From Double 0 Seven to Double 0 Zero

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There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller: satisfying plot twists, sardonically witty interplay, and thrilling fights and chase scenes. I suppose we could add a fourth reason as well: familiarity. We become familiar with the characters in the various spy franchises, from Bourne to Bond to Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible), and we can’t wait to see what they are up to every couple of years.

Spectre, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, fails on almost every count. It’s getting decent enough reviews from the critics and viewers, but I think those reviews are based more on expectation than on the execution of the film.

Let’s start with premise one, the satisfying plot twists. As Spectre begins, MI6 and the Double-0 gang are being phased out and merged into CNS, a more bureaucratic intelligence division headed by C (Andrew Scott). That’s not a bad premise, since it puts Bond on his own as a rogue individualist up against the government organization. But that storyline was done already this year, in the most recent installment of the Mission Impossible franchise. And let’s face it: Carly Simon theme songs aside, MI does it better. In both films, the secret agents get the news of their organization’s dissolution at the beginning of the film, but seeing the photos of the collateral damage that Ethan (Tom Cruise) and his band of misfit agents have wreaked upon historic buildings as they “saved the world” was a lot more fun than listening to two aging British agents, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond (Daniel Craig), keep their upper lips stiff as they react to the news. The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing. Even the fairy tale ogre-ish villains are gone, replaced by ordinary thugs and Big Pharma (of course).

There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller. "Spectre" fails on almost every count.

Premise two, witty interplay, suffers just as much. I miss the sardonic wit of Roger Moore, the double-entendres of Sean Connery, the sophisticated good looks of Pierce Brosnan. I can still recite funny one-liners from Goldfinger and others, but there wasn’t a single memorable line in Spectre. Craig was praised for the rugged ruthlessness he brought to the character when he took on the role of Bond ten years ago, but he has receded too far into himself now, and we can’t connect with his persona. Moreover, those ten years have not been kind to Mr. Craig. He’s fine in his love scenes with the 50-year-old Monica Belucci, but it’s creepy watching him make love to the sweet young Madeleine Swann (Lea Sydoux), the daughter of Bond’s contemporary.

Premise three, the chase scenes, is disappointing too. Yes, there is a thrilling fight inside a flailing helicopter, but Tom Cruise did that in MI as well — only he did the stunt himself, hanging onto the outside of an airplane as it flew at high speeds above the ground. Instead, Craig’s stunt double is all-too-obvious standing on the strut of the chopper, and the interior fight scenes are just as obviously filmed in front of a green screen. The biggest chase scene, in which Bond commandeers a small plane and tries to force a car off the side of a snowy mountain road, doesn’t even make sense, because the girl he is trying to rescue is inside the car that he is trying to force off the mountain!

The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing.

The only saving grace in the film is Christoph Waltz as the mastermind, Franz Oberhauser. Waltz has become an expert at playing the smilingly sadistic bad guy with the sophisticated German accent, and here he is just as well-mannered, genteel, and kind as he inflicts pain and torture upon his victims. Waltz’s go-to villain was developed under the slightly psychotic direction of Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), for which he won two Oscars. But there is nothing new and special — nothing gargantuan — about Franz Oberhauser, and that’s what we expect in a Bond film: gargantuan comic-book villains. He’s just too familiar, too perfectly typecast.

This leads us to premise four: familiarity. Familiarity with a character and a franchise can bring us to the theater, but it can’t sustain us by itself. The Broccoli film dynasty has been producing Bond films every couple of years for over half a century, and they have become as comfortable — and as welcome — as an old shoe. But if the past three films are any indication of their permanent new direction, I think the premise of Spectre’s plot might be the only part of this film that rings true: it may be time to retire the Double-0 franchise.


Editor's Note: Review of "Spectre," directed by Sam Mendes. MGM and Columbia Pictures, 2015. 148 minutes.



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Terminal Ennui

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“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Thus Shakespeare, in Sonnet 18. No, Shakespeare answers; that comparison won’t do: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

The poet’s complaint is that sometimes he just can’t think of a sufficient metaphor. Of course, his complaint is merely a pretence, merely a way of starting a poem. Shakespeare could never be at a loss for imagery.

Well, I can be. Especially now.

What a season we live in! Its dullness exceeds all normal human powers of simile and metaphor.

A ship runs into a sandbar and takes on water. A handful of its 4,000 passengers and crew perish. So dull are our times that this event, the “sinking” of the Costa Concordia, is heralded throughout the world as a “Titanic-like tragedy.” But look, the ship didn’t even sink. It’s there right now, more than halfway out of the water. If it wasn’t for the Italian coast guard, picnickers could be frolicking there today. To what shall we compare the public reaction to this non-event?

The big political news in California is that our Democratic governor wants to raise taxes. What a surprise! Also that he and the Democratic leadership of the state House and Senate want to keep financing a 400-mile “high-speed” rail project that wouldn’t even be high-speed, at a cost only five times as great as that authorized by voters when they foolishly, but predictably, authorized it, several moons ago. Shall we compare this to a summer’s day? Is it worthwhile even to hunt for metaphors?

Now turn and survey the Republican primary context. How many “debates” have these people had? 15? 18? 95? And it’s barely election year. Shall I compare this to a winter’s sludge? And look at the candidates. Look at their “issues.” Exempting Ron Paul, who actually has radical things to say (although, ahem, you and I have heard them many times before, because we are libertarians), what the hell do these people have to say that’s worth saying at the length they’ve already taken? Shall we compare them to snails, bewitched by their progress across a 10-foot sidewalk? To mice steadily eating their breadloaf house? To a nest of blind mole rats? To a wall from which all brickbats bounce?

But you see how far one has to reach for imagery. It’s hopeless, truly hopeless. I won’t even try finding metaphors and similes for the current president. Now there is one dull fellow. Imagine a book entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama. You see my point.

In Richard III, someone mentions “the winter of our discontent.” Shakespeare, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Then you could write about the ice age of our boredom.




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