Lea Seydoux, get silly, stereotypical lines — about where Papa kept his Beretta 9 millimeter, for instance — while Bond gets the zingers. Craig appears game for anything, ridiculous lines and all, but they don’t fit him or this dark and gritty Bond world. Ralph Fiennes is a fine, very likeable M, Naomie Harris is a sterling Moneypenny (sorry) but the great Christoph Waltz is wasted in the big villainous part. He acts well but is, again, given too little to do — a peculiar problem for a seemingly unending film.
What fills up Spectre, then? References to old Bond movies, mostly, checked-off as if this was Mendes’ version of Die Another Day, a joyless, doggedly determined hat-tip to vintage pleasures. Mendes cannot ever be as artless as that clunker, of course, and there is both sophistication and elegance to be found in Spectre — whenever Hoytema gets to shoot exotic, tangerine-tinged top-shots of exotic cities like Tangiers, for example, or one great hand-to-hand fight on a train — but these moments are few, far between and not fanciful enough. Even the Sam Smith song, Writing’s On The Wall, is a caterwauling falsetto more suited to this adorably geeky new Q than to 007 himself.
If only that car-switch worked. (“How was it, M?” “Long, James. Long.”)
Rating: 2.5 stars
First published Rediff, November 20, 2015