The gate to Sheraton Addis’ Lalibela Ballroom was decorated in the fashion of the famous gun barrel sequence of the James Bond film franchise. But instead of the classical black and white imagery, the gun barrel was green, which is not at all strange because this particular screening was sponsored by Heineken, the brewing company, whose trademark consists of the colour green. Everyone was told to wear a suit and a black tie (or else!) just like 007, which was fitting because, beyond the gates, we were promised the new Bond movie, Spectre. The entrance hall itself was full of either Heineken or Bond cardboard cut outs.
After the cocktail and the brilliant James Bond themed jazz fusion performances, which was the highlight of the night, two obnoxious hosts blared over the speakers, introduced themselves as 001 and 002 and proceeded to mentioning a couple of facts that were both related and unrelated to Bond. But one thing they said – that this was the first Ethiopian film premiere – bothered me because this could not be further from the truth.
First of all, this cannot be the first Ethiopian film premiere because almost every Ethiopian movie ever made has premiered in Ethiopia. Secondly, the whole revelry was a means for Heineken to shine instead of the other way around, with Spectre, almost as an afterthought. But the third reason trumps them all. This entire merrymaking – all the drinks, the exotic foods and the enticing live music – at the most expensive hotel in Ethiopia came at a price. And the price was the viewing experience. The screening room had so many technical difficulties that I missed the relatively competent cinema halls of Edna Mall. The chairs were not tiered, like in an actual theatre hall, but arranged on a normal flat floor, where only the people sitting at the very front were able to watch 100pc of the screen. The screen itself had pieces missing; some part of the upper and lower portions were cropped off, hiding characters’ hair or subtitles. But worst of all were the speakers, which sounded too thick and had no sound range. I could not hear half the dialogue in the film.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been pissed off at such inconveniences but not this time. It was not like I was watching a particularly great film. Spectre is one of those Bond films, and there are many of them, that simply does not resonate. It was pretentious and incoherent, not to mention silly. Even Daniel Craig – who has been doing so great as Bond – comes off as clichéd. And the latest Bond theme song was catchy, but only catchy – great Bond theme songs have been much more than that.
As always, the film begins with an action sequence, this one taking place in Mexico, during a celebration known as the Day of the Dead, which provides the film with fantastic shots. The scene uses long tracking shots and exciting explosions but ends with an anticlimactic helicopter fight extravaganza. Bond’s unauthorized intervention in this incident, puts him in bad waters with his new boss, the new M (Ralph Fiennes). So, Bond decides to go rogue – with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) – and hunt the mysterious criminal organization, Spectre, all by himself. This brings him into contact with the organisation’s leader, the film’s main villain, a man who considers himself “the author of all [Bond’s] pain.”
The strength of a good Bond film comes not from inventiveness but the art of using the previously established recurring themes and features optimally. One of those features is the Bond Girls, which is the only thing Spectre does not completely muck up. The first Bond girl – there are usually two per film, sometimes three – courted, is played by Monica Bellucci, who should be very flattered because Bond does not normally go for girls over 40, let alone 50. The second is played by Léa Seydoux, with whom I fell in love back in 2011 when she appeared in a small but important role in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. To be honest, I would have been more surprised had she not become a Bond girl.
The film is directed by Sam Mendes, who also made the previous Bond outing, Skyfall, which turned out to be one of the best Bond films. It is sad for Mendes somehow, as he could have gone out on top, he could have chosen a project that was normal, less hyped and less expensive as his next film. Spectre cost an eye watering $300 million; an ideal example of how money might buy all the special effects, Heineken’s merchandising and distribution rights in the world; but not an intelligible narrative or a good plot. Or a better performance from its lead performer!
What we have always loved about Craig is that, he is the first Bond actor to successfully break away from the Sean Connery inspired personification of the character. Connery belonged to the 1960’s, and even though he was playing a high profile secret agent, it was okay for him to be humorous, and more cool than believable; in fact, it depended on these factors. Craig, though, was serious, precise, rugged and reticent. He is more in line with the Man with No Name characters of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood league than the typical Bond specimen. But, no trace of that Craig exists here. It does not really matter if this is Craig’s fault or the scriptwriters’ inability to provide him with good material; the result for the audience is the same – a dull James Bond.
There were 15 minutes of Heineken commercials before the film started in the screening room. That was expected, as according to Gerrit Van Loo, the Heineken breweries Managing Director, the company has been a long time sponsor (in terms of packaging and product placement; Bond drinks a Heineken at some point in this film) of the film franchise. But that sole Edna Mall commercial in between those commercials struck me as odd. So, I asked around and I was told that they got an authorized copy of this film from Matti Cinema, and that the film will be opening there this week; which, in Ethiopia, seems to be – and I never thought I would say this as I have always been frustrated by their interminable 3D and big budget offerings – the only decent place to see a film.
BY CHRISTIAN TESFAYE
SPECIAL TO FORTUNE