Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Money Harris, Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: The best Bond film since GoldenEye. Mr. Mendes’ best film. And one of the best of the year.
Genre: Action, Thriller, Mystery
There is the old and there is the new. The gloriously stylish opening sequence, which gives way to a vertiginous tussle in a chopper over what looks like old Mexico, has James Bond fly over shiny new urban skyscrapers into the title sequence. It is the Day of the Dead, and the ease with which it establishes the narrative’s rhetoric around spaces – the old and the new, the new coming out of the old – had me rethink my stance on the worth of Mr. Mendes as a filmmaker. He has always felt sterile to me, and here he makes me realize why the best of James Bond might represent the absolute gold-standard in action-adventure cinema, which Spectre certainly is, and why Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas chose to describe Raiders of the Lost Ark as “a James Bond film without the hardware”. I will not want to put down the competition offered by the Mission Impossible franchise, or the Jason Bourne who-am-I quest, but neither of them understand spaces as well as Mr. Mendes does here, or Mr. Spielberg almost always does. Maybe, it is unfair to even ask of them – the Ethan Hunt films are exercises in stunts the spaces scarcely meaning anything more than a set-up – but Bourne’s version of memory represented by a what (plot) so much so that the hotel in Berlin almost doesn’t seem to exist on its own other than to serve as a place where events happened is certainly disappointing. Mr. Mendes understands the value of spaces, as a site of the conflict between the old and the new, as a site where history is shaped, and as a site where somebody like James Bond can find his past. That both history and James Bond’s past are inter-linked are not a matter of coincidence at all, and when we will have the luxury of a hindsight of fifty or so years, we might want to look at him just as we would look Dante or every such poet/academic ever since (say Mr. Todd Haynes’ I’m not There or Mr. Lech Majewski’s Field of Dogs) who has positioned himself at the center of the world.
There is a meteor in the middle of a state-of-the-art information gathering-processing center, like Google’s World Brain project center, that itself is in the sort of middle of nowhere that reminds one of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the stagey showman that Mr. Mendes is (and not always in a good way) he has the antagonist literally materialize in the light from the darkness around. Mr. Waltz is one of our absolute treasures, and his Franz Oberhauser is the kind of character you are really curious to get into the head of. The guy written on the page is standard-issue, but between Mr. Mendes’s close-ups and Mr. Waltz reactions, we almost always seem to have a bit of a mystery before us who’s not quite Silva (The Joker, refreshing to have a bad guy not in it to just watch the world burn) operating in a I-have-no-value-for-my-life mode but he’s not entirely Hans Gruber either. The cut through this eye only intensifies the mystery, and Mr. Mendes chooses to concentrate on his reactions, giving us ample time to wonder what exactly is going on inside so much so that one can conceive Spectre to be an origin-story for him as much as it is a revelation for James Bond. But that is beside the point I’m trying to make here, because Mr. Mendes and Mr. Hoytema indulge in liberal usage of the long shot with so much to see, which is a delight when you wonder how somebody could have walked into a mountain-top alpine snow set clinic only to see a runway towards the top-right corner of the screen making one realize this must be a rich man’s place only to be rewarded with James Bond making an entry into a chase in a small plane. All spaces reveal, or it is almost their purpose to reveal (as any mystery has to) so much so that the plot almost seems subservient to these spaces. Mr. Mendes, surprisingly for a modern action picture, spends so much time in each of them because that is where he almost deriving the plot from, or at least manufacturing it around them. The spaces are not merely rhetoric, as they were in Skyfall, and have a terrific immersive quality to them. Of course, that is just my opinion – the old intelligence building versus the new intelligence tower across the river, which is definitely an agenda much in tune with the insecurities at the heart of Skyfall, or the glossy new Aston Martin against the old one (Aston Martin? pardon me, not much into Bond trivia) – but then there’s James Bond’s house, which feels less of a statement, like say Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho, and more like a den with its shadows and lights. When Moneypenny (Ms. Harris) visits him, there is an air of intrigue, and the space is set-up for reveals. They are unknown and the atmosphere tangible, not yet shaped into a narrative until Bond arrives on some of them, and this is the very structure of an action-adventure film, walking from one mystery into another – the mystery being the spaces and not the plot. They are in a hotel in Tangier, and if ever there is a filler shot for passage of time that in itself is memorable – a pan from the seas to the hotel, almost as if we were in a different time of archaeological pursuits – it is this one. Bond wakes up, the midnight air so palpable as if in a dream, and the room obliges to reveal its secrets as if it were a treasure hidden in a canyon. And once they are revealed, and the mysterious past known, these places hold no intrigue and for obvious reasons. A lot of it is about the pure temptation a space holds (as if one could psychoanalyze the imperialist need to explore and conquer), its seductiveness if you will, and what is James Bond if not fetishist. You could wave your Marxist cards and thunder about an argument about the usual, and I would rather direct you to the moment where Lucia Sciarra (Ms. Belluci) asks Bond not to go to the conclave to which James Bond replies – I have to. This temptation, this curiosity, is irresistible you see, almost like death drive, and Bond staring at the events around the roundtable is an exhibition of nerve-wracking tension. You see, it is plain and simple, and the secret to the whole of action-adventure genre are the locations, not beautiful but mysterious, not factual but historical. No wonder they arrive at the station with nowhere to go, and waiting for that desert to reveal itself, and there is this gradual reversal of the trend – from Bond confidently navigating us through the spaces as in the glorious opening walk over the terrace to the room in Tangier to the station in the middle of the desert – and the narrative is sort of built around it. It is as if he were discovering a whole new world, and it is glorious, just as is the bird’s eye-view of a train calmly moving through the desert.So when Bond chastises Oberhauser for his screens and his overelaborate voyeurism, you got to chuckle, and I’m not sure if it at the film or with the film, and you got to ask if what James Bond is doing hunting down places is so very different from Oberhauser’s cameras every which where consuming spaces into data and consuming it, or as a friend recently asked, is cinephilia so different from other forms of consumer activities, like travelling. Bond might seduce women, and Keith Uhlich in a rather wonderful review here calls it out for what it might be, but from Mexico to Rome to Tangier the spaces seduce him. Which might lead one to brand him, as Mr. Uhlich does here, an agent in perpetual forward motion, probably contributing to the dichotomy between the “serious” Bond (always looking at his past?) and the ridiculously amusing Bond (jumping to one adventure to the next), and when Oberhauser starts drilling through his brain in the middle of a super-white anti-septic room, you wonder if he will hit anything. You see, I wouldn’t want to make an overelaborate connection to Leonard Shelby (and Memento had a terrific feel for spaces), but Bond is the sort of character whose past has little meaning and the history around him is his identity. Reducing that past, or reducing that history, to a set of events carry little weight, because, and I might sound extremely corny here, Bond’s identity is not inside him it is around him. The trick is to deck up the surroundings, and let Bond be himself (whatever that is, a placeholder maybe?), and if that involves a stunning shot of him and Madeline (Ms. Seydoux) walking down the villain’s den as if on a ramp, so be it. Not that a moment as tender (Oldboy tender) as Bond asking to stop the screens from revealing to Madeline what happened to her father is not welcome, but Mr. Mendes, maybe rightly, chooses on both the occasions, the event and its echo, to close in on Bond. Maybe there is a little bit too much hullaballoo around the assassin’s morality thing, or maybe the point is that an assassin (when he arrives at Madeline’s desk I was reminded of Anton Chigurh visiting Llewyn Moss’ wife) is still more of a human than a drone dropping bombs. Or maybe, when the secrets are revealed the Bond I like loses all interest in it, and rather chooses the girl, and the car, and everything else that is material and an extension of him. Bond is his world, and before I go all Charlie Kauffman on you, I just have to talk about that walk. It is a punk walk, like Kevin Bacon’s, and I should have never been impressed by it. But here I am unable to remove it from my head.