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Spectre (2015)

Somebody Does It Better

In James Bond's (Daniel Craig) latest adventure, the super-spy faces a shadowy council of strings-pulling super-villains on his own, since his employer has recently been absorbed by MI:5. No, not the British intelligence agency. That's MI5. MI:5 is Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, the Tom Cruise blockbuster from four months ago, whose plot template matches the latest Bond film, Spectre, to an eerie "T".

That's not to suggest Spectre's screenwriters stole anything from Rogue Nation's screenwriters. But, watching the newer film, it's easy to imagine a boozy, inter-studio writers' lunch, where John Logan scribbled Drew Pearce's ravings on a napkin. Later, while fumbling around for aspirin, Logan discovered that napkin and marveled at his burst of blackout creativity. Again, no proof--but what's the alternative?

We've been here before, of course. I'm one of the four people on Earth who hated Bond's last outing, Skyfall, because it was dour in tone, gray in color, and so reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight that I thought for sure someone was getting away with something. Spectre, at least, reminded me of a fun film. If you're gonna be derivative, I always say,* be spectacular, too.

Here's the story, in a nutshell: Bond has taken a long working vacation, following the death of M (Judi Dench) at the hands of The Joker Silva (Javier Bardem). During the opening sequence, he kills an assassin in Mexico City and recovers a mysterious silver ring with a black octopus etched into it. Unfortunately, retrieving this ring involved gunfire, blowing up a building, and keeping a helicopter from mowing down Day of the Dead revelers. Back at headquarters, MI6's new M (Ralph Fiennes) is informed by MI5 head C (Andrew Scott) that the British government can no longer tolerate such public displays in the name of secrecy. He announces that MI6 is to be shuttered immediately, in favor of a mega-data-collection initiative, which has buy-in from all but one major world power.

Bond, still in the field, has been disavowed, but he enlists his mini-agency of Benji Q (Ben Whishaw), Luther Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Brandt M to help him infiltrate an evil group of international players (a "syndicate", if you will). Q runs cyber-interference, even while being closely monitored by his new superiors (not so closely monitored, though, that he can't skip town for a clandestine meeting with Bond). Moneypenny coordinates global positions and runs background checks on the bad guys. M does his best to persuade the brass that the world needs spies, and not just drones. If you've seen Rogue Nation, chances are the hairs on the back of your neck are at attention right now.

Spectre veers into "original" territory with the introduction of Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). He's the ostensible head of SPECTRE, an international consortium of puppet masters' puppet masters' puppet masters.** Revealing that Oberhauser is connected to C's intelligence-gathering initiative will only be a spoiler for first-time filmgoers. But his deeper connection is to Bond himself. In a flimsy attempt to further connect Spectre with Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, we journey once again into the shattered mind of an eleven-year-old orphan who would one day grow up to be a suave, womanizing, killer-for-hire with a state-sanctioned license to kill. There's a twist around the corner, and fans of the fifty-two-year-old franchise will either get a hearty kick or a groan out of who "Oberhauser" really is.

For those who skipped Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre may be a pleasant experience. It's less of a downer than the previous two entries, while still maintaining a seriousness that elevates it above mere popcorn fare. Sadly, MI:5 was such a massive worldwide hit that a good percentage of moviegoers who check out Spectre will be walloped with déjà vu. That's okay. As I said earlier, there are worse films to be like than Rogue Nation. In fact, if one could do a third film that combines the best elements of both (the bright palette, adrenalized fun, and kick-ass heroine of the Cruise picture; the colorful villain, too-cool-for-prep-school protagonist, and deft handling of spy-stuff dialogue of Spectre), you'd have the perfect new-century intrigue adventure.

About that kick-ass heroine: Léa Seydoux is fine as the Bond Girl with a Past, but she's no Rebecca Ferguson. Rogue Nation and Mad Max: Fury Road provided us with breakout female leads who shattered the action-franchise glass ceiling with gale-force round-house kicks. The fact that Seydoux's Madeleine Swan knows how to unload a gun because daddy taught her how to shoot feels like an anachronism. Again, there was no way anyone could have anticipated 2015 as the year women took traditionally male-driven cinema by the balls, but the fact is, semi-passive Bond girls just doesn't cut it anymore (to say nothing of Monica Bellucci, whose five minutes on screen are spent mostly being disrobed and discarded by Bond--or Moneypenny who, for all intents and purposes, plays Siri in this movie).

The only way I might effectively judge Spectre as a good film or a bad one is to visit the alternate reality in which the big-screen Mission: Impossible series doesn't exist. The last three entries in that franchise trump the last two Bonds in audacity, scope, and fun. M:I is a blood-rush. Bond has become a sociopath's extended therapy session (remember when James Bond was just a hatched-and-dispatched bad-ass who foiled over-the-top villains?). I enjoyed Dave Bautista's scenes as the silent killer Hinx. And the opening title sequence felt sufficiently dreamy and comic-book-y (it even makes Sam Smith's awful song "Writing's on the Wall" somewhat tolerable). But Spectre has the misfortune of sharing a universe in which a better version of itself came out way too recently to be ignored.

*I never say that. But it's time to start.

**Not to be confused with Quantum, which were just the puppet masters' puppet masters.

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