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CINEMA: Play It Again, Sam

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SPECTRE (2015, directed by Sam Mendes, 148 minutes, U.K.)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Skyfall, the previous entry in the long-running Bond series, was one of the British secret agent’s strongest chapters and bringing Bond face-to face with his origins it would have been a perfect capper to Daniel Craig’s 007 trilogy. It was never meant to be though, Craig’s Bond films have been the franchise’s biggest grossers yet and he has been contracted to serve as Bond for five films (although Craig seems desperate to break that contract). Spectre‘s script unfortunately unwinds the Craig trilogy’s tidy symmetry, making the latest Bond’s latest adventure seem like a bit of a post-script to the grim-faced character’s narrative arc.

But if Spectre doesn’t sustain the narrative elegance of Skyfall (despite American Beauty‘s Sam Mendes returning as director) the film still carries the strengths of the rebooted series: Craig’s Steve McQueen-like self possession, strange and vivid locations, a supporting cast of highly-trained actors who could just as easily pull off an Ibsen stage play and the meticulously staged actions scenes that unfold like a magic puzzle box. If the film doesn’t take us to new places like Casino Royale and Skyfall did, the aforementioned strengths and Mendes’ direct modern direction is bound to be remembered for delivering the goods expected from 007.

What are the expected goods? A crazed action opening, here set among the skull faces of Mexico City’s “Day of the Dead” celebration, wealthy and beautiful women (European superstars Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux) who hold secrets they’ll only reveal after Bond finds their g-spot, a quirky criminal mastermind and a travelogue of exotic places (Rome! Morocco!) where a criminal fortress can be easily hidden. These predictable signposts make sure that even your grandfather would recognize this as a Bond film and all the hand-wringing about a world-wide surveillance state only serves to anchor Bond to our modern world.

Spectre‘s plotting gets a tad soft in the middle but if there is a disappointing element it is the film’s villain, whose ultimate identity is, if you’ve been playing attention, a surprise on par with Barry Manilow’s sexual orientation. Wearing a Chairman Mao-styled collarless suit (like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films) two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz seems moments away from being exposed as an actor of limited range who gives the same performance in every film. Put him in Western clothes, a Nazi uniform or Nehru jacket, he’s still going to be an overly-articulating smart aleck whose accent is just a notch away from recreating the “Vee haf vays of meking you tock!” villains of World War II Hollywood. It doesn’t help that the film’s script takes a tortured route to make the conflict personal between Bond and his nemesis, which in the process makes Waltz’s character oddly proud of airing his raging Daddy issues.

With glowering Ralph Fiennes as M, earnest Ben Whishaw as exasperated Q and the lovely Naomie Harris as the super capable and more-involved-than-ever Moneypenny, Craig has a variety of engaging regulars from which to work off of and the fact that these actors can bring a dose of verisimilitude to this once moribund franchise is not to be overlooked. The smaller details that reveal the characters’ relationships help makes these films not just watchable but re-watchable. As for Craig, his chiseled gravitas and feral tension remains marvelously intact and if some are tiring of his portrayal, Craig’s Bond feels in tune as he grows increasingly weary of the spy game as well. If Craig has really given up on Bond, someone has got some awfully big shoes to fill. Post-Spectre, odds are good the next episode will leave a lot of Bond fans complaining, “This guy is no Daniel Craig!”

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