Film Review: ‘Spectre’ (spoiler free)

Bond is back…

Starring:  Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Belluci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen

Directed by:  Sam Mendes / Written by:  John Logan, Neal Purves, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth / 148 minutes

What’s it about?

Whilst the British Secret Service faces an uncertain future, James Bond receives a message from his past that puts him on a dangerous path as he seeks to uncover a sinister criminal organisation known as Spectre…

In review

Ian Fleming’s James Bond – 007 – returns to the big screen for the 24th official entry in the enduring and phenomenally popular spy film franchise.  With the overwhelming success of 2012’s Skyfall, Bond film producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson stoked the flames of anticipation by securing the return of Oscar Winning director Sam Mendes.  Spectre is a solid and thrilling, yet at times imperfect, follow up to that aforementioned game-changing Bond feature.  It’s a well-crafted and often exciting action thriller that perhaps suffers a little under the weight of high expectations and efforts to repeat and surpass the heights of Skyfall and arguably lead actor Daniel Craig’s finest hour, Casino Royale.  With Skyfall we were presented with an interesting progression of the modern Bond film which was more firmly rooted in the pages of Ian Fleming’s original novels and cerebral spy serial Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy whilst melding the very best elements of Sean Connery’s tenure as the iconic spy.  What Spectre does is strive to heighten those elements to mostly positive results, with a few stumbles.

In celebration of what makes a proverbially “good” Bond film there is perhaps a little too much reverence to what has come before, homages to key moments in From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights (to name a few) are generally pleasing but also evoke a feeling of familiarity that wasn’t present in Skyfall.  There’s also an increase in humour which doesn’t always hit the mark (and even in the odd instance threatens to undermine the drama) and the film’s pacing can at times feel a little sluggish.

Despite these grumbles, the effects of which will likely diminish upon repeat viewings, Spectre certainly delivers the goods.  Daniel Craig makes an assured return as Bond, at ease with his effortless swagger, dapper demeanour and unreserved lethality – the best since Connery and the closest to Fleming’s interpretation of the character since Timothy Dalton.  Lea Seydoux, who had a memorable villainous stint in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, makes for a decent female foil to Craig’s Bond as the sparky Dr. Madeleine Swann and there are some fun moments to be had with Ben Whishaw’s Q and Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny.  Just as Whishaw gets his time in the field, Ralph Fiennes – returning as the new M – also gets a piece of the action as well as sharing some great scenes with Sherlock’s Andrew Scott, who plays the chief of a new intelligence agency poised to replace MI6 and the double-0 programme.

Spectre also provides a physically imposing (and largely mute) henchman in the mould of Jaws and Oddjob in the form of Mr. Hinx, a terrifying muscular powerhouse that’s an ideal fit for Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista.  This ultimately brings us to double Oscar Winner Christoph Waltz’s main antagonist, Franz Oberhauser, a shadowy figure with connections to Bond’s past and a requisite agenda of evil.  Waltz is simply great with a wonderfully understated and nuanced portrayal that is non-the-less chilling and leaves the viewer in no doubt that he is a capable threat.

The film’s action sequences are second to none, aside from the exciting opening in Mexico City that’s on a par with Goldeneye, there are fist fights as bone crunching as those in Casino Royale, car chases that stand shoulder to shoulder with Quantum of Solace and a spectacular high-stakes finale that threatens to rival Skyfall.

Beyond its strong cast and adrenaline infused action, Spectre has an intriguing script that crafts an enjoyable contemporary spy thriller that is mindful of the post WikiLeaks climate with twists and turns that, although in some instances are predictable, facilitate moments of genuine surprise.  Director Sam Mendes once again guides proceedings with absolute precision, aided by the striking visuals of Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who makes the most of rich and varied locales – ranging from Mexico, Rome and Tangier to Austria and London – to present a visually sumptuous film that’s complemented by Skyfall composer Thomas Newman’s score (shame about Sam Smith’s underwhelming theme song) in a flawed but ultimately solid outing for 007.

The bottom line:  Although not quite hitting the overall heights of Casino Royale and Skyfall, Spectre is still a strong and skilfully executed assignment for Mr. Bond.

Spectre is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide on 6th November.

Daniel Craig returns for his latest mission as 007 in 'SPECTRE'.

Daniel Craig returns for his latest mission as 007 in ‘Spectre’.

Five worthy ‘threequels’

The third entry in any film series is by large considered a disappointment and whilst in some cases this is certainly true (“hello” to Superman III and Jurassic Park III), there are some ‘threequels’ that threaten to stand toe to toe with numbers one and two.

With the recent Blu-ray release of Iron Man Three, I thought I’d look at a selection of five other noteworthy threequels that are far from disappointing…

ONE:  ALIEN 3 (1991)

Follows:  Aliens (1986)

Lt. Ellen Ripley crash lands on the Weyland Yutani prison colony “Fury” 161.  Although her companions are killed in the crash, Ripley is not the only survivor…

Aliens would always have been a tough act to follow but Alien 3 was definitely a step in the right direction, not bigger in an attempt to outdo James Cameron’s blockbuster, but much smaller and more claustrophobic and visceral in the same vein as the franchise’s 1979 progenitor (Ridley Scott’s Alien of course).  Directed with a smattering of art house flair by the then 20-something David Fincher, the Alien 3 that audiences eventually saw had risen from the ashes of a troubled production but stands as an underrated piece of cinematic SF horror that’s oozing with atmospheric chills and should really have been a conclusion to the Alien film series.

Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon aside, Sigourney Weaver is supported by a wealth of British acting talent – Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb and Paul McGann.  Coupled with Fincher’s youthfully artistic direction Alien 3 has its own distinct flavour.

What came next:  Alien Resurrection (1997) – a sequel too far?  Whilst Alien 3 was ‘arty’ in the best possible sense, Resurrection overstepped the mark and resulted in a poorly conceived and over ambitious mess that lead to the guilty pleasures of two Alien vs. Predator films.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare - again - in 'Alien 3', directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare – again – in ‘Alien 3’, directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

TWO:  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

Follows:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The crew of the Enterprise are mourning the loss of their shipmate, Captain Spock but when Doctor McCoy begins exhibiting strange behaviour, Admiral Kirk is compelled to defy orders and return to the Genesis Planet…

As established Star Trek fans will know, the most recent J.J. Abrams film is not the first time the franchise ventured “into darkness”.  Both Star Trek II and Star Trek III dealt with some dark yet mature themes including regret and loss, whilst still retaining the core ideals of hope and humanity that Gene Rodenberry had envisioned.  It made sense that the franchise grew with its audience and had relevance in the often dark 1980s.  The Search for Spock – despite relatively little screen-time for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (he was busy behind the camera this time out) – showed us that Star Trek had matured without forgetting those afore-mentioned ideals that made it so appealing.  A large part of what makes it work so well is that you cared about those original characters and rooted for them as they banded together at the risk of losing everything for the sake of their friend and comrade.

The Search for Spock also features a (just) pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd as the enjoyably maniacal Klingon Commander, Kruge.

What came next:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – “the one with the whales” ranks as one of the most commercially and critically successful of all the Star Trek feature films (and the second to be directed by Leonard Nimoy), it brought levity in spades and upheld the key elements of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst paving the way for the franchise’s return to the small screen with the immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one...

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one…

THREE:  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Follows:  The Dark Knight (2008)

Bruce Wayne must once again don the cape and cowl to prevent the terrorist Bane from fulfilling the League of Shadow’s plan to destroy Gotham City…

Whilst many will argue that The Dark Knight is the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect conclusion and brought the focus back to Bruce Wayne’s story (despite less actual screen time for the Batman himself), bringing everything neatly full circle.

The film features arguably the strongest cast performances of the trilogy and a villain that literally stood toe to toe with Gotham’s Dark Knight and high stakes throughout to the spectacular and gripping finale.

For more on the Dark Knight Rises, check out the GBUK retrospective here.

What came next:  Man of Steel (2013) – although Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga concluded with The Dark Knight Rises his creative presence is felt in the recent Superman reboot, having served as producer and sharing a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

FOUR:  GOLDFINGER (1964)

Follows:  From Russia With Love (1963)

007 must foil gold magnate Auric Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold reserve…

Goldfinger is generally regarded as the finest of all Bond films (for me it’s in contention with From Russia With Love) and identified as the point where Bond-mania truly exploded.  It established the template from which (for better or worse) all future Bond films would follow:  the pre-credits mission, a grand and operatic theme song, the gadgets, a compelling villain and an action packed climax as 007 leads a final assault to thwart the plans of said villain.

Gert Frobe (despite being dubbed due to his lack of coherent English) brought true presence and gravitas to the role of Goldfinger, a master villain able to match Bond whit for whit.  Sean Connery excels as the iconic super spy, his performance confidently infused with charm and vigour – leaving you in no doubt that (as good as Daniel Craig is) he was and likely always will be the best screen 007.

And of course who can forget that legendary Austin Martin…ejector seat and all.

What came next:  Thunderball (1965) – considered by some to be the downward turn in Sean Connery’s tenure it’s still a top spy adventure bolstered by Academy Award winning effects, another magnificent score from John Barry and yet another sexy Bond girl – this time Claudine Auger’s ‘Domino’.

Expected to die...James Bond (Sean Connery) faces the challenge of one of his greatest foes - Aric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

Expected to die…James Bond (Sean Connery) is challenged by one of his greatest foes – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

FIVE:  ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Follows:  Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a surprising entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series not only in that it’s superior to first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes but also for the fact that it’s a film of two very different halves.  The first ‘half’ is fairly light (even frivolous) as the evolved apes Cornelius (Roddie McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are welcomed with open arms by the media and general public, being treated like celebrities before the sinister workings behind the scenes of the U.S. government lead to a much darker second half as Cornelius and Zira (the latter having just given birth) must run for their lives as they are hunted down.  At this point it’s a film that can be taken much more seriously and throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the uglier, inhumane aspects of human nature.

What came next:  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – arguably the best of the Apes sequels it continues the darker tone of the latter parts of Escape as humanity’s subjugation and mistreatment of apes (a comment on slavery, a subject directly referenced in dialogue by one of the film’s African American characters) leads to a violent revolt by Caesar (another wonderful simian performance from McDowall), the son of Cornelius and Zira.

'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it's tense and shocking climax...

‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it’s tense and shocking climax…

Do you have a favourite threequel?  Share your thoughts below!

Also on Geek Blogger UK:

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

GBUK film classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

 

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

Looking at some all-time film favourites…

 

“Red wine with fish.  Well that should have told me something”

 

Year:  1963

Starring:  Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee

Director:  Terence Young / Written by:  Richard Maibaum

What’s it about?

Crack spy James Bond is dispatched to Istanbul on a mission to capture a Soviet coding device but soon becomes embroiled in the plots of the nefarious SPECTRE organisation…

In review

From Russia With Love is the second cinematic outing for Ian Fleming’s literary super spy (and based on Fleming’s 1957 novel of the same title), James Bond (aka 007), and ranks highly as one of the best – quite possibly THE best – of the enduringly popular film series.

Whilst 1964’s Goldfinger would catapult James Bond into the stratosphere as a pop culture icon and world-wide phenomenon, From Russia With Love presents the audience with a strong, pure Cold War spy thriller that isn’t burdened or encumbered by the weak and formulaic plotting that some of the later Bond films would suffer from (sorry Sir Roger).

With the success of Dr. No the previous year, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli wisely and astutely brought back director Terence Young (who would also go on to direct Thunderball) and screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who returned for most of the subsequent Bond films through to 1989’s vastly underrated Licence to Kill and even the James Bond Jnr. animated series), the former keeping the action flowing and the tension ramped up against the backdrop of the beautiful locations, including Istanbul and Venice, and the latter providing all of the characteristics of a classic spy adventure.

In terms of casting, Sean Connery makes an assured return to the role of Britain’s titular secret agent, with all the charm, charisma, wit and physicality seen in Dr. No.  Although he may not necessarily be the closest interpretation of Ian Fleming’s character (honours for Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig in that respect), Connery certainly carried through the toughness and moral ambiguity of a man licenced to kill whilst making the character his own and presenting a heroic lead that audiences could root for.  It’s because of this he still rightly deserves recognition as being the best screen Bond.

Robert Shaw, a consistently superb actor, is in fine form here as the homicidal assassin Red Grant.  The fact that Shaw appears from the opening (where he effortlessly eliminates a masked Bond-a-like) yet has no dialogue until much later in the film is unsettling and adds gravity to his climactic and brutal face off against Bond.  He gives us one the most memorable of Bond villains, a true threat to our hero and every inch as dangerous.

Newcomer Daniela Bianchi provides the right measure of glamour and allure as Tatiana Romanova and of course who can forget 007’s key Istanbul ally Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) and wicked SPECTRE agents Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (UFO’s Vladek Sheybal)?

The (soon to be) recurring supporting characters are also present:  the late, great Bernard Lee as ‘M’, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny and the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as ‘Q’.

The action is above that of just an average 1960s spy film, from the shootout at a Gypsy camp to the tense final confrontation with Grant on the Orient Express and the ensuing helicopter chase and subsequent pursuit by SPECTRE agents as Bond and Romanova attempt to escape to Trieste by boat.

From Russia With Love is completed with an atmospheric and romantic score from John Barry, his first for the Bond film series (although he arranged Monty Norman’s ‘James Bond Theme’, composed for Dr. No).  Barry would go on to score a further ten Bond adventures and is rightfully considered the quintessential Bond film maestro.

Standout moment

After an odd exchange at dinner aboard the Orient Express, Grant’s true identity as an agent of SPECTRE is soon exposed.  Holding Bond at gun point, Grant is determined to complete his mission but didn’t reckon on Bond’s tenacity…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It’s a sharp, exciting and classic Cold War spy adventure with Sean Connery at the top of his game.
  2. It’s a James Bond film that doesn’t rely on a plethora of gadgets and unlike some of the weaker entries of the series it isn’t encumbered by a tiring formula.
  3. It features arguably one of the best Bond villains thanks to a strong turn from the unforgettable Robert Shaw.

Did you know?

Pedro Armendariz was diagnosed with inoperable cancer during filming.  After finishing most of his scenes he returned home and sadly took his own life, with remaining shots completed using a stunt double and director Terence Young as stand-ins.

If you like this then watch…

Goldfinger:  Another confident return for Sean Connery, this time under the direction of Guy Hamilton.  It’s a favourite among many and establishes some of the familiar hallmarks of the series and features the first appearance of that iconic Aston Martin.

Casino Royale (2006):  The Bond film series re-launches with vigour in Daniel Craig’s first outing.  Wiping out the daftness of Pierce Brosnan’s dire finale in Die Another Day, it refreshes and updates the series without forgetting its roots, presenting a brutal yet very human James Bond who bleeds physically and emotionally, dropping his guard when he falls for the alluring Vesper (Eva Green).

He's behind you...Sean Connery is at the top of his game in 'From Russia With Love' but has his 007 met his match in Robert Shaw's Red Grant?

He’s behind you…Sean Connery is at the top of his game in ‘From Russia With Love’ but has his 007 met his match in Robert Shaw’s Red Grant?