SPECTRE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Violence, some Disturbing Images, Sensuality and Language

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Jez Butterworth

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

SPECTRE just might be the hardest review that I’ve had to write this year and that’s not for reasons you might expect. While I’ve revisited many franchises over the course of the summer movie season in order to prep myself for certain reviews, SPECTRE lurked over me like a giant mountain that I had to scale. Before the month of August, I had only seen one 007 film (2006’s CASINO ROYALE). So I found myself going through a long (sometimes painful) process to watch/review fourteen entries in this behemoth of a movie series. This resulted in me gaining a newfound appreciation for the iconic secret agent character as well as a love for (most of) the series. To quickly recap on the Daniel Craig entries: CASINO ROYALE is one of the best reboots to ever grace the silver screen, QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a lackluster follow-up, and SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film of all-time. Where does SPECTRE fit into Craig’s stint as 007? It’s not as good as CASINO ROYALE or SKYFALL, but it’s definitely miles better than QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Though the early word-of-mouth has been mixed, I imagine that many Bond fans will find a lot to like in this film.

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After causing an international incident on an unofficial mission, James Bond has been grounded by M. As we all know, Bond has never been one to respond well to authority and takes it upon himself to complete his unfinished unofficial mission. What should have been a simple visit to a funeral becomes something else entirely as 007 discovers a massive international criminal organization known as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). The leader of this secret society is the author of all of Bond’s pain (as he so eloquently puts it). Soon enough, Bond and the daughter of a former Quantum agent find themselves hunted by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. as he tries to stop a diabolical plan that would cripple the 00 program and the world as we know it.

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Like the other Craig entries, SPECTRE is remarkably well shot and scored. The cinematography and gorgeous locations kept me invested in the film, even during the less exciting portions of the story. Speaking of which, SPECTRE is definitely the first Craig film in the 007 cannon that’s heavily relied on the stereotypical Bond formula. By this, I mean there’s a world-ending plan, a cat-stroking villain with a penchant for evil monologues, a seemingly unstoppable henchman with a weird quirk, a clichéd Bond girl, and some one-liners. Those elements aren’t necessarily bad things, but this is a definite change of pace for a rebooted series that seemed to be going out of its way to humanize the iconic character and deliberately throw cogs into the predictable formula.

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The plot for SPECTRE isn’t anything groundbreaking or surprising. You’ve seen this kind of Bond movie before with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan. This just happens to be Daniel Craig’s turn to play the game. You can easily predict certain plot developments that are pretty obvious within the first third. It doesn’t necessarily lessen the fun to be had, but I do wish the script had kept a couple of these twists hidden. Running at well over two hours, SPECTRE just might be the longest Bond film to date and you can tell. As action-packed and exciting as most of the movie may be, there’s a noticeable patch in the middle that drags.

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As far as the cast is concerned, Daniel Craig is comfortable as ever in the skin of Bond. This might be his final entry in the series and I’d be happy with him going out on a high note rather than sinking to the embarrassment of Brosnan’s final entry. Lea Seydoux (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) is a serviceable Bond girl, though she isn’t exactly given much to do other than be a heart-throb for James. Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris all do well in reprising their roles as M, Q, and Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott is appropriately hateable as a cocky character with a very punchable face.

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The best characters of SPECTRE are definitely the villains. Christoph Waltz is having a field day as the main baddie. This man was born to play a Bond villain. Though it takes a while for him to really dominate the screen, he’s a ton of fun to watch. I loved every second that he was on the screen. Meanwhile, Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) serves as a formidable Oddjob-like henchman. Though he doesn’t have any dialogue, the chases/fights between him and Craig are a blast to behold.

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SPECTRE is definitely not on the same level as SKYFALL or CASINO ROYALE, but it’s certainly an enjoyable fourth outing for Craig’s 007. The film’s problems stem from a predictable plot and pacing that drags in the middle. However, the returning characters are just as fun as ever, while the new additions really sell this film. The action scenes are exciting and I left the theater more than a little happy. If this had come out before SKYFALL, then I think the general reaction to it would be more positive. As a whole, I really enjoyed SPECTRE and it’s on the upper level of the 007 pantheon for me.

Grade: B+

SKYFALL (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violent Sequences throughout, some Sexuality, Language and Smoking

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney & Ben Whishaw

To me, Daniel Craig is James Bond. Though the original Bond series had its ups and down, the momentum and fun was officially slaughtered by one really crappy Brosnan entry. The resulting box office returns and backlash from fans and critics alike forced the studio into rebooting the 007 franchise. This was a cinematic blessing. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE stands as one of the absolute best Bond films we’ve received to date (sitting ahead of GOLDFINGER for me). However, 2008’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a mediocre follow-up to that film. All cinematic sins have been repented for in 2012’s SKYFALL. This is a stunning return to top-notch form and stands as my favorite Bond film thus far (making me ridiculously excited for SPECTRE in a few months). Going in bold, new directions, SKYFALL is a 007 film unlike any other. Considering that it’s the twenty-third installment in the official cannon, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

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After a mission goes wrong in Istanbul, James Bond seizes an opportunity to fake his death and leave MI6. Enjoying an early retirement, Bond is forced back into duty when a cyber-genius psycho steals a list of undercover agents. It seems that the evil hacker has a bone to pick with M (Bond’s boss) and is doing so by revealing five names every week (getting agents killed in the process). Bond goes on the hunt for this cyber-terrorist and in the process uncovers a darker plot at work. That’s all I’ll say, because (unlike many other Bond films) SKYFALL packs a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its formula.

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It doesn’t bear repeating, but I’ll say it anyway. Daniel Craig is the perfect Bond. He brings humanity to a character that was once a one-note (though extremely fun to watch) charismatic ladies-man/action hero. Craig shows that there’s pain behind his tough persona and that occasionally seeps through. However, the most remarkable thing about this script is that it forces M (played once again by Judi Dench) up front and center as a main character. She mainly served as a side character who seemingly only showed up to berate Bond, but that’s not the case here. She’s developed into someone worth caring about and shares a solid chunk of screen time with Bond. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem is absolutely astounding as the villain. I won’t reveal much about him or his motivations, because I don’t want to spoil anything. What I will say is that Bardem played this psycho in a manner that no one else could have. He’s simply amazing to behold in the role. Finally, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw are introduced as two side characters who will be showing up in future Bond installments. Fiennes is a welcome presence as M’s superior and Whishaw is the new Q (and provides just as much comic relief as the older Q’s).

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SKYFALL is extremely well-written and not just for a Bond film. Instead of revealing the threat to us right away, the film takes its time to develop the story and we don’t see Bardem’s villain on-screen for almost the entire first half of the story. However, that doesn’t mean that the build-up and mystery isn’t compelling, because I was fully sucked into this movie for its entirety. The building, quiet tension only makes each of the plot revelations (including Bardem’s spectacular villain reveal) that much more sinister when they arrive. The action works perfectly and moves from creative set-piece to set-piece. My favorite of which involves a chase through subway tunnels between Bond and Bardem’s baddie. Especially praise-worthy is the final third which goes into territory that no Bond movie has ventured into before. It makes for a terrifically exciting climax and more than a few surprisingly emotional moments. The finale hits all the right notes and left me wanting to experience this movie all over again the second that it ended.

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Risk taking and a brilliant script elevate SKYFALL into being my all-time favorite Bond film (with CASINO ROYALE as a close second). SKYFALL takes the series into a new, exciting direction that is executed flawlessly. What else can I say about Daniel Craig other than he’s my definitive James Bond? Judi Dench’s M is fully developed into a main character this time around. Javier Bardem serves as a delightfully insane villain. SKYFALL is less jokey than previous Bond installments (with only a handful of one-liners that I could spot), but manages to be far more enjoyable, entertaining and resonates more than a majority of the franchise. SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film and I am giddy with excitement to see where SPECTRE takes us next.

Grade: A+

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Marc Forster

Written by: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench & Anatole Taubman

2006’s CASINO ROYALE made a huge splash at the time of its release. This was Bond for a whole new generation and seemed to be turn the iconic 007 into a more human hero. Anyone penning the sequel to ROYALE was guaranteed have their work cut out for them. Two years later, QUANTUM OF SOLACE hit theaters to an apathetic “meh.” Though this follow-up to the Bond reboot held a lot of promise in its premise, it simply doesn’t do anything remarkable with it. Daniel Craig remains top-notch as 007, but he’s the stand-out in a sequel that’s a disappointing step-down from its predecessor.

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QUANTUM picks up where CASINO ROYALE left off. Seeking revenge for the death of his lover, Bond has tracked down the mysterious Mr. White (a member of the organization that killed both Vesper and La Chiffre). However, James soon discovers that Mr. White is merely one brick in a much larger, more intimidating wall. A secret organization, known as Quantum, has it out for Bond and they have members everywhere. 007 soon finds himself wooing more women and trying to take down the head of Quantum, Dominic Greene.

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Unlike previous Bond disappointments, where main actors seemed bored, Daniel Craig is still in full force as 007. He’s made the character into a heartbroken man who merely wants to satisfy his aching vengeance for Vesper. Unfortunately, his performance is the one shining moment in an otherwise mediocre film. Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton fill the roles of Bond girls and both seem kind of bland. Arterton simply isn’t given enough time to develop, while Kurylenko’s character is pretty one-note. What makes this even more confusing is that Kurylenko has played better “Bond girls” in non-Bond films (e.g. THE NOVEMBER MAN, and even 2007’s HITMAN). Mathieu Almaric comes off woefully miscast as the villainous Greene. Though his character is a violent businessman, I couldn’t fully buy him as a baddie deserving of Bond. Other nebbishy bad guys have appeared in the series (Jonathan Pryce’s Carver in the underrated TOMORROW NEVER DIES), but Almaric’s Greene comes off as bland and unintentionally hilarious. The latter arrives in a fiery fight scene in which Greene keeps letting out high-pitched squeals as he battles Bond with an axe. The scene was supposed to be intense and I was just trying not to laugh. Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini also reprise their roles from CASINO ROYALE, but merely serve as two plot devices instead of returning characters.

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Besides every character who isn’t James Bond being underwritten, QUANTUM’s action doesn’t fare much better. There are a couple of intense moments, but most of the action is made up of chaotic BOURNE-like scenes. In the opening car chase there is a headache-inducing amount a quick editing. Shaky-cam is also frequent throughout the entire film. For my money, the best scene in the whole movie is a stalking scene at an opera in which Bond tries to capture the identities of Quantum members. Unfortunately, this suspenseful moment is then compromised by an incoherently edited action scene that follows. Unconvincing fights aside, the Quantum organization comes off as a low-rent form of SPECTRE (which might actually link to it in the upcoming film). Instead of getting me excited to watch Bond take down a villainous organization that has people everywhere, I was more bored by everything that followed. This seems like a major step backwards for the franchise.

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CASINO ROYALE’s high momentum sinks to a lackluster crawl in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The premise holds a lot of potential and none of it is fully utilized to the extent that it should have been. Daniel Craig still stands as my favorite Bond and he’s easily the best part of this whole film. However, the follow-up to the rebirth of the franchise comes off like a combination of a lesser Roger Moore flick (in which Bond is trying too hard to emulate other films, like the BOURNE series) and a disappointing Dalton installment (becoming far too grim to be fully enjoyed as a Bond film). Overall, I would just skip this middle entry and go directly from CASINO ROYALE to SKYFALL. Just pretend that QUANTUM doesn’t exist.

Grade: C-

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violent Action, a scene of Torture, Sexual Content and Nudity

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Directed by: Martin Campbell

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis

(based on the novel CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini & Simon Abkarian

The original James Bond series ran four decades and twenty films. Like any other movie franchise, it had definite ups and downs. 007 may have started off as a trend-setter in the cinematic world, but the franchise constantly found itself cashing in on other popular genres (e.g. kung-fu in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, cop dramas in LICENCE TO KILL, etc.). When DIE ANOTHER DAY (the fourth and final Brosnan entry) turned out to be an embarrassment, it became apparent that Bond was in desperate need of a reboot. Most reboots are seen as useless cash-ins or lame-brained attempts to reinvigorate doomed franchises. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE manages to surpass any and all preconceived notions about reboots as well as 007 films. This is one of the very best Bond movies we’ve ever received!

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James Bond is an MI6 agent who has recently received his 00-status. Armed with a license to kill, Bond draws some attention when he kills a terrorist at an embassy. As much as the strict M (Bond’s boss) doesn’t care for his radical tactics and hot-headed ego, she recognizes that he’s the best card-player in MI6. This skill will come in handy as Bond is assigned to enter a high-stakes poker tournament run by Le Chiffre, a nefarious banker who funds international terrorism. Aided by an HM Treasury agent, Bond finds himself sucked into an intense mental battle between himself and La Chiffre that gets more dangerous with each passing second.

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Out of all the actors to don the tux, I do believe that Daniel Craig might be my favorite Bond. Part of this stems from him being so unlike any of the other actors who have played the character before him. The rest of this comes from the iconic secret agent being written as a vulnerable, flawed human being. As fun as the original Bond is, you can’t deny that he’s one-note in his sexist treatment towards women and smart-ass attitude (complete with bad puns). Craig’s Bond is still a suave ladies’ man and action hero, but has a sensitive appeal as well. The script develops him as an emerging secret agent and serves as a compelling origin story. As Bond girl Vesper Lynd, Eva Green does a damn fine job and serves as a strong character in her own right. Much like Craig, Green is far different from any other Bond girl previously glimpsed in the series. Serving on the side are Jeffrey Wright (as CIA operative Felix), Giancarlo Giannini (as an aid to Bond) and Judi Dench (reprising her role as M).

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Besides the protagonist serving as a welcome change of pace in the series, Mads Mikkelsen also serves as a phenomenal antagonist. Mads has proven through NBC’s HANNIBAL that he’s very good at being bad. CASINO ROYALE sees him the role of a well-developed villain. He’s not just a cookie-cutter madman with a nuke. Instead, there are scenes that humanize him and make him that much more intimidating for it. We see how desperate La Chiffre’s situation is. We know how far he’ll go to keep his money from getting into Bond’s hands and why he’ll resort to such violent lengths. The tone of CASINO ROYALE is far more intense and brutal than any of the previous Bonds, but doesn’t ever go too dark. The visuals are well-shot and there is plenty of crazy action to be had, though the movie also takes time to dramatically develop the proceedings. What results is a beautifully constructed film in which scenes of people playing poker become just as intense as gun fights or car chases. The screenplay does a wonderful job of keeping the viewer on their toes and (unless you’ve read the book) you never really know where things are heading next.

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CASINO ROYALE is my favorite Bond movie thus far (though I haven’t seen SKYFALL yet). Opening with one of the catchiest tunes in the franchise, this secret agent reboot weaves together a fantastic origin story. Craig delivers a 007 that’s far different from anyone else in the series and is made all the better for it. The action is harshly realistic, but never crosses the line into being unnecessarily gratuitous. Mads’s villain is also fleshed out far more than other Bond baddies in the franchise. Simply put, CASINO ROYALE is not only one of the most spectacular Bond films yet, but it’s also one of the best reboots to ever hit the big screen!

Grade: A+

DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Lee Tamahori

Written by: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, Judi Dench, Will Yun Lee, Kenneth Tsang & John Cleese

The twentieth movie in the Bond franchise and eleventh in my 007 retrospective, DIE ANOTHER DAY marked the end of the Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the iconic secret agent. In the grander scheme of thing, it also technically serves as the conclusion of the original series and caused its studio to reboot the franchise. In other words, DIE ANOTHER DAY has a pretty bad reputation for wrecking James Bond to the point where the series needed to be remade. So, is this a colossal failure? Is DIE ANOTHER DAY the BATMAN & ROBIN of Bond? I wouldn’t go that far, because there are a couple of things I like about this “final” Bond movie. That being said, this is still pretty bad.

DIE ANOTHER DAY, Pierce Brosnan, 2002, (c) MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

James Bond’s latest mission has taken into dangerous North Korean territory. When his cover is blown, Bond is taken captive and suspended as an MI6 agent. Through a few cunning decisions and sheer dumb luck, Bond escapes and tries to track down a crazed terrorist from his past. This will require Bond partnering up with catsuit-wearing NSA agent Jinx. The two spies are forced to face off against a terrorist with diamond-acne and a super-weapon-wielding entrepreneur.

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Let me address the good stuff first. I really enjoyed the prologue in North Korea. The action may be bombastic, but there’s a sense of excitement that reminded me of GOLDENEYE‘s opening. It also set up this story with a ton of potential…and then everything goes down hill as soon as the opening titles roll. The problems begin in the titular song of the credits, which doesn’t sound like it even belongs in a Bond film. This just sounded like a random pop song that was thrown in at the last-minute. As the minutes tick forward from that point on, DIE ANOTHER DAY wastes away its potential on pointless scenes, a bored Brosnan, and a screenplay that’s riddled with plot holes. The story feels too clichéd and over-the-top, even for a Bond film (which can typically be far-fetched, but fun). Besides the opening sequence, the only other moment that sticks out for good reason is a fencing scene between Bond and the main villain. As cool as that sequence is, it only raises further plot holes once a few convenient (and stupid) revelations occur during the final third.

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Brosnan seems past his point of caring to be Bond. His performance in this film is even more apathetic than his purely-for-the-paycheck effort in WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. As far as villains go, only one performance stands out and I won’t give that cast member’s identity away for fear of spoilers. However, I appreciated this person’s contribution to the film and wish that their character served as the main villain instead of a mere plot device. Halle Berry headlines the film with Brosnan and doesn’t really feel like a Bond girl at all. Instead, it almost feels like CATWOMAN got crossed with a crappy Bond flick. Speaking of which, DIE ANOTHER DAY is on the same level as CATWOMAN’s special effects. We get some shockingly crappy visuals. These include cartoony electricity (courtesy of the main villain’s super suit), Flash Animation quality lasers (that don’t blend well with a fight scene), a Syfy-level melting ice palace, and a rubbery surfing Bond aided by a fake-as-hell parachute.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY came out on the 20th anniversary of DR. NO. Throughout this twentieth Bond flick, there are little nods to the other movies (e.g. the shoe-knife in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the rocket-pack from THUNDERBALL, etc.). All these little cameos only served to remind me how badly this final Brosnan entry screwed the pooch. The original Bond series survived decades of directors, actors, and varying levels of effects. However, none of that could endure after DIE ANOTHER DAY sent everything plummeting into such a rut that a reboot not only became preferable, but transformed into a damn necessity. The original Bond series ended with a whimper as opposed going out with a glorious bang…

Grade: D

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